From "I Don't Know" to Performing in Flow
Updated: Aug 24
Athletes, musicians, artists: we all want to perform in a state of flow. Flow, which is at times synonymous with “The Zone,” is typically an elusive state that is challenging – or downright impossible – to simply summon when desired. Well-known flow researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Dr. C, for short) spoke of the phenomenon known as flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and though follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Sounds nice, huh? The reality is that most performers, and especially athletes, are typically dealing with situations that force them to adjust to non-optimal situations. The great thrust of consistent performance is not summoning the zone on a regular basis, but in being able to approach your best in moments when your optimal conditions are knocked down, stifled, or otherwise not present. In order to get anywhere near flow - this state of automatic performance whereby the ego falls away - we have to start with how to best acquire new skills.
The fields of sport psychology and sport science have leaned on Fitts and Posner’s 1967 stages of learning for decades, citing the cognitive, associative and autonomous stages as the process for learning any new motor skill. Let’s break down each stage to get a basic sense for what’s involved:
1. Cognitive stage
- Receive specific, explicit instructions about the skill
- Slow progress and consistent mistake making
- Conscious thinking throughout
2. Associative stage
- “Chunking” of skills allows learner to group instructions together
- Fewer mistakes made, movements are more fluid, steady progress
- Mix of conscious and unconscious thoughts
3. Autonomous stage
- Learner has internalized instructions, learning is implicit
- Mistakes are sporadic, movements smooth and controlled
- Unconscious thinking
Of course, many who are reading this have already taken their skills to the autonomous stage, and are able to call upon those skills when needed. So, how do we as mental skill coaches work with performers to help them arrive at that “Flow” state. The conditions of flow are important to consider. Dr. C introduced the following conditions of flow:
a. Complete concentration on the task at hand
b. Clear goals and rewards, providing immediate feedback
c. Time speeds up or slows down
d. The activity is intrinsically rewarding/enjoyable
e. The performer feels a sense of ease
f. There is a balance between the challenge and the performer’s skills
g. Self-conscious rumination falls away
h. The performer is in control
Looking at this list, many can be controlled in the mind once the performer has reached that automatic stage level of proficiency. The mind, you say? Yes, the mind. That monkey brain of ours running things up top. Often times our motor skill abilities consist of a balance between challenge and skills but our darn minds get in the way! We are either not able to fully focus on the current task, we are distracted by internal rumination or external events/conditions, or self-consciousness takes over. Far too often we are clouded by other areas of our lives that make it impossible for us to enjoy what we’re doing. By working with a mental performance coach you are able to explore and process your thoughts and emotions in order to allow your substantial skills to not be hampered by distractions.
In addition to working with performers on their mindset, challenges and other delimiting thoughts and feelings that get in the way of flow, mental performance coaches can work directly with sport-specific coaches to help design trainings that are most well-suited to enhancing autonomous skills. Some ‘top tips’ for helping coaches design great practices can include:
Decision making drills: craft activities that force athletes to solve dynamic problems
Constraints approach: create restrictions to the environment, task or the performer so that they have to perform within greater confines
Training variability: tweak your practice plans so that most of what you do has a different spin on something you’ve done; change things up consistently!
Find the ‘challenge point': Determine the boundary between what your athlete or team can and can’t do, and create drills/activities that are just slightly beyond their existing level.
Provide dynamic feedback, including:
Asking questions as opposed to simply providing corrections
Provide corrections in terms of what you want to have happen as opposed to what you don’t (positively framed feedback)
Give feedback on the task outcome as opposed to the specific process change (e.g. “try making the ball rotate more,” as opposed to “flick your wrist so that the ball rotates more”). This allows the athlete to explore how to meet the feedback themselves, in a manner that is consistent with their motor capabilities.
Use Technology whenever possible. It is 2020 after all!
Demonstrate often, providing time in between demonstrations for athletes to practice the skills shown
Everyone would like to live in a state of peak performance, but the zone is not easy to come by! Many athletes speak of the zone fondly and can pinpoint a handful of times when they truly felt their skills were unencumbered by mental and emotional turbulence swirling all about. Once you’ve gone through the three stages of learning and your skills have become automatic, working with a mental performance coach is the next step to allowing your skills to be summoned when needed. By exploring, processing and releasing your distractions you are more apt to reach the conditions of flow we all seek. Further, by working with skilled sport coaches that know how to deliver dynamic feedback, provide problem-solving opportunities as opposed to solving problems for you, and who challenge your considerable skills, you can take your performance to the next level. Then watch that elusive zone inch ever closer!
Good luck on your journey,