Flow In Sports: The Psychology Of Elites


Have you ever noticed how elite athletes seem to be in a zone?  In this zone they seem to be more than just human, in fact they defy human capabilities with ease.  This is called flow.  The presence of flow in sports is what separates an elite athlete from an average athlete.  An even better way to describe flow in sports is to reference a scene from the film The Matrix Reloaded when Neo is with the key-maker in the hallway of doors and he encounters Smith.  Smith says to him “still using all the muscles except the one that matters”.  The further up the athletic pyramid you get, the more important psychology becomes.  Likewise, the more important flow in sports becomes.     


What Is Flow?

Flow is a term that is used to describe a psychological state in which one is completely focused on what they are doing.  They are able to completely forget about the world around them and all they are thinking about is this one task they are performing.  No worrying about getting up for work the next day, or about saying the right things to the girl you met at the coffee shop earlier, etc. Just the activity itself exists and nothing else. 

An artist can be in flow when they are sketching a new drawing on a canvas board.  Business people can be in flow when they are making multimillion dollar deals.  Entrepreneurs can be in flow when designing a new business.  A stay at home mom can be in flow when she attends her morning yoga class.  Athletes are in flow when they are pushing themselves to achieve new challenges in their chosen sport. 

Flow can be though of as the one thing in people’s lives that they really want.  All the money chasing, hooking up, partying, thrill seeking, etc. are really just attempts to achieve flow.  When you ask people what they want in life, most people will list off things they want to accomplish.  When you really dig deeper you will soon realize that what they really want is to be happy.  Being happy is what led to the discovery of flow.  Although flow has been around for thousands of years it wasn’t until the 1990’s that it actually got the name flow.   


The Science Behind Flow

In 1990, a psychologist by the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi went into research to discover what makes people happy.  He published these findings in a book called Flow.  After interviewing and researching many different people from all walks of life he discovered some similarities between their answers.  He noticed that no matter what made them happy, it was ultimately a feeling an not an actual object/status that accomplished this.     

The people reported that certain activities made them feel calm and content.  They reported feeling as if nothing else mattered.  After noticing these similarities Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this state flow.  Some common traits of being in flow include:

  • Increased Creativity
  • Increased Concentration
  • Dissolving Of Self-Awareness
  • Time Dilation
  • Euphoria

Most of these traits are pretty self explanatory.  However, I believe time dilation and dissolving of self-awareness need some clarity.  Time dilation is the feeling of time being altered in some way, shape or form.  For example, when people are in life threatening scenarios and time seems to slow down.  An individual who forgets about their own existence and feels that they are one with the activity they are doing is experiencing the dissolving of self-awareness.  Ego, reputation and status seem to just disappear and all that exists is just the activity itself.         


How Flow Can Benefit Athletes

Flow can hold many benefits to those who know how to use it and access this hidden ability on command.  But how can this benefit athletes?  Well, flow can have a tremendous impact on athletics.  Especially in competition.  Take two athletes of similar physical ability.  Athlete one is feeling a little unmotivated and pretty distracted after getting into a fight with his girlfriend earlier.  Athlete two on the outside doesn’t seem to look too fired up, but when you look into his eyes it looks a predator ready to catch it’s prey.  The second athlete is not only extremely motivated, but also extremely confident. 

Which one of these two athletes is going to dominate in their competition?  Obviously athlete two will.  Despite the fact that they have the exact same physical ability, he is more focused and confident.  The dissolving of self-awareness, a feeling of euphoria and increased concentration can turn a regular athlete into a super athlete.  In fact, you don’t even need all of these traits to be present in order to experience the benefits. 

Flow in sports makes all of the difference between a winning team and a losing team.  Speaking of teams, flow works even better in a group setting.  A group undergoing flow will experience some, or all, of the benefits to an even higher extreme than an individual will.  However, there is one draw back.  The group has to have chemistry in order for this to work.  If there is no chemistry and everyone hates each other, then there will be no flow.  Some athletes thrive in team settings and others need solo-type sports in order to find flow.  Nothing wrong with either approach.      


How To Implement Flow In Sports?

Implementing flow in sports can be tough, as discussed above in team scenarios.  However, there are certain internal and external ways to trigger the experience.  Externally, flow can be triggered by the environment you are in and how focused you are on your movements and coordination.  Internally, flow can be triggered, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, by clear goals, immediate feedback and an increased challenge/skill ratio. 

The environment you are in makes all the difference.  If the environment is the same over and over again, you are very unlikely to get any flow at all.  A new environment with fresh new details for you to experience will provide the fertile seeds for flow to blossom in your mind.  A new environment will also increase your focus and allow you to pay more attention to your body position and movements.  Both seem to work together.  To get a taste for this experience try this little experiment.  Drive home from work a different way at least once a week.  When your doing this you will be zapped out of autopilot immediately and put into flow. 

Internally, having clear goals will help you to pay more attention to what really matters.  This allows you to make more conscious decisions about what you’re trying to accomplish.  When thinking clearly, you can think confidently.  Immediate feedback can then be taken without much of an emotional reaction.  Feedback is essential to knowing if you are making progress or not.  If your ego gets in the way and reacts badly to the feedback you’re getting, you will more than likely give up on yourself.  Lastly, you have to increase the amount you challenge yourself versus you’re current skill level.  A higher challenge requires more focus and thus more flow.      

2 thoughts on “Flow In Sports: The Psychology Of Elites

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