The flow ("optimal performance") of athletes

Flow: what is it?

Flow is a physical and psychological state in which the athlete feels extremely well in his activity, completely caught up in what he is doing, and where he feels that all his movements are perfectly in place. All this without having the feeling of making the slightest effort. The athlete has a total sense of success, is completely caught in his sensations and his movements, acting without some doubt and instinctively. These moments of high performance are precious moments that we always try to develop more in the sportsman: the more often he will be able to connect with this state of well-being in his practice, the better and more regular his performances will be. The main goal is therefore be to find the means with which the athlete can reach a state of flow.

Optimal performance

Csikszentmihalyi created this concept, which is also referred to as "optimal performance". But what is this optimal performance characterized by? Following studies that were performed on athletes of the highest level, it turns out that states of flow most often occur when:

  • The athlete is fully motivated to practice his sport (which is not the case every day)
  • The athlete approaches a game that constitutes a minimum of challenge: against a player or a team of the same level or a little stronger in general
  • He is in an environment where he feels safe and has his routines
  • The athlete can find ways to be totally focused on what he has to do: on his body, his equipment, his or her opponents
  • It gradually returns completely into action

In this flow state, the athlete:

  • plays "easy", without really feeling the effort as something painful
  • has an impression of control (nothing disturbs it)
  • has a sense of well-being
  • his notion of time is altered

Flow: how to reach it?

To get to this state of flow, different means exist. Here are a few.

Motivation

Being able to get motivated by setting performance goals before each game is central. The most important moments of loss of motivation (tired of practicing his sport for example) must be worked with the coach.

Familiarity with the environment

The athlete must always be familiar with the environment of match (room, terrain,….); it is with a feeling of security and often familiarity that one can get to a state of flow.

Warm-up

The usual warm-up, the usual routines put the athlete in a disposition to return in this state. "To be warm" is central, because it allows to be fully in its sensations and its movements.

Becoming aware through mindfulness

The sensations of the athlete can be accentuated with mindfulness training. To perform a sport in full consciousness is to connect with the present moment and sensations of this moment.

How to project oneself into this state

  • You can think of an image of yourself where you are in this state of flow (image of a memory in flow, or an anticipated image) .
  • Or you can train yourself to have a behavior that you associate with this state. Take for example the tennis player Christophe (first name changed). To return to a state of flow, he jumps while clenching his fist, breathes calmly and fixes a point in front of him. This ritual also enables him to remain in this state.

Naturally, every behavior is specific to the athlete and must be trained regularly.

By Manuel Dupuis, sports psychologist

Bibliography

  • Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Jackson, Susan A. & Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1999). Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers

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