Flow – Playing in the zone3 Opinions
Understanding the psychological components that help with optimal athletic performance is a key priority for applied sport psychology. One factor that has been examined since the 1980s is flow which defined by Cziksentmihalyi as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (1990, p.4).
Flow is an optimal psychological state that occurs when there is a balance between perceived challenges and skills in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and is also known as being ‘in the zone’. Research on flow in sport and exercise increased in the 1990s (e.g., Jackson, 1992; 1995; 1996; Jackson, Kimiecik, Ford, & Marsh, 1998; Jackson & Marsh, 1996; Kimiecik & Stein, 1992 & Csikszentmihalyi, 1992 In. Csikszentmihalyi & Nakumu, 2005) which promoted applying the flow theory in physical activity settings. Activating flow states is important outcome for athletes at all levels, and coaches who are able to facilitate flow states are more likely to help their athletes succeed.
Csikszentmihalyi identified different elements which help to achieve flow including: setting clear goals; receiving immediate feedback; becoming immersed in the activity by paying attention to what is happening in the moment; enjoying the current experience, and when the task challenges you but not too much that you are really anxious Schaffer (2013) proposed 7 flow conditions: 1) knowing what to do; 2) knowing how to do it 3) how well you are doing it; 4) knowing where you are going; 5) high perceived challenge; 6) high perceived skills; and 7) freedom from distractions.
I found the book by Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now” a helpful tool for myself and when working with athletes, and coaches, to encourage them to focus on being ‘in the now’, ‘playing free’ and ‘being in the moment’. The concept of flow is extremely interesting to me, as I know as a football player, performing whilst in this state keeps me passionate about playing and intrinsically motivated.
By the age of 13-15 years old, only 48% of girls meet the daily recommended amount of physical activity, compared to 69% of boys (Scottish Health Survey, 2012). Carli, Delle Fave & Massimini (1998), Mayers (1978), & Nakumaru (1988) found that achieving flow encouraged commitment and achievement in high school years. If we can get high school girls partaking physical activity whilst in the state of flow, will this help them with continuing sport? If we can teach more athletes to enjoy moments and achieve flow, then not only, will their performance be enhanced but participation may continue at the time when they are more likely to drop out?
Are coaches with no background in sport psychology aware of the psychological states of their athletes? How do we tell if someone is performing in a state of flow, or not? Ideally, for coaches, it would be beneficial to know not only the signs an athlete is in flow, but also how to create the best environment, to where the athlete achieves this state. Additionally, it would be beneficial to coaches, and athletes to know how to achieve the state of flow and reach peak performance.
Carli, M., Delle Fave, A., & Massimini, F. (1988). The Quality of Experience in the Flow Channels: Comparison of Italian and US Students. In. M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.). Optimal Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 288-306.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row, New York.
Csikszentimihalyi, M, & Nakamura, J. (2005). The Concept of Flow. Handbook of Positive Psychology, 89-105.
Jackson, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M (1999). Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers.
Mayers, P. (1978). Flow in adolescence and its relation to school experience. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago.
Nakamura, J. (1988). Optimal experience and the uses of talent. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 319-326.
Schaffer, O. (2013) Crafting fun user experiences: a method to facilitate flow. Human Factors International.
The Scottish Government (2012). The Scottish Health Survey 2012. Volume 2 – Children. Scottish Government: Edinburgh
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About Tracy Donachie
PhD candidate researching perfectionism in sport and performance psychology consultant.