Dr. Steven Ungerleider

Steven Ungerleider Ph.D.

Fair Catch

Going With the Flow

Examining flow in sports.

Posted Jun 08, 2010

I really enjoy watching tennis matches. It can be such an electrifying experience. Even with the quiet of the spectators, the tension, growing with each volley, is so palpable it can almost be heard. It's almost as though with each shot, the pressure for the point increases and more is at stake. It is so incredible to watch tennis players who can play in such a way that the pressure, buzz, and the vibe of their opponent all melt away and yield to pure sport. Serves are returned perfectly, the swinging motion and the racquet's angle are perfectly aligned to drop a ball into the ideal corner, and strategies are quickly developed and executed. This is called "flow." Flow is a state of operation in which a person is wholly absorbed in an activity, enhancing their skill level and losing their sense of ego - and along with it external concerns. Their mind fully connects with their body, fusing peak mental performance with skill - creating an elite athlete.  The quick video below features Roger Federer in a match where he is quite obviously experiencing flow.

The idea of flow was originally identified by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In his explanation of flow, there are several components in the process:
1. Completely involved, focused, concentrating - with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
2. Sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
4. Knowing the activity is doable - that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
5. Sense of serenity - no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego - afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
6. Timeliness - thoroughly focused on present, don't notice time passing
7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces "flow" becomes its own reward
(Source: Austega.com)

For flow to be achieved, it is important for the task at hand to be sufficiently challenging, without overwhelming the individual with obstacles. As the athlete focuses on utilizing their skills to accomplish a move or task, such as a diver performing a sequence of flips off the board, a deep level of concentration will take hold of their mind. As this occurs, outside distractions or concerns are lost in the moment of activity, clearing the mind and allowing mind and body to become a single unit. A free sense of elation, loss of sense of time, and connection with the task are all benefits from the sequence of flow.

It is apparent how flow can be beneficial to an athlete in competition or practice. In upcoming blogs, I will further discuss how flow is important in healthy sport and sportsmanship and provide tips on how an individual can enhance their everyday activities to achieve flow. Have you ever experienced this state? What was it like for you? What were you doing?

About the Author

Dr. Steven Ungerleider

Steven Ungerleider, Ph.D., is an expert on sports, performance enhancement drugs and fair play.

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