Going With the Flow – What is ‘flow’ and how can I obtain it?


Michelle Wijnhout (Hisalis Ladies 1st) under pressure from 3 players against 1st place Strawberries.

Have you ever been doing something that you enjoy, where you are so focused you are not aware of the world around you until you stop? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a renown psychologist describes this phenomenon as ‘flow’. Flow is not a new concept however, and is more commonly known as ‘the zone’. If you have been doing something and then hours later  you look at the clock and you are surprised as to how long you have been, you have likely been in a state of flow. Mihaly spent most of his time researching artists (art and music) to understand what the cause of this state of extreme focus was. One artist told Mihaly that he felt that his hand was not even connected to his body, he felt that he had no control of what his hand was doing and it became automatic.

In order to achieve a state of flow a few conditions need to be met:

  • You have to have a clear set of goals regarding the task with a path of progress.
  • There needs to be dynamic feedback from the task whilst you are doing it.
  • There needs to be a good balance between the perceived challenge of the task and your perceived skills:
Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s flow model.

By looking at the diagram above there are some zones which we have found ourselves inside sport and of course outside sport. A personal example of this, outside of sport, was during my final months of university: I was working on a scientific journal project where I had to write 10,000 words on the topic which was very interesting to me: anticipation. Without going in to too much detail I ran a study which measured what athletes and novices paid attention to while anticipating movements of others. After this I had to research other journals and books to find out if my findings were correct and useful. For lots this may not seem interesting for you but the more I researched the more interested I became. I remember that one day I went to the library around lunch time and I at 3am I fell out of flow and I was a little angry at my self because I had not eaten or drank anything for 15 hours.

How was I unable to not notice I was thirsty or hungry for so long? During this time in the library my skills regarding sport psychology (anticipation) and the challenge level were both at the high end of the scale thus I moved into the zone in the above diagram: Flow. During this state of flow I felt like I was working automatically, typing, reading and studying all felt like one simple action. During this time I was in a extremely positive state and everything felt pleasant (although I was hungry and thirsty). This was the most productive I have been my whole life in my opinion and I would love to experience this feeling again.

Although I would love to be able to tell you a secret of how to obtain ‘flow’ easily, there is no ‘quick route’, in order to obtain flow you need to have two things:

  1. A high level of perceived skill  in regards to the task being done.
  2. A high level of challenge in regards to the task being done.

With my current players I do not think they obtain flow during training or matches due to their skill not being at a professional level yet but as long as I keep the challenge level as high as possible without anxiety, there will be an opportunity for them to experience flow when their skills improve. Something that my players are able to obtain is ‘Prime Focus’: this is where they are able to ignore unimportant things happening around them and only focus on what is important. I will write about Prime Focus in my next blog post so you are able to apply it to your own sports and teams.


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