If there’s one way to get athletes talking, it’s to ask them about their flow experiences. They sit up, smile, and recall incredibly vivid experiences they will cherish for the rest of the lives. In many ways, flow states are the big reward that keep us going. Kind of like the panoramic view at the top of a mountain that makes the arduous climb worthwhile.
Flow states are a basic human potential. They are available to all of us, not only elite athletes, musicians and artists. With a little knowledge, dedication and practice, we can increase the likelihood of having a flow state experience.
According to mental coach Markus Arvaja, flow states are thoroughly immersive experiences. In his work with top ice hockey, football and tennis players, he tries to put in place the conditions that make flow states, when performance becomes almost effortless, more likely. Markus is a certified sports psychology consultant and senior lecturer in coaching at Finland’s Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences.
No challenge, no flow
“First,” Markus says, “you need to have a feeling of being challenged, but that you have the competency and self confidence to handle it.” It’s a delicate balance. If the challenge is too great, and you feel out of your depth, lacking the skills for an activity, then it’s unlikely you will experience a flow state. There’s simply too much mental activity happening.
On the other hand, if the task is too easy, and the challenge is too low, then you are likely to be bored, also making flow state unlikely. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. So consider what might be a reasonable challenge for you, one that you feel confident in your skills and ability to take on.
The next essential condition for flow state experiences is motivation. “It helps if you can achieve your optimal arousal,” Markus explains. “You need to feel that you are really into the activity.” There’s another balance here. One extreme is boredom, the other is being too excited, almost nervous with anticipation. In the middle is relaxed enthusiasm. One way to achieve this is to remember the reasons you love your sport, what it gives you, a few minutes before you perform. Or maybe listening to music motivates you.
Automate the skill set
The reason top athletes and musicians experience flow is because they have put in the countless hours necessary to master their chosen activities. Whatever your sport, you need to have automated the skills required to experience flow. The action should come naturally from the body without any need for thinking or assesment. “If you don’t trust your technique, it’s hard to achieve the flow,” Markus says. “It’s important you train so much that you are well prepared and can get let go and let it happen. The moment you start to think too much, it’s hard to be in the flow.”
One thought at a time
Did we mention that thinking too much might obstruct a flow state? In the mindfulness movement, teachers talk about the “monkey mind”. Like we often jump from one thought to another, a monkey jumps from branch to branch incessantly. Constant thinking is tiring and distracting. “One good thing to do is to shift your focus to the activity at hand,” Markus says. “For example, if you are a tennis player, you could totally concentrate on moving your feet. It helps to concentrate on one or two things only. If you can do that, you might start to notice the flow. Just play the game and enjoy!”
Have a plan
Having a plan is very helpful, Markus says. For example, if you’re going to run a trail race, the plan might include having your own guidelines for pace, fuelling and heart rate. Well before the race, you might study the course, even train on it to get familiar, so on race day you know when to push and when to take it easy. “Make a plan at home,” Markus says. “That’s what we do in team sports. The less you think on the day, the better you perform.”
“Mindfulness certainly helps,” Markus says. “If your mind is free of worry, and unnecessary thoughts, you can stay in the present moment. It’s good to learn to quiet the mind, to turn off the inner critic. Learn to simplify and focus on one thing.”
Yes, it’s important to have goals, to have a plan, to automate skills, and to be motivated. But if we get too serious, we risk getting too severe with ourselves and then the sport we once loved can feel like a strain. “Just play!” Markus always tells his clients. “It helps when you are positive and having fun. You can’t force the flow!”