There has long been awareness that performers in all disciplines are capable of entering a particular mental state that yields optimal performance. Typically referred to as “flow” or “being in the zone” or just “going unconscious”, performance psychologists prefer the term “flow”, named and described by Csikszentmihalyi in his 1990 book by the same title. The flow state involves total absorption in the task at hand, and the creation of a state of mind where optimal performance is capable of occurring. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) argued that particular activities are more likely to produce flow, as well as personal traits that help people achieve flow more easily. A critical qualification of this state is that flow is not dependent upon the objective nature of either the challenges being faced or the objective level of one’s skills. Rather, flow is entirely dependent on one’s perception of the challenges and their skill.
Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following nine factors as accompanying an experience of flow but not all of them are necessary for flow to be experienced:
- Clear goals:Expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
- Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
- A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
- Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
- Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
- Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
- A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
- People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
From a clinical psychologist’s standpoint, flow is perhaps best understood as dissociation, the psychological defense mechanism most often associated with psychic trauma. Dissociation represents a temporary suspension or distortion of the ego’s synthetic function that effectively knits together cognitive, affective, sensory and behavioral functions into a seamlessly consistent conscious process. Dissociation is understood as a mental response to internal or external stimuli which affects functioning on a spectrum of severity from low to high. However, this spectrum has never included a positive or adaptive point on the continuum despite reports by elite athletes and performers that elements of the flow state are clearly dissociative in nature. Many athletes experiencing flow identify time and perceptual distortions, altered consciousness, lack of self-consciousness and absence of physical pain even when injured. Despite these anecdotal references, there has been very little mention of what might be called “positive” dissociation or “adaptive” dissociation although occasionally there are such in the performance literature. On a completely speculative basis, we might regard flow as a right brain process that is activated in the same way that the body’s fight/flight stress response is activated by threat.
In explaining predispositions to experience flow, Csikzentmihalyi indicated that a skill-challenge balance was an essential precursor to flow occurrence, and that flow was dependent upon the individual’s ability to structure their consciousness so as to make flow possible. By identifying the psychological factors that enhance, inhibit, and disrupt flow, consultants, coaches and performance psychologists may be better able to help athletes achieve optimal performance.
Jackson (1992) provided information from in-depth interviews with elite figure skaters about specific factors related to flow occurrence. These skaters indicated that flow was facilitated by positive mental attitude, positive pre-competitive and competitive affect, maintaining appropriate focus, physical readiness, and partner unity. Factors perceived to prevent or disrupt flow were physical problems/mistakes, inability to maintain focus, negative mental attitude, and lack of audience response. Jackson (1995) later examined athletes’ responses to questions about what facilitated, prevented, and disrupted flow in 28 elite athletes from seven different sports. Results of interview responses revealed 10 dimensions and included salient factors such as physical and mental preparation, confidence, focus, how performance felt, and optimal motivation, and arousal. In addition, 79% of the athletes surveyed felt that factors facilitating or preventing flow were perceived as controllable.
Jackson (1996) recently investigated athletes responses and found that the autotelic dimension of flow (as an intrinsically motivating participation in the activity for it’s own sake) is probably an essential element of flow and may be an aggregate of all other flow dimensions. One consistent finding demonstrated that the flow trait challenge-skill balance was most highly correlated with the trait measure of perceived ability, and the authors concluded that high perceived ability is crucial to facilitating flow states (Kimiecik et al., 1998). It may be that less-skilled athletes are less likely to experience flow because both their actual and perceived level of skill are lower than elite athletes.
A persistent question among performance psychologists is whether flow can be triggered on demand by the performer or in consultation with a performance psychologist using a one or more mental skills, psychological techniques or cognitive strategies. To date, there has been no evidence that flow can be triggered on demand. But the possibility remains attractive considering the enormous benefits to the athlete or performer should flow become a “trainable” skill like any other.
Based on anecdotal clinical evidence, installing mental scripts of specific components of flow can be achieved using EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Shapiro, 1989) and reinforced by both mindfulness meditation and a new technique called Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal. All three techniques promote cross-hemisphere synchronization which may be a key to triggering flow states. The right hemisphere is known to promote synthesis, automaticity, control by goal, parallel processing, intuition, creativity and kinesthetic imagery, all of which would seem to be central to the nine dimensions of flow. More research is needed to test the hypothesis of whether flow can be installed and then activated on demand by trigger words or autohypnotic suggestions.