Flow State and Performance
The concept of ‘being in the zone’ has been widely discussed in performance circles. Getting into that state of flow is another question all together.
What is Flow State?
“ I personally like to describe the state of flow as being so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter in that moment. ”
Flow state is not a new concept in the study of the human mind. It has deep seated roots in the studies of meditation, mindfulness and martial arts. Humans have been trying to reach a state of being fully present and immersed in the now for thousands of years. It is more recently, however that we have connected this science to the world of sport and performance. Although flow state is relatively tough to measure, when athletes are in a state of flow, there are specific psychological characteristics that are experienced across the board. These include:
· Absence of fear (fear of failure)
· Highly Energized
· Mentally relaxed
· Feeling of complete control
· Complete emotional control
· Narrow focus of attention on the present
· Total immersion in the activity
· Time/space disorientation
· Sense of automation
Athletes have often described this state as being in a cocoon or in a bubble. It has also been consistently associated with peak optimal performance and therefore as extremely meaningful, rewarding and fun. I personally like to describe the state of flow as being so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter in that moment. It is not only athletes that experience this, but often writers busy with a book or blog, stage performers or comedians and even those riding motorcycles or driving in extremely heavy rains. Flow state is therefore a state of mind accessible to anyone, given the task requires a level of focus.
What gets in the way?
” The most prominent negative factor we see in the inability to reach a flow state is over-thinking. ”
As a mental performance coach, it is not enough to simply understand what flow state means. What’s important to me is understanding what get an athlete there, what gets in the way, and how to “hack” the mind in order to get there more consistently. By now it is already evident that being in a state of flow requires certain internal and external factors to be present. For example, a task must demand a certain level of attention and the person must be mentally present. As far as I’m concerned, there are different ways to approach this state of mind. One would be to identify the factors needed and try to ensure they are all present, the other would be to identify the factors that get in the way and aim to eliminate them all. The former seems to be the most effective while the latter is a difficult approach, mainly due to the number of uncontrollable factors that we are dealing with. Nonetheless it is important to know which factors can get in the way, as knowing them helps an athlete to identify them and when they occur. For the sake of this post I will call the factors getting in the way the “negative factors.”
The most prominent negative factor we see in the inability to reach a flow state is over-thinking. This is when an athlete is not in control of their thought processes or is consciously paying too much attention to their thoughts, thereby taking attention away from the activity or task. Thought processes are the start of the negative performance cycle, which basically goes like this: Thought -> Emotional Response -> Physical Response -> Behaviour response (movement or performance) -> more thought. What we see is that a conscious thought leads to emotional responses such as fear or anxiety, which leads to a physical response such as tightening of muscles or poor breathing, which affects our movement and performance. A poor movement or performance then leads to more conscious, negative thinking.
Other negative factors that we often identify in athletes are lack of preparation, lack of confidence, a task that is too easy or too difficult relative to their skill level, emotional dysregulation, distractions, and lack of unambiguous feedback. In a nutshell, majority of the negative factors are internal mental processes, but it is also important to understand that in order to be in a state of flow, the difficulty level of the task, the importance of the task and the distractions around the task need to be factorized in to the equation.
What is needed?
” An activity that is too difficult may lead to an athlete being psyched out, demotivated and lacking confidence while an activity that is too easy will lead to under-stimulation and lack of motivation.”
The positive factors will obviously then be the factors that increase the chances of reaching a state of flow. As many researcher and professionals have identified, these factors can be managed or “hacked” in order to push the athlete’s mind closer to the state of flow. Whether you’re a writer, a climber, a surfer or a cricketer, most of these factors and psychological characteristics will be the same. It is therefore helpful for a coach or mental coach to have a good understanding of these in order to be able to help an athlete, regardless of what their relevant task is. It seems to me that the most important external factor here is the difficulty level of the task. Some research shoes that the task difficulty should match the skill level of a performer, and that both the challenge and the skill is at a personal high level. More recent research has suggested that the difficulty level should be the slightest bit higher than the athlete’s perceived skill level. In other words, the activity should be mentally and physically challenging. An activity that is too difficult may lead to an athlete being psyched out, demotivated and lacking confidence while an activity that is too easy will lead to under-stimulation and lack of motivation.
One of the factors that triggers flow state is unambiguous, immediate feedback. We see this especially in adventure sports such as climbing or surfing. If you’ve ever run or biked down a mountain, that zen moment where you’re completely immersed in your next step or where your wheel is going is a state of flow triggered by the immediate feedback from the challenge. This is also why in a sport like golf athletes often struggle to stay in a state of flow, as the feedback is not always immediate, due to the long periods of time in between shots or holes. Golfers do get into a state of flow, but not as instantaneously as action sports athletes. In fact, due to the amount of satisfaction and fulfillment one gets from a state of flow, there are theories that suggest that the adrenaline-junkies are not necessarily addicted to only the adrenaline but to all the feel-good hormones and emotions involved in being in those states of flow.
We also know from research that positive factors in the state of flow include high self-confidence, low anxiety levels and athletic self-concept. Additionally, high perceptions of athletic ability seem to be very important in reaching a flow state during performance. Paying full attention to the activity is also crucial as this way an athlete eliminates external distractions. Imagine a downhill racer paying attention to the crowd, the trees and the weather while racing. They will almost instantly lose control and crash, while if their full attention is on the task, the chances of them falling becomes greatly reduced. The same concept about paying attention can be applied to all sports, however, action sports requires constant, non-stop attention where sports such as golf and cricket have dormant periods where one can switch off.
“ Avoidance of negative thinking and negative self-talk is largely recommended, however, in my opinion, positive self-talk and positive thinking should also be avoided”
Factors that influence a state of flow that are controllable by the coach and athlete should be focused on if one is trying to hack the process. Avoidance of negative thinking and negative self-talk is largely recommended, however, in my opinion, positive self-talk and positive thinking should also be avoided. Both negative and positive thinking attaches emotional feelings to the performance and our energy, thereby entering into the behavioural cycle mentioned earlier. It also takes attention away from the task-specific requirements. I would advise coaches to focus on practical thinking or neutral thinking, and if you want to engage in self-talk, try to use task-related self-talk. This way our thoughts and self-talk do not have emotional attachments, they do not involve the ego and are only based on what the task requires.
A quick example would be instead of thinking “you’re a great golfer you can do this.” Think, “hit a clean 7 iron into the middle of the green.” We can see in the first thought there is the option to prove yourself wrong whereas the second thought is simply a constructive instruction. HOWEVER, in a state of flow, thinking becomes largely irrelevant as we are literally flowing through the actions in a moment of mental automation. Thinking in sport becomes a whole other conversation as it changes from sport to sport, depending on the time frame, the level of activity, the level of danger and the speed of performance. So I will cover it in another post.
Other controllable factors that can be used to hack the flow include the use of imagery, which can be read about in my previous post, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness and box breathing. The great thing about these techniques is that they can all be done for 10 minutes prior to performance or as part of the warm-up. Emotional intelligence which allows good emotional control and self-awareness are also very important in reaching a flow state. This is mostly because both EQ and self-awareness allow an athlete to know their levels and limits, specifically where their individual zone of optimal flow lies on the pressure/performance scale. This scale is basically a depiction of how well athletes perform under which levels of pressure and stimulation. It can be seen in the picture attached above. Lastly, preparation and practice is vitally important in reaching flow state consistently as the level of practice and preparation influence mind-readiness, confidence levels, perceived ability, reduced thinking and many other factors mentioned in this post.
It is important to mention that each athlete has a different individual zone of optimal performance. What gets one athlete into a state of flow may completely psych out another athlete and visa versa. Some athletes require a bigger and tougher challenge to reach this flow (high-pressure performers) while others require relation and a simpler challenge (low-pressure performer). There are certain things coaches can do to allow athletes to identify their own zones and to teach an athlete what it takes to reach this state. Implementation of some of the above techniques will work, but the greatest thing a coach can do is to creating challenging environments during practice and preparation. An athlete should never be allowed to complete a training session without the need of their full attention immersed in the task at some stage. If this is not done, we are not sufficiently preparing our athletes for the challenges they face during performance.
Side Note: to find out more about flow state I advise any work done by Steven Kotler.