What is the flow state and how does it relate to sport?

6 mins read

The flow state, or simply ‘flow’, is an optimal psychological state which can occur during work, school, and leisure but especially in sport:

When in flow a person becomes totally involved in the activity and undergoes a number of positive experiences, including freedom from self-consciousness, great enjoyment of the process, clarity of goals and knowledge of performance, complete concentration, feelings of control, and sense of being totally in tune with the performance.”

Herbert W. Marsh

There have been scientific studies with elite athletes measuring their performance based on a ‘flow scale’. Athletes who can trigger the flow state or are higher on the flow scale generally have better performances.

Therefore, being able to use flow during your next tournament or training session can help you achieve your peak performance and even make the experience more enjoyable.

The Science behind Flow State

The flow state and how to achieve it is very much an enigma for neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists today.

In the 1960’s well-known psychologist, Abraham Maslow spoke of flow under the term ‘self-actualisation’ and it was known to be a psychological state which leads to ‘peak performance’ in a certain activity (e.g. chess playing or jazz improvisation).These experiences were described as instances of memorable happiness and fulfilment with a hyper-focus on one’s surroundings.

However, what, if anything, can the study of neural activity in the brain do to demystify flow?

Modern brain research places cognitive functions in a hierarchical order. By this account, on the top of the hierarchy would be the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for higher cognitive functions (memory, attention, perception). Therefore, it was assumed that the prefrontal cortex would have something to do with this mysterious ‘flow’.

However, athletes in flow claim that this experience does not require them to think, rather it feels like a natural and automatic action which suggests that the prefrontal cortex is not required.

Flow is something any athlete can achieve after some hard work and a level of self-awareness. Image credit: Unsplash

Instead, there seems to be a connection with the basal ganglia circuit which is partially in charge of what we call ‘muscle memory’. Muscle memory is based on practice which consists of developing the same actions over and over until internalising a pattern of movements. For example, a tennis player practising a serve at the beginning of learning the skill will be more conscious of each movement and the act will require more attention.

However, with enough practice, the movement will become so natural that the body will start to do the movements on its own. Thus, flow seems to be directly connected to our level of automatization and its distinct response patterns.

Furthermore, flow is channelled through the implicit system (rather than the explicit system) which is one of the two distinct information processing systems our brain uses. The implicit system consists of processing and memorising skill and experienced-based content which is also inaccessible to conscious awareness. The implicit system also makes our actions extremely effective since they are automatised by the system itself.

This is why when experiencing flow the agent does not consciously choose to be in the flow state but is suddenly overcome by it.

How Do I Know I’m in Flow?

Here are a few characteristics of the flow experience described in Arne Dietrich’s scientific paper.

  1. A balance between challenges and skills.
  2. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  3. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  4. No worry of failure.
  5. Sense of time becomes distorted.

How Can I Achieve Flow State?

Lastly, I would like to talk about how you, whether you are an athlete or musician, can increase your chances of experiencing flow.

Since flow is connected to our level of automatization this means the more you practise to develop individual skills, the more likely you will be able to rely on muscle memory and induce flow.

Moreover, it is important to narrow down your focus to a particular end goal, whether it be receiving a serve or striking a goal.

So rather than being highly aware of all of your surroundings it is more efficient to zoom in on one particular thing.

However, it is good to keep in mind that flow is an uncommon experience and does require a certain level of skill. It is also possible that you have experienced flow before without even realising it.

To conclude, flow does not have to be seen as some abstract and unattainable spiritual state of being. It is something any athlete can achieve after some hard work and a level of self-awareness.

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash

Isabella Chavezova
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