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What flow is in sports, and how to achieve it

What flow is in sports, and how to achieve it

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Have you ever been performing and felt completely focused and in control, knowing exactly what you are doing and what you need to do next, utterly absorbed in the activity? If you have, you may have been experiencing a mental state called “flow”, sometimes also described as “being in the zone”.

Flow is a psychological state of total absorption in a task. It is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, where your feelings and performance are at their best. It involves being fully focused on what you are doing, so focused that everything else disappears and your mind goes quiet. This heightened attention allows your actions to happen with ease and is associated with many benefits. 

Many elite athletes have talked about using flow. For example, Mo Farah said: “When I run I just go out there, go in the zone and just block everything”.

What does flow feel like?

There are many ways to experience flow, although they may not all happen all of the time. So, what might you experience?

  • You enjoy performing and it feels rewarding
  • You have clear goals in mind that are challenging but still attainable
  • You have complete focus on the activity, nothing else is distracting you
  • You feel in control of the situation
  • You feel at peace and have no self-consciousness.
  • Your critical thoughts disappear
  • You gain immediate positive feedback about what you are doing
  • You feel positive and strongly that you can do it
  • You experience a lack of awareness of your physical needs – movements become automatic and effortless
  • You have complete concentration and focused attention which comes effortlessly
  • You experience a distorted sense of time, and you are so focused that you lose track of time passing

What is actually happening in the brain when experiencing flow?

The prefrontal cortex is a structure in our brain which is in charge of thinking and planning. During flow, this area of the brain goes quiet and is less active.

This allows other parts of your brain, responsible for skill execution and focus, to function better. In practice, this means that you stop worrying and hesitating, making your performance automatic and effortless.

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How do we reach a flow state?

Research on athletes across a range of sports outlined that flow occurred in five stages:

  1. It begins with a positive event – for example, in football this could be a really good tackle.
  2. This positive event then provides the athlete with positive feedback about their physical and mental state, building up to the state of flow.
  3. Positive feedback leads to an increase in confidence in the athlete.
  4. More confidence allows the athlete to appraise the situation, setting new challenges and pushing themselves to do something harder or push it up a level.
  5. Finally, it ends with open goals. These are non-specific and exploratory, and can be focused on the process or the outcome. 

6 strategies to achieve a flow state

1. Complete focus and a quiet mind

Eliminate any distractions in your environment that are competing for your attention. Everyone has moments where their mind wanders, but the highest performers are able to return their focus to the task at hand. Additionally, practicing mindfulness can help sustain our attention in the present moment.

2. The right level of challenge

Balance the difficulty of the challenge with your skills as an athlete. If the task is too easy, you will feel bored; if it is too difficult, you will be too nervous. You are most likely to experience flow when you have the skills but still feel challenged by the competition. 

3. Become comfortable with challenging and trusting yourself

Being able to stretch your boundaries is essential to training the mindset skills that trigger flow. You earn the ability to trust yourself by doing hard things over a long period of time.

4. Develop an accurate appraisal of your skills

You need to be able to correctly match your skills to the challenge at hand. In order to develop an accurate appraisal of your skills, you need a growth mindset, which is the belief that you have the capacity to improve, helping you seek out and value feedback.

5. Set clear goals

Ensure you are setting goals to help you achieve a flow state. Participate in something with a clear goal so that your attention can be focused entirely on what you are doing.

6. Choose something you enjoy

Doing something you dislike makes it less likely that you will be able to achieve flow. Work on trying to achieve flow whilst doing something you like.

Final thoughts

Flow not only helps you achieve optimum performance, but also has many other benefits such as motivation and enjoyment. Many of the most successful athletes have talked about reaching flow in critical moments in their career. It should be something all athletes aspire towards.

Be patient and remember: like any skill, you need to practice. So, as the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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