Studies on flow states show when athletes are experiencing them the thinking part of their brain is offline. “The less you think, the better you perform,” quips Markus Arvaja, a certified sports psychology consultant and senior lecturer in coaching at Finland’s Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. “We’ve studied athletes, the best of the best, studied their brains when they perform, and they have less brain activity in their prefrontal cortex. Which means they have automated their skills so they can purely enjoy their sport.”
When he’s not teaching at university, Markus, himself an ice hockey, football and tennis player, works as a mental coach for Finland’s national women’s ice hockey team and the national youth tennis team. He’s a board member of the Finnish Society of Sports Psychology. He’s passionate about people performing at their absolute best.
“Studies show peak flow states are intrinsically motivating experiences,” he says. “People become so involved in an activity that they are on automatic pilot, totally absorbed in that experience. It’s a merging of action and awareness. Thing is, you can’t force yourself to go into flow. But their are elements that help you enter into the flow space.”
Flow states, peak performance, being in the zone, runner’s highs; these are all interchangeable terms describing the transcendent experiences athletes, artists, musicians and creatives report having. Maybe you’ve experienced one yourself. Time slows down, you become totally immersed in the task at hand, it feels effortless, maybe the world seems more vivid, and you have sense of mastery. They are when athletes have their best performances and, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote a seminal book on the topic, they are a key aspect of human happiness. It’s something we can all experience, not only elite athletes and artists.
Neuroscience has revealed much about what’s happening in the brain during a flow state. Brain waves change from beta, more rapid waves underlying waking consciousness, to somewhere between alpha and theta waves, where we daydream and first enter into sleep. This is when many people have their best ideas. Neurochemicals associated with pleasure and performance – endorphin, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and anandamide – are the raw ingredients of flow. Perhaps the most interesting fact is how different regions of the brain respond during flow; for example, studies have found the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with self monitoring – and also self criticism – goes offline during flow. Instead of constantly analysing and evaluating, we do things spontaneously.
“Sometimes coaches can interrupt the flow happening for athletes by giving too much information for the athletes’ minds,” Markus says. “It’s better to say only one or two things.
“For flow, your mind should be free of worry and unnecessary thoughts. Stay in the present moment by quieting the mind and turning off the inner critic. Mindfulness certainly helps with this.”