5 key points: Flow in Sports (aka. how to get ‘in the zone’)

Flow is one of those elusive concepts in sport which people want to experience but don’t know how to reach it. Or you might experience flow or ‘feeling in the zone’ a few times and never again. It is a state in which you feel completely absorbed in the sport you are involved in and feel that it is effortless. Being in a flow state allows you to push yourself to your mental and physical limits, all while enjoying the experience. Although this state isn’t easy to achieve there are certain things you can do to make it more likely.

The book ‘Flow in Sports‘ by Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (published by Human Kinetics, 1999) is about how you can achieve this state. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of flow with practical tips for how it can be reached.

These are my 5 key points from the book which you can start implementing into your exercise to make the chances of experiencing flow more likely.

Having a balance between challenge and skills is crucial

The key point underpinning every chapter of this book is that you need an optimal balance between feeling challenged by your sport and having the skills for it in order to experience flow. If your skills are greater than the level of challenge you are experiencing then you are likely to feel bored. On the other hand, if the challenges of your sport are greater than your skills then you will feel anxious. This means that although both the challenges of your sport and your skill levels should be stretched there should be a balance between these.

The key here with the skills aspect of this is that your perceived skills, rather than your actual physical ability is what matters. It is no good being technically excellent at a particular skill such as rock climbing if you have no confidence in your ability as this will lead to anxiety when faced with a challenge. For this reason working on improving your self-efficacy (like self-confidence but for a specific task) should help.

In your sport you should seek out new challenges, for example by competing in races that are slightly more competitive than you normally would, but you also need to have the technical skills needed for this. You can think of challenges and skills as two sides of a set of scales and aim to keep the scales balanced which should increase your chances of experiencing flow.

Using goals is important

Another way to increase your chances of experiencing flow is to use goals such as aiming for a particular time in a race. Going back to the importance of a challenge-skills balance, having goals adds an aspect of challenge into your sport and also increases your motivation to train. Although these goals should provide a challenge they should also be realistic and so you should aim to achieve a balance between these two things.

In order to increase your skills to reach these new challenges using smaller, process goals can be helpful. These are goals which focus on the smaller things you need to be doing in order to reach your long term goals. For example you might decide to go swimming a certain amount each week in preparation for a challenging swimming gala or do two strength training sessions a week to increase your overall strength for an upcoming triathlon. As discussed in more detail below, using process goals gives you an element of control over your performance, which is important for experiencing flow.

You can also use goals during competitions or races. A marathon runner might decide to focus on achieving certain mile split times throughout the race, or a gymnast may aim to land stably after each jump, for example. This has several benefits. It allows you to focus on the present and also to focus on yourself rather than those around you, which will be discussed more later.

Goal setting is therefore useful for achieving flow and is something which is fairly easy to implement into your exercise routine. For more information on setting different types of goals have a look at this blog post.

Focus on what you can control

As anyone involved in sport knows there are many aspects of training and competitions and races which are outside of your control. The weather might be bad, you might get stuck in traffic on your way to the competition venue, your bike might get a puncture and so on. Focusing on all of these uncontrollable factors is likely to lead to anxiety and a lack of self confidence surrounding your performance which isn’t conducive to experiencing flow.

The good news is that by focusing on what you can control you are more likely to experience flow. A key way to do this is to make sure that you have trained adequality and have the required skills needed to perform at your best. You might get a coach, use a training plan online, go to the gym to do strength training, spend time each day focusing on your recovery etc.. You might also pack your bag the night before a competition so nothing is left behind, plan your route to a venue in advance and work out how long it is likely to take to get there so that you arrive in plenty of time. Whatever you can do to take control of your preparation for the event is important and is more likely to increase your chances of experiencing flow than thinking about everything you can’t control.

You should also avoid focusing on winning a competition or race. Winning is something which is out of your control and so focusing on this isn’t helpful. If you don’t win this is likely to lower your self-confidence which isn’t what you want. On the day of a competition it would be better to set process goals such as mile split times to aim for, as mentioned above so that you are focusing on achieving certain, controllable aspects of your performance.

By focusing on controllable aspects of your performance the authors of this book suggest you are more likely to experience flow than if you focus on uncontrollable things.

Focus on yourself

Another way to increase your chances of experiencing flow is to stop focusing on what other people think of you during races and competitions. You should also not focus on other people that are around you. Obviously you need a certain level of awareness of those around you during sport, especially in team sports but you don’t need to think about the spectators or what other people think about you.

Focusing on yourself allows you to become completely absorbed in what you are doing, increasing your chances of experiencing flow. One way the authors of this book suggest you can do this is by focusing on your breathing and this forces you to think about yourself rather than those around you.

Another way to help you to focus on yourself is to use process goals. These have been discussed in more detail above and are useful for giving you specific things to focus on during a race or competition. For example a runner might focus on their split times and keeping an upright posture to allow them to focus on themselves rather than those around them.

Enjoy it!

One of the most important things in sport is to enjoy what you are doing. Without enjoying what you are doing you will feel unmotivated to exercise and are less likely to carry on.

Exercising as a result of intrinsic motivation (because you love it and find it rewarding) is better than exercising just as a result of extrinsic motivation (for external gain). Doing something for external gain has been shown to reduce the enjoyment experienced as a result of it and to reduce participation levels and so using this as your only source of motivation should be avoided.

Being in flow is intrinsically rewarding and so reminding yourself of why you started your sport and what aspects of it you enjoy and focusing on these things is important. Balancing your challenges and skills to avoid either boredom or anxiety as mentioned above is also important. These things will help increase your enjoyment of your sport and increase your chances of experiencing flow.

I hope you have found these five points helpful for understanding how to increase your chance of experiencing a flow state. To learn more about these five key points and many other ideas, you can buy this book here. Leave a comment below to let me know which of these points you are going to apply to yourself.

Happy exercising 🙂

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