The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Fear and Flow

Why the coaching carousel is killing football.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.




There’s a problem in football. The problem is that owners want to win and they want to win yesterday.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets to win. In fact, only one team does—which is, as they say, why they play the games.

And while not everyone can win, everyone really can be fired. Firing coaches has become the cause-du-jour in football as of late.

The 2008-2009 football season is not even over (okay it’s almost over, but we do have one week to go) and a ton of people have been let go. The Tampa Bay Bucs fired John Gruden, the Broncos axed Mike Shannahan, the Brown kicked out Romeo Cornell, the Chiefs bid farewell to Herm Edwards, the Jets tossed out Eric Mangeni, the Rams nixed Scott Linehan and this list goes on.

It doesn’t even include all the position coaches who have lost jobs alongside the head coaches—and there were plenty of those.  And while I could go on for pages and pages if I decided to venture into the college coaches fired this year, suffice to say I could go on for pages and pages.

But here’s the problem—and it is a deeply psychological one at that—at the heart of every champion is a flow state.

So what is a flow state? For readers of this blog, you’ll know it’s something of a personal obsession. For those who are just tuning in flow states which, over the years have been called everything from “runner’s high” to being “in the zone,” is a reference to the lifework of psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.

In his seminal work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Csikszentmilahyi argued that people are at their happiest when they are in a state of total concentration and complete absorption in the task at hand.

He defines it this way: "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

In over forty years of research flow has shown up everywhere—in artists, chess players, surgeons, factory workers and—most definitely—in athletes.

Tulane University sports psychologist Michael Sachs who has spent some time studying flows states believes they’re at the heart of every great athletic performance. In fact, Sachs and others feel that without flow, winning is almost impossible.

One of the peculiarities of this particular state is known as “group flow,” which is essentially the exact same thing as being in a flow state only the entire group (or team or whatever) is involved that  state.

This is seen all the time in basketball teams and football teams and in the best companies. It’s at the center of successes like the moonshot and the Manhattan Project. And it’s definitely evident in the play of the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers who will face off next week in the Superbowl.

On a side note, oddly, flow is not even an entirely human experience, as there is a sort of intra-species group flow that shows up (most frequently) among dogs and masters engaged in herding activities.

We now know a great deal about flow and one of the key elements to flow is risk taking—but it’s a very specific type of risk and herein lies the problem.

Flow requires a person to feel challenged and want to push themselves, but not desperate. You want to trigger a response that releases a number of the brain’s high performance chemicals (like dopamine and anandamine), but not push yourself over into an adrenaline fight-or-flight response.

You need manageable fear, not unmanageable fear. And you really need it in football because there’s already so much fear built into the game.

Athletes are scared of everything from getting injured to embarrassing themselves in front of millions of fans to losing their jobs. And it’s this last bit that is vastly underappreciated in terms of group flow.

Athletes, like all the rest of us, need jobs. Worse, because most athletes don’t really have back-up plans (they’ve spent their whole lives learning how to be great athletes), they really need their jobs.

This is worse for players playing under a new coach—because most football coaches come in with a blank slate attitude (meaning what have you done for me lately) and this vastly increases basic performance anxiety.

When success on the field demands flow and flow demands a very tight windowof concentration, then anything that messes with that window costs a team in wins.

Athletes are always talking chemistry—team chemistry—and the reason is they need team flow and team flow stems from team chemistry which stems from not being scared to death about losing one’s job or having to prove oneself all over again to a new coach.

It seems like a very small thing, but football—as they also say—is a game of inches. And today’s coaching carousal sure isn’t helping anyone gain any inches—that much for sure.





 

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

more...

Subscribe to The Playing Field

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?