What if there really was a secret ingredient to performing at our highest level possible and reaching our potential? Would you put in the work, training and focus that it required? Would you get out of your comfort zone and try viewing through a new lens? Would you put in hours and hours of attention and intentionality to obtain this skill?
It’s possible that we already have this secret ingredient to not only peak performance, but also happiness and fulfillment. And while some researchers believe it is unpredictable and near impossible to develop, the father of flow sees it slightly differently. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was a researcher, educator, public speaker, co-founder of positive psychology and co-director of Claremont Graduate University’s Quality of Life Research Center., explains that while it is very complex to enter into this state there are certain mental approaches that can be used to tap into flow. A recent study also provides evidence that flow is controllable and has found that a focus on body feelings and emotions (not dissimilar to emotional intelligence competencies) plays a role in flow.
But what is it exactly? From a more formal lens flow is defined as “a particular state of optimal activation in which participants are completely immersed in their activity” or it can be described as becoming “one” with an activity which leads a performer to enter another reality and become entirely absorbed. Another important component of achieving flow is when and how we reach this state. When we have achieved a balance between challenge and skill level, and are not overstretched nor under-stimulated, we achieve this experience of flow, which also elicits feelings of joy, fulfillment and ecstasy.
To get a more visceral experience of what it feels like to be in flow, here are some examples from athletes, artists and writers, shared during Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Ted Talk “Flow, the secret to happiness.”
Figure Skater: “It was just one of those programs that clicked..everything went right, everything felt good…it’s just such a rush, like you feel it could go on, and on, and on.. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, it’s like everything goes automatically without thinking.. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it, because it's a part of it all.
Poet: It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float…
Composer: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and time again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.
Personally, I would describe it as a fluidity of motion (when I’m racing); effortless. It feels like you are flying, like time has slowed down and you don’t even need to think to execute your plan, it all just happens. Everything clicks and falls into place — your body just knows intuitively when to make the move, how to make the move and you do it without feeling much fatigue at all. Before you know it, minutes have gone by, the race has finished and you snap back into reality… It definitely doesn’t happen every race or work out, but when it does, it is pure bliss.
So how did I get there? Part intentional focus, part letting go, part luck. I have a ways to go in being able to tap into flow during the most important moments of competition, but I can say that going into my most recent flow experience I had focused on the following:
The process and mindfulness: Entering the racing environment being immersed in all aspects of my prep, the music, feeling my muscles tighten and lengthen, my foot press off my spikes during my strides, hearing the rhythm of my breath — basically being very in touch with all of the physical things happening internally, which gave me a sense of calm but also feedback and confidence going into the race.
Having a goal, but not letting it be my all.
Remembering my purpose and what makes this meaningful for me. The mix of joy and intensity that I feel when I am competing, the perfect balance of lightness and grit that is required and reflecting on why I do what I do.
Not thinking about the competition days in advance and working myself up.
Having an awareness of my emotions throughout the week, and that day, and using different breathing practices, positive self-talk and visualization techniques to imagine myself in the flow state.
Source: iStockPhoto from HuffPost
When we think about athletics and the humanistic coaching approach, we see a number of these coaching elements overlapping with the factors that contribute to tapping into this optimal state of mind. While flow may seem to be devoid of our own control it is actually the opposite. Not only is it characterized by an absolute sense of control, but there are a number of things that we can integrate into our everyday as coaches and athletes prior to performances or training that can help move us closer to this dreamlike state:
Fostering a mastery oriented environment that emphasizes task and progression — why? To continue to experience a flow state it is important that we are constantly being presented with a new level of challenge, this will require us to 1. Be inviting of this new challenge (rather than fear it, which can often happen in an ego-oriented state, the opposite of task) and 2. Place a strong value on effort and improved skill development over time.
Working to build self-confidence and the ability to perform without self-criticism Both of which can be facilitated by a more empowering climate that coaches can create through numerous avenues. This includes exhibiting need-supportive behaviors, such as supporting athletes in developing autonomy and ownership, as well as competence support, through offering positive and constructive feedback, which for athletes can lead to increased belief in their abilities.
Investing time [yes, this could be time that had previously been spent on the track, field or court] building emotional intelligence skills and working on mental training so that athletes are able to manage thoughts and emotions, increase focus on the task at hand, and utilize techniques such as imagery and visualization to learn how to calm and center the body and mind.
Making space for athletes to set and share their goals with you. This is related to having clear objectives that connect back to concentration and full attention to the task at hand as well as being able to develop clear mental plans for the performance.
While there is much more to learn about the state of flow the current evidence indicates that the benefits are beyond worth the effort to get there. If this could mean improved performance and also increased joy for you and your athletes, why not start now!
By Brianna Welch