Lucozade have recently launched an rather colourful ad campaign called Find Your Flow
Whilst the ads are primarily targeted at an office based, non-athletic audience Flow is a very important concept in sport.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian Psychologist, first described the Flow sensation in 1975 as; “a deeply rewarding and optimal experience characterized by intense focus on a specific activity to the point of becoming totally absorbed in it, and the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 2002)
In experiencing Flow, the individual experiences a sense of harmony, of being at one and has a sense that everything has come together and clicked into place. Sound familiar? Sometimes it’s called being “in the zone” or “in the moment”. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese called it “doing without doing” or “trying without trying” It’s like the Nirvana of sporting performance; that time when you are fully focused on the task, totally absorbed, are fully in control and with zero self-consciousness. But how do we reach Nirvana in our sporting endeavours?
Flow and its application to sport only starting in 1992(Jackson, 1992; Jackson & Roberts, 1992). True Flow is an elusive thing and may only come rarely, but when it does, one feels like operating on a different, sub conscious level, Ayrton Senna described qualifying for the 1998 Monaco Grand Prix as
"I was already on pole, [...] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel”
But how do we reach Nirvana?
The highest correlate and predictor of achieving Flow is having a high perception of sporting ability; having confidence that you can fulfil the task, that the training has been done, and that you are ready. This free’s your mind, as you are comfortable in the knowledge that your abilities will meet the challenge. A free mind lets you clear the mental clutter and concentrate, focus, solely on the task at hand.
The biggest threat to Flow is anxiety or worry; the antithesis of Flow. We perceive the challenge or task to be greater than our abilities. Concentration, sense of control, feedback and the challenge-skill balance are negatively affected and the achievement of flow becomes impossible.
It’s easy for a coach, partner or team mate to say “don’t worry”. But only we can become confident in our abilities and confident that they outweigh the challenge ahead. This confidence is built over time, built up during the hours, days, and months of training. As your physical abilities are fine-tuned your confidence in meeting the task ahead should decline. The training has been done, Find your Flow.
Another definition of flow from David Farmer (1999), How does it feel to in "the flow" ?:
Completely involved, focused, concentrating - with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
Sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
Knowing the activity is doable - that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
Sense of serenity - no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego - afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
Timeliness - thoroughly focused on present, don't notice time passing
Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces "flow" becomes its own reward