What You Need to Know About "Getting in the Flow"

You don't have to be an Olympic athlete to benefit from the flow state.

Posted Feb 12, 2018

Photo by Emily Sea on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Emily Sea on Unsplash

When athletes play well, they often state later that they were "in a zone." They're describing a state of focused attention when their abilities naturally flowed out of them and they performed at their peak. The zone is an almost Zen-like meditative state in which distraction simply has no place in your mind. Instead, you're mentally free to execute skills as you've been trained, and you're focusing only on the task at hand.

Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of focused attention "flow." For decades he studied people who experienced such periods of peak performance in all sorts of situations, and he found that these occurrences share common characteristics.

When you're in "the zone" or the state of "flow":

All of your attention is focused either on the skill being performed or input from your senses relevant to the skill.

You're not evaluating your performance while you’re executing the skill.

You're not concerned with others expectations during your performance.

You’re not consciously aware of your awareness at the time.

You are in control of your actions and reactions, despite feeling an almost altered state of consciousness.

You feel invigorated and exhilarated.

When talking about a skill or performance, this can mean anything: a concert, an interview, a presentation, a test, meeting someone new, and so on.

So how do athletes and other performers get in the zone? Here are a few tips.

1. Accept failure. First of all, they recognize that slumps, even failure are part of the game. For example, a good batter in baseball fails to get a hit 70% of the time. A relief pitcher may fail one day and be back pitching well in the same situation the next day. This acceptance of "failure" is crucial because it allows the player to put the past behind him and focus only on what he must  do to succeed in the present.

2. Practice. Second, they practice. To continue with the baseball example, even the most successful hitters practice their craft on a daily basis. They continually hone their abilities so they feel confident of their skills in the actual game. According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become great at something. Many elite athletes train six hours a day, six days a week. But the physical practice isn't everything.

3. Mentally Prepare. Athletes also practice mentally. When watching the Olympics, for example, you've likely seen someone prior to their performance, off by them self, eyes closed, mentally preparing for what comes next. They're likely visualizing their every move in their mind.  

Phil Jackson, former coach of the Chicago Bulls, used meditation techniques to help the team improve their performance on the court. He so strongly believed in it that he often had a meditation expert spend days at a time training the players on proper form and technique. 

According to Jackson, most of the members of the team found practicing meditation to be extremely valuable. But even the few who were less enthusiastic found some good in it. For example, then team member Bill Cartwright often bantered about how he liked the meditation sessions because he was able to take a nap. Although the goal of meditation isn't to fall asleep, many people do feel refreshed and better able to concentrate afterward.

Whether you're an athlete trying to perform your best or a presenter focusing on giving a speech – these three tips will help you remain relaxed, focused, and able to put forth your best effort to the task.

Record-setting Olympic athlete Carl Lewis put it this way:

"My thoughts before a big race are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you'll win… Channel your energy. Focus."