Ask any serious athlete about their favorite athletic moments and most likely they will tell you a story where they were performed to their best ability and were “in the zone.” The concept of flow, or being “in the zone,” is when an athlete’s performance is consistently excellent, automatic, and flowing. It is a state where the athlete has a heightened sense of consciousness and performs to the best of his or her ability. Some athletes describe this as an experience almost entirely overtaken by muscle memory, where those dedicated hours of practice finally pay off. Athletes are able to ignore the pressures of the situation and let their body take over and perform what it has learned well.
Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology describes flow as needing ten essential elements, the first of which is a balance of challenge and skills. When the challenge is too low for a person’s skill level, they become bored. When the challenge is too great for one’s ability, they become anxious. If ability and challenge are balanced (or at least close to balanced) then the athlete will have ideal conditions for flow. Another necessary factor is the athlete being completely absorbed in the activity, losing all self-consciousness, and having total concentration on the task at hand. If the athlete is distracted by those in the stands or by the magnitude of the moment, then flow will not occur. It is also important that the athlete has clear goals so they know exactly what to do. Next, the athlete must merge their actions and awareness with effortless movement. This is often observed in muscle memory “taking over” the play. Though it may seem that the athlete is no longer controlling her body, she must maintain a sense of control, although it may be subconscious. For flow to occur, athletes must not be looking to external rewards for satisfaction, but rather to the love of the game or competition. Lastly, flow typically occurs alongside a transformation of time, usually a sensation of time speeding up.
J.E. Loehr (1986) found twelve categories for an athlete’s “ideal performance state”: physically relaxed, mentally calm, low anxiety, energized, optimistic, enjoyment, effortless, automatic, alert, mentally focused, self-confident, and in control. His study was done by having over 300 athletes describe their “finest hour” while participating in sport. He found that flow was a universal phenomenon that crossed the borders of specific sports.
The purpose of this paper is to further explore athletes’ experiences with flow and understand how they come about, as well as how flow affects athletic performance.
The first athlete I interviewed, “Leah,” is a 20 year-old junior who plays volleyball. She played volleyball in high school, as well as here at our Division III Gordon College. I chose to interview Leah because she is an intense, dedicated athlete, who takes her sport seriously. Our interview was about 20 minutes long and took place in her dorm room. My second interview was with “Carrie,” who is a senior cross-country and track runner. She is 21 and has run both in high school and college. During track season she competes in the 800 meter and mid-distance races. I interviewed her because I was interested in how runners experience flow in their highly individual competitions, as well as the concept of a “runner’s high” and how this compared to “the zone.” Our interview was about 15 minutes long and took place in a friend’s dorm room. My last interview was with “Rob,” who was on a high school rowing team. Rob is a 22 year old senior at Gordon. I wanted to interview him not only for his male perspective, but also to compare a high school experience to the college experiences gathered in my other two interviews. Our interview was about 15 minutes long and took place in the Barrington Center for the Arts lab.
Interestingly, both college level athletes gave high school competition examples of being “in the zone” and said they felt less flow since coming to Gordon. Leah described one experience of being “in the zone” in the semifinals of her sophomore year in high school. They had one perfect set during the game and she said “it felt so right.” She could only feel what her hands were doing and they were doing everything perfectly. She described flow very similarly to Loehr, in that she was alert, but her body seemed to know exactly what to do and just did it. Mistakes she did make no longer bothered her and nothing could throw her game off. It came effortlessly and automatically. The most important aspects of this flow were that she was subconsciously in control and in synch with her teammates. Leah’s descriptions of her physical sensations during flow also fit with Loer’s model. “I don’t feel tired,” she said. “I feel balanced and happy. When you’re in the zone you exude confidence.”
“Flow is when you play with abandon,” said Leah. “When a team plays that way together, that’s when they have flow.” Other important aspects Leah discussed were athletes playing for each other, not for themselves. This was unique to her interview, but that might be because of the team nature of volleyball. With a sport like volleyball there is opportunity for selfish players to assert themselves, while running is more individually driven and rowing goes nowhere without a synchronized team.
Leah felt that she could control flow, or at least she could allow herself to have the opportunity. For her, attitude is what matters most. “I set my eyes on my playing and my teammates,” she said. “I never look at the score when I’m in the zone.” Although attitude is not mentioned by either scholarly references cited earlier, Leah felt that it was a key factor in allowing or inhibiting a player from attaining flow.
Carrie’s most memorable experience with flow came at her junior year county finals in high school. It was raining, which is her favorite running weather, and she felt well prepared for the race. She had been training more intensely than usual the week before and was both mentally and physically ready for the race. She ended up running her best time for the season and hit every goal she had set for herself.
Carrie’s experience was somewhat different from Leah’s, because she was in an individual sport that only required that she be at her best. When Carrie was in the zone, she described it as feeling self-motivated, having her strides and breathing in synch and not sensing tiredness. “I feel like I get tunnel vision,” she said. “I just focus on keeping moving forward.” Physically, Carrie would agree with Leah and Loehr that “the zone” is characterized by lack of conscious thought about movement, the muscles know what to do. This agrees with Young’s and Pain’s definition of flow as being automatic and flowing, allowing the athlete to “ignore all the pressures and let their body deliver the performance that has been learned so well” (Young).
The frequency that Leah and Carrie experience flow differs greatly. Leah expressed that she felt truly in the zone only a handful of times each season since coming to Gordon, while Carrie feels it every time she runs. “No matter the distance,” Carrie said, “at the halfway point I will be in the zone.” This includes both competitions and practice runs. Factors that can distract Carrie from easily entering this flow are stress, the weather, people, and music. Stress, people, and music occupy her mind while she’s running, making it harder for her to synch her breathing and strides and therefore enter the zone. She can also be distracted by hot weather, since she is more focused on being sweaty and thirsty instead of her body movements.
Rob said his most memorable experience of flow was in the Midwest Rowing Finals in 2007. It was the last race of the season and his boat was behind its nearest competitor by 120 feet with 700 feet left before the finish line. “We were hauling!” Rob exclaimed. In the last moments of the race they pulled ahead of the rival boat and finished in good time. Although they didn’t win the race, it was a team success that each member strongly contributed to. Rob described their flow as being in harmony with each other, each man reaching forward together then exhaling and pulling back with all their strength perfectly in synch with each other. Each of them was alert and conscious of their teammates’ motions.
Rob described teammates as the most important factor of achieving flow, which was similar to Leah’s opinion. Each involved teammates being in the zone together. If one person is out of synch, none of them will be feeling flow. Rob also discussed his body as being in synch, with balanced levels of adrenaline and other chemicals keeping his body in peak condition to perform. He said he felt relaxed and everything just felt right, which is exactly how Leah described her perfect volleyball set.
Rob also talked about how time seemed to slow down as they focused on passing the competitors’ boat. This is what the textbook would call a time transformation, although usually athletes feel that time is speeding up.
Unlike the other athletes, Rob said that achieving flow takes focus. “I was thinking about my hand height, rhythm, body posture, hand separation, and timing,” he said. He didn’t feel the unconscious muscle memory and awareness that Leah and Carrie felt while in the zone. This description of flow does not concur with either Loehr or the textbook’s explanation of flow.
What I found most surprising was the fairly consistent description of flow from three athletes with vastly different athletic experiences. Although each sport had varying levels of teamwork involved as well as very different goals, each athlete experienced flow as being alert, yet relaxed, and in synch with themselves and/or their teammates. I also found it interesting that while Leah and Carrie agreed that they had little to no conscious thought about their movements when in the zone, Rob felt that he was focusing all his attention on his motions. However, Rob mentioned that his team was not that good and had a tough season. As a result of this, Rob and his team were forced to keep focusing on skills, even while entering some state of flow, because they had less practice and skill. Leah and Carrie said they felt well-prepared, both physically and mentally, for their competitions and so their bodies took over and did what they had trained to do. Carrie even said that she ran through each course in her mind as part of her pre-race routine. This is important to note because it speaks to how athletes need to be both physically and mentally ready to compete for them to enter a state of flow.
I also found it interesting that both college level athletes gave examples from high school when describing flow. Leah even said that she doesn’t enter the zone nearly as much at Gordon as she did in high school. I’m not sure if this is because of her specific program, a change in her attitude, or the general attitude of Gordon athletics. Going by the flow model, her team may not be challenged enough for their ability level and therefore they are bored with the competition. They might also be too challenged and then frustrated by their lack of ability to adequately compete. Or the lack of flow could result from a high anxiety felt by her or the whole team. If they don’t feel relaxed, energized, and concentrated on the task at hand, our textbook’s authors (Weinberg and Gould) would say that flow will be inhibited. They would also suggest that Leah’s flow might also be disrupted by a lack of physical preparation, problems with team interactions, self-doubt, or other non-optimal environmental and situational influences.
Lastly, I found it interesting that as a runner, Carrie gets in “the zone” almost every time she runs, whether competing or not. Even as she trains by herself, she is self-motivated enough that she is able to enter a state of flow. This is important because it proves that flow can be achieved outside of competition, therefore not limiting flow only to competing athletes.
Young, Janet A., and Michelle D. Pain. (1999). “The Zone: An Empirical Study.”
Athletic Insight – The Online Journal of Sport Psychology.
Retrieved from <http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol1Iss3/Empirical_Zone.htm#ABSTRACT>.
Weinberg, Robert S., Gould, Daniel. 2007. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (4th ed.).
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.