This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

Peak Performance and Flow States

Athletes can work themselves into unique states of consciousness as the result of their long hours of practice and their intense concentration during a contest. When everything is going right for an athlete, the athlete may report an altered sense of time and a feeling of effortless, highly competent performance. Self-consciousness is diminished, as the individual becomes "totally into" the game. For this reason, such a state is sometimes called "playing unconscious."

What factors can lead to "playing unconscious"? What is the "flow state"?

Michael Csikszentmihalyi (CHICK-zent-mi-high) has been studying something he calls flow states for several decades. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) he described the flow state as one in which an athlete or other person performs at his or her best, seemingly without effort, but with total concentration, feeling totally in control without thinking about it. Self-consciousness recedes into the background as total focus is upon present activity.

Bob Beamon reported such a heightened state of concentration during his world record long jump of 29' 2 1/2" at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City. It was more than 2 feet farther than the previous world record, and the record stood for over 20 years until Mike Powell broke it in 1991. Looking back and trying to explain his 1968 jump, Beamon described it this way:

There is no answer for the performance. But everything was just perfect for it, the runway, my takeoff—I went six feet in the air when usually I'd go about five—and my concentration was perfect. It never happened quite that way before. I blocked out everything in the world, except my focus on the jump. (Berkow, 1984)

Of course, that is a retrospective self-report, the weakest form of psychological data. But it is consistent with descriptions by many other athletes.

What are common elements in descriptions of great moments in sport

Ravizza (1977) was one of the first sport psychologists to describe how athletes felt during their greatest moments. Interviews of 20 male and female athletes who played in 12 different sports yielded the following characteristics:

Loss of fear—no fear of failure

No thinking of performance

Total immersion in the activity

Narrow focus of attention

Effortless performance—not forcing it

Feeling of being in complete control

Time-space disorientation (usually slowed down)

Perceive universe to be integrated and unified

Unique, temporary, involuntary experience

Garfield (1984) identified eight mental and physical conditions that athletes described as being characteristic of the feelings they have at those moments when they are doing something extraordinarily well:

1. Mentally relaxed. This was described most frequently as a sense of inner calm. Some athletes also reported a sense of time being slowed down and having a high degree of concentration. By contrast, loss of concentration was associated with a sense of everything happening too fast and being out of control.

2. Physically relaxed. Feeling of muscles being loose with movements fluid and sure.

3. Confident/optimistic. A positive attitude, feelings of self-confidence and optimism. Being able to keep poise and feelings of strength and control even during potentially threatening challenges.

4. Focused on the present. A sense of harmony that comes from the body and mind working as one unit. No thoughts of the past or future. The body performs automatically, without conscious or deliberate mental effort.

5. Highly energized. A high-energy state frequently described as feelings of joy, ecstasy, intensity, and being "charged" or "hot."

6. Extraordinary awareness. A state of mind in which the athletes are acutely aware of their own bodies and of the surrounding athletes. They report an uncanny ability to know what the other athletes are going to do, and they respond accordingly. Also a sensation of being completely in harmony with the environment.

7. In control. The body and mind seem to do automatically exactly what is right-yet there is no sense of exerting or imposing control.

8. In the cocoon. The feeling of being in an envelope, being completely detached from the external environment and any potential distortions. Also a sense of complete access to all of one's powers and skills. Athletes "in the cocoon" are able to avoid loss of concentration and accelerated, tight-muscled, out-of-control feelings.

Which elements of the flow state did athletes confirm?

Jackson (1996) used "in-depth interviews with 14 male and 14 female elite athletes" to compare their perceptions of optimal states to Csikszentmihalyi's description. 22 of the 28 athletes confirmed the paradox of control (feeling in control without having to think about it), mirroring of action and awareness (being so involved that the activity seems spontaneous and automatic), and concentration (being completely focused on the task at hand).

Which elements were less commonly described?

However, "other dimensions were not so universally endorsed." Athletes spoke of effort, not the effortlessness Csikszentmihalyi describes. Many had not experienced the time-distortion or slow motion effects of flow experiences, and only a third endorsed Csikszentmihalyi's descriptions of "challenge-skill balance" (the challenge exactly matching the athlete's skill) or the goal dimension (experiencing a clear goal).

What is the most universally experienced element?

The most universally experienced element is the automaticity of a flow state. In other words, a skilled action is performed without detailed, step-by-step, conscious control. This was discussed once before in this book, in Chapter 7, where the argument was made that overlearning of skills produces automaticity, and automaticity is necessary for creativity, because only a somewhat autonomous or independent action can insert itself into the ongoing flow of activity, producing a creative result. Nideffer (1992) writes:

Playing in the zone first requires a level of physical skill that enables you to perform without having to think about it. For example, when playing in the zone, the tennis player doesn't talk to herself about how to play the point, how to set up for a shot, or how to hit the ball.

How does the level of self-talk change, from the time one is first learning skills to the time one plays in a game?

When developing and learning new skills, you talk to yourself a great deal. You remind yourself of simple things: "Take your time, step up to the foul line, and take a deep breath. Bend your knees, and follow through." This self-talk helps you develop and grow, enabling you to make needed adjustments and corrections during the learning process. It reminds you to practice the same thing until it becomes automatic. This self-talk is greatly diminished when you are playing in a game. At this point, you are attempting to use skills that are already developed. When you are in the zone, you don't have to think tactics because the appropriate move is obvious to you. Things like setting up and preparing early should happen automatically.

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