Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who popularized the term Flow and demonstrated how anyone could achieve focused contentment, died recently. In light of his passing, I felt compelled to write this post as his work has profoundly influenced both my life and coaching philosophy.
The Psychology of Flow
Flow is a state of mind in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity. In this mental state, people are experiencing joy as they become fully involved and focused on what they are doing.
“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost,”Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi
In addition to making activities more enjoyable, flow also has several other advantages such as greater sense of fulfillment and happiness and, increased intrinsic motivation leading to improved learning and performance.
Different people experience flow in different ways. It usually occurs when you are enjoying what you are doing and are skilled at it. Artistic endeavors like painting, drawing, and writing are often associated with this state. However, it can also occur while engaging in sports.
Flow in Sports
Athletes and coaches love talking about the Zone (even though it is more important to talk about refocusing when not performing well) and it is worth discussing the concept of Flow in relation to the Zone. They both have the same attention or concentration characteristics, and you can think of Flow as a necessary step for getting into the Zone leading to optimal performance under competitive pressure.
Evidently, athletes cannot simply flip a switch to get into Flow or to enter the Zone. In his book Flow in Sports, Dr. Csíkszentmihályi contends that the mindset of an athlete in the flow state is characterized by nine elements.
1. Challenge-Skills balance.
2. Merging of action and awareness.
3. Clear goals present.
4. Unambiguous feedback.
5. Concentration on the task at hand.
6. Sense of control.
7. Loss of self-consciousness.
8. Transformation of time.
9. Autotelic experience.
Coaches could keep these elements in mind when reflecting on their coaching practices, and design practices that stretches the athlete’s abilities (in a good way) to facilitate flow. Athletes could also experience flow more frequently both in training and competition through the application of psychological skills.
One of the key psychological skills that facilitate flow is the ability to be process focused, commonly described as the ability to let go of limiting expectations and focus on manageable objectives or process goals. This is one of the first psychological skills that I coach my athletes. There are three main steps to learning and applying this skill. Athletes first need to understand how expectations limit their confidence, reflect on their own expectations, and replace them with process goals, before priming their minds to focus on process goals during practice and competition.
This is a skill that not only helps us cope with the pressures of competitive sport, but it is also the same skill will help us cope with challenges and experience flow in all areas of our life. Athletes can learn this key psychological skill through my e-program The Process Focused Athlete. I have also developed the e-program ‘What’s Important Now’ to help coaches coach their athletes to focus on the process and to experience the flow state more frequently.
Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M.C. (1999). Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Jackson, S. A., Thomas, P. R., Marsh, H. W., & Smethurst, C. J. (2001). Relationships between flow, self-concept, psychological skills, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(2), 129-153.