Have you ever been so immersed in a task or a moment on the field that it felt like everything else just faded away around you? You were most likely experiencing what is called flow, otherwise known as complete engagement in a task that leads to a heightened state of awareness and consciousness. When we are experiencing flow in sport, it is often associated with your best levels of performance and most enjoyable experiences. Someone might have asked you what you were thinking when you had the big hit or made the game winning shot, and your answer probably was, “I don’t know. I just did it.” Flow sounds pretty great and is often one of the driving forces behind why we play – for that indescribable feeling. So why don’t we just get into a flow state all the time, right? As much as we would like it to be true, getting into flow is not something that we can just turn on and off when we are performing, but luckily, it is something we can train to get better at. There are a few things that you can practice in everyday life to help improve your potential to experience flow more often and perform at your best.
The Challenge vs. Skill Balance – Both challenge and skills are relative to the experience of flow. When the challenges put in front of you slightly extend past your skill level, it will be most conducive to a flow experience. However, if the challenge is too high or too low compared to your skill level, flow is less likely to be experienced. So what is the right ratio of challenge to skill? In truth, the perfect ratio is very much an individual variable for what the optimum challenge vs. skill equation is, as it is unique to each athlete. In order to assess challenges for yourself, start by setting clear goals that assess the process of performance that is in your control. It can be helpful to pause the next time you are training and ask yourself, “What is my goal here? What am I trying to develop and learn? What is the feedback I am receiving from coaches and teammates?” Flow has been found to be connected to a mastery and growth mindset, so keep taking on challenges and define success for yourself, not just in the win column.
Mindfulness As The Key – Research shows that one reason why we are more likely to perform at our best when in flow is because we are so entrenched in the present moment. Therefore, learning to understand that we can be in the present moment and having awareness about our experience is an important first step. How many of us can really answer where our focus is at any given moment? More importantly, if it is not where it needs to be, can you bring it back to the present? Start with practicing breathing and following your breath, first with one minute a day, then slowly increasing over time. It takes time to be able to transfer this to an at bat, a foul shot, or on the field. Overtime you can apply it to the situations when you need it most. If you are always focused on the next step and getting better for the next thing, you are not only no longer in the present, but you can lose the joy of the moment, which is another important characteristic of flow. The performance is important, but it is the experience you have along the way that determines the quality of what the experience is like, how it is remembered, and ultimately how motivated you will be to experience it again. Mindfulness doesn’t just take one or two practice sessions, it is a lifelong journey.
On the flip side, now that we know how to improve our potential of experiencing flow, here is a quick list of what prohibits us from getting into flow and being fully immersed in the present:
Focusing on outcomes – When we are solely focused on outcomes, we are focused on the things that are outside of our control. You could do everything right in sport sometimes, but not get the outcome you desire. Instead of focusing on outcomes, focus on what needs to happen to increase the likelihood of having a successful outcome, otherwise known as the process.
Trying to force it – Like we said earlier, flow is not something that we can turn on and off like a light switch. We aren’t superheroes that can shout, “Engage flow!” and see it happen. By consistently practicing the methods above, our minds will move away from trying to get into flow and instead be on the present.
Focusing on yourself – There is a difference between focusing on the task at hand and focusing on evaluating yourself. When you are focused on yourself, whether that is through judgments or evaluations in the moment, you are no longer focused on the task. Remember, a big theme that occurs in flow is a loss of self-consciousness. If we are evaluating and judging ourselves in the moment, we definitely aren’t focused on the task. Save the healthy evaluation and assessing for post-game reflection. Right now you need everything you have to be in the present.