This post on Flow is an extension to my post Mindfulness in Football, where I first mentioned flow. In this post I will explain what flow is in more detail and how you can place yourself in the best position to achieve flow more often when performing.
We tend to forget that we play sports for the quality of experience it provides. Sports originated from men and women discovering to use their bodies in ways that brings them the greatest physical pleasure and mental enjoyment. Sports can offer a state of being that is so rewarding, that we subconsciously participate for no other reason but to feel this optimal experience. We have all experienced those games where we were so ‘on’ that everything we did was exceptional. We felt invincible, like nothing can go wrong and our capabilities were endless. We were in complete control of our actions and were so present that everything we did was magical. This is the optimal experience that has drawn us to compete and play the game. The optimal experience I portray above is often described as ‘being in the zone’, and is also referred to as flow.
The term flow came from Hungarian professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was fascinated with how artists got lost in their work. Through his research he continuously referenced this state to the image of water flowing through a river. This led Csikszentmihalyi to the name flow for his phenomenon.
Flow is a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in in their performance, being completely present in the moment, while disconnecting from all thoughts and emotions. Flow harmoniously connects mind, body and spirit to effortlessly work together, producing your finest actions; leaving you with an exhilarating experience and the feeling that something special has just occurred.
Flow is what we all strive to achieve every time we step on the pitch. Although we have all experienced it, flow is a difficult state to enter. It’s the highest state of being we can reach in performance. So its not something you can switch in and out of and it is not likely we achieve it every time we perform. However, with the understanding of what brings us in and out of a flow state we can direct our attention to the forces, both within and outside of us, that will increase our likelihood of achieving flow.
To further understand flow, we must realize that ‘it’ is a paradoxical state of mind. It is a conscious state that is achieved subconsciously. To enter flow you must reduce the amount of conscious information you are processing in your mind, and let your subconscious self take over. In more basic terms, you need to shut your mind off and let your body take over, where your actions, movements and decisions become automatic and instinctive. You must completely immerse yourself in your performance, and give no attention to the events that happened in the past, and have no concern of what will happen in the future. You are living and breathing, in the ‘here and now’ moment. You are in such a deep focus and concentration, which is completely unforced, and your performance is flowing out of you, “like water flowing through a river” (Csikszentmihalyi). As difficult as it is to enter this state, you can easily fall out of it. The minute your concentration becomes controlled you will pull yourself out of flow, because you have reactivated your conscious mind and drawn your attention away from the present moment. A simple analogy for this would be falling asleep… When you are tired, you effortlessly shut your mind off and fall into a deep sleep. But when your not tired you concentrate all your attention on falling asleep that you are actually distancing yourself further and further from a drowsy state.
So now that we understand how flow works, and accept the fact that it cannot be controlled, here is how we can give special attention to the forces, within and outside of us, to increase our likelihood of achieving it. Here are Csikszentmihalyi’s nine fundamental components to achieving flow.
- Challenge-Skills Balance: You are faced with a difficult challenge but through your training, you have developed the necessary skills to rise to the challenge in front of you.
- Action-Awareness Merging: This is where the mind, body, spirit connection is activated and you become ‘one’ with your movements.
- Clear Goals: You must have clear objectives of what you’re hoping to achieve in your performance so that you have something to direct your focus on.
- Unambiguous Feedback: In order to remain connected with your performance you must know moment-by-moment how you are doing. Use ‘self-talk’ to give yourself feedback keeping you on track with your goals as your performance is flowing. (ie. “well done”, “your on”, “everything is clicking”)
- Concentration on The Task at Hand: You must be deeply focused on what your doing and keep your attention in the ‘here and now’. This is where you are mindful of your thoughts and become fully present, getting lost in your performance.
- Sense of Control: We have a sense of control that frees us of the fear of failure and empowers us to feel like we can deal with what ever comes our way, and like nothing could go wrong.
- Loss of Self-Consciousness: Flow frees us from self-concern and self-doubt. Were so into our performance that there is no attention left over to worry about what others think.
- Transformation of Time: Time seems to slow down and speed up in flow. We see the game in a slower pace, which gives us more time to make decisions and act on them, but also find that the game passes us by quicker then normal.
- Autotelic experience: We find the experience intrinsically rewarding, meaning we loved the experience so much and it gave us such a high, that like a drug, we want it over and over again.
I absolutely love the ninth component of flow, because that is the original root that gave us such a love for the game. For me personally, only football could give me this ‘autotelic experience’, a feeling of perfection, a taste of what its like to be world class. A feeling that I seek over and over again, like a drug addict feening the next hit. When I experience it, I never want it to end, and its what I seek every time I step on the pitch! I also love the fact that it could not be controlled, and there is no direct way to achieve it. This would frustrate some, but I find that’s what makes the experience so special and rewarding. Csikszentmihalyi’s nine components of flow along with my description of them above, is what it feels like to be in a flow state, and gives you the keys to improving the quality of your experience. By seeking the feelings I described above as well as being mindful of your thoughts you are increasing the chances of entering that heightened state and setting the stage to achieve flow.
I was introduced to flow by a fellow goalkeeper who gave me Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book ‘Flow in Sports-the keys to optimal experiences and performances’. If you are as fascinated with the phenomenon as I am, I strongly recommend reading the book. It is quite academic in regards to the field of psychology, so take your time with it and experiment with the concepts in training and see what works for you. Lastly, I want to remind you that flow is a subconscious state. So don’t focus hard on achieving it. Align your feelings and thoughts with the components above, enjoy performing, and let it happen; just like water flowing through a river 😉
I wanted to include this photo in my post. It brings back memories of a time I achieved flow. This photo reminds me of all the feelings and sensations I experienced. It may look like I am just taking a high ball, but I am truly expressing myself in that moment. We were under immense pressure that game, the score was level, and I had that invincible feeling like I could do anything. There was no way they were scoring past me, everything I did was executed immaculately. They were putting everything in the box and I was seeing the ball so early and clearly that I was attacking everything, I had such a desire to take the ball out of the air, I was on my front foot, coming through bodies, and in this instance I took the ball off my defenders head. Things were happening automatically. I felt in complete control, and was determined to keep my team in the game… When I saw the ball get whipped across the box, there was no other thought in my mind then, “this ball is mine, I’m catching it, I want it in my hands, I will distribute it forward and get us on the attack so we can win the game!”