“Apparently you just run for an extended period of time”. So goes one of the famous quotes of the noughties on the topic of jogging (soft j, anyone?). Ron Burgundy had a clear disdain for such an activity. The activity could hardly have been less valued by him. And though a likely throwaway line in Anchorman, it belies a nod to one of psychology’s treasured phenomena. But what does it have to do with sport psychology and optimum performance? The answer is flow.

Have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that you completely lost track of time, failed to notice that you were hungry or that you had other plans? That the activity is challenging, captivating, extending your skills? That is has a  positive effect in well-being (Haworth, 1993). If so, you are likely to have experienced flow. When in flow, people report being alert, in control, operating in the subconscious and working at the peak of their abilities.

The term was coined by Csikszentmihalyi as far back as the 1960’s when he began researching the phenomenon experienced by painters who were completely engrossed in their work at the expense of basic needs and popularised it in his 1990 work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He defined it as “a deeply rewarding and optimal experience characterised by intense focus on a specific activity to the point of becoming totally absorbed in it.” He suggests that flow in addition to making us more happy and successful leads to increased performance. We dedicate focused effort to the craft on which we work but when seeking flow, we are working at a level at the peak of our abilities and to maintain the flow experience, our tasks must be constantly challenging, which results in personal growth and skill development.

There are a number of elements that create the flow experience including:

  1. Clear goals
  2. Immediate feedback
  3. A balance between challenge and skill level (Jackson & Csíkszentmihályi, 1999)

Flow is an optimum state, in which we lose ourselves in a task but this does not mean optimum performance. However, the effect of flow on preparation is clear. The match between high skill level and high challenge is requisite. But once a challenge is mastered an even higher level of challenge is required to remain in flow. We spend more time practicing at a high level.  It is therefore an ideal state for focused practice. For example, practising kicking by shooting at a target is much more fun than passing to a partner. The elements of flow are available when shooting as opposed to just passing.

When viewed under the spotlight of the concept of flow, jogging hits none of the requirements for optimal experience.  Where is the challenge? How do we know how well we’re doing? Where is the feedback? Now this might be a little harsh on jogging, but perhaps in some way explains to rising popularity in obstacle course races. There are very clear goals – the participant must catch the next monkey ring; the feedback is immediate – failure to do so and you plummet to an icy bath; and the challenge level is as difficult as one wishes.

So whether you are a coach or a competing athlete it is possible to create the environment to attain the flow state of optimal experience. Create a task for an athlete that requires mastery of the particular skill you wish to practice, for example, catching a ball. Ensure there is a level of skill available that matches the higher abilities of the athlete. If throwing a ball is too easy for them to catch, kick a ball at them or have them catch two balls in quick succession. Ensure there is a specific performance goal to reach – again that is just at the peak of their abilities. The instant feedback should be available from the task itself as opposed to having to be verbalised by a coach. In this case you might create a task for the athlete that involves them catching a ball from two sources almost simultaneously with a 100% return in 60 seconds. It’s simple but often overlooked by coaches who prefer single line practice drills without the challenge or the intrinsic feedback of the task.

With this in mind it is easy to see why Ron is so sceptical of jogging. It also explains why it became such an iconic line from the movie, as there is always that sneaking suspicion for those who jog for fun. According to Csikszentmihalyi and Ron Burgundy there are  higher experiences in life than just running for an unspecified period of time.

ReferencesShow all

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.

Haworth, J. (1993). Skills-challenge relationships and psychological well-being in everyday life. Society & Leisure, 16, 115-128.

Jackson, Susan A. & Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1999), Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances, Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers.

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