The sportsman flow: a psychological approach to the zone

27 August 2019

“ Man, I don’t know, I was just in the zone…”

Every athlete has said these words at least once after a particularly successful event. For basketball players, there are “nothing-but-net” games, for tennis champions some tournaments just become streaks of “down-the-line” winners. As a golfer, I’ve had days where my ball and the green seemed to be destined for one another. All athletes have had this experience of doing the right thing without thinking, with the feeling that our body intuitively does what it needs, leading the way instead of us having to think as much.

Studies have shown that the ‘in-the-zone’ state of mind of an elite athlete is a real and very important thing, called Flow State. iResearch defines Flow as an “Optimal psychological state that occurs when challenges and skills are balanced and extending an individual. This state provides an opportunity for individuals to move their experience from average to optimal enables individuals to experience full engagement in the present moment.” The concept was first introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as part of his research on human happiness and what drives motivation in different life situations. In a Ted Talk aired in 2004, he perfectly explained this phenomenon of Flow, both scientifically and psychologically.

The Science behind Flow State …

As Csikszentmihalyi explained, our nervous system is capable of processing up to 110 bits of information per second. To put this into context; to understand what a person is saying to us, we need to process 60bits per second: this is why we struggle to understand two people speaking to us at once. When facing challenging situations requiring high-level skills, we often get involved in Flow State. Our body and identity disappear from our consciousness because we just don’t have enough attention to process the information on how our body feels or the various unrelated thoughts in our mind. We feel like all physical motions are executed by themselves, spontaneously.

But how does it feel to be in Flow?

Being in a state of Flow is a very rare and particular feeling. Here is a closer look at how people feel when in Flow, as explained by Csikszentmihalyi:

– Completely involved in what they are doing: focused, concentrated

– A sense of being outside reality

– Great inner clarity: knowing what needs to be done, and how well they are doing it

– Absolute certainty that their skills are adequate to the task

– A sense of serenity: no worries about external factors, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego

– Timelessness: thoroughly focused on the present

– Intrinsic motivation: whatever produces flow becomes its own reward

In his Ted Talk show, the precursor of the ‘Flow Theory’ also provided his audience with real-life experience from an Olympic figure skater, describing how she felt when ‘in-the-zone’:

“It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean everything went right, everything felt good… it’s a rush, you feel it could go on and on and on, and you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as if you don’t have to think, everything goes automatically. It feels like you’re on automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts.”

How do we reach a state of Flow?

Flow occurs in situations combining both high challenge and high skill requirements. For this reason, this mental ‘switch’ is very present in a competitive, elite sports environment, where athletes need to be prepared and confident enough to keep their performance at its peak.

In a recent article published by The Online Journal of Sports Psychology, sports psychologist Valerie Worthington also explains: “While we can’t enter the flow state at will, we can master the basics of a sport in order to be prepared to experience it when it happens – and to yearn for a long time afterwards to return to that state again.”

As magical a tool as Flow may seem, athletes can’t just wait for the ‘Zone’ to come to them. As Csikszentmihalyi further mentioned, “this state can only be developed by someone who is very well trained and has developed the right technique”. Flow shows that mind and body can come together on a moment-by-moment basis, keeping athletes fully connected and responsive to the task on game day. However, in order for this to happen, they need to make sure the conditions are met, with an ongoing, methodical and mechanical preparation to ensure they are fully ready to execute on game day.