Being in a state of flow or “getting into the zone” happens in all areas of life.
It refers to a higher state of consciousness where everything just seems to click in terms of our reactions, decisions and execution of task-related behaviours. This is a totally immersed state of heightened perception where time slows down, where we can function optimally without thinking about it, where we simply see and do with an effortless clear head and, where we reach peak performance.
Not surprisingly, this experience generally leads to a heightened level of enjoyment and elation during and after the activity. This usually happens when we are energised, in a good mood and doing things we enjoy and have some level of skill that meets the demands of the task.
Some people experience this state in religious contexts, some in music, business, and some in family situations.
Sport, Exercise & Performance
In sport, exercise and performance, getting into the zone is the holy grail of mental conditioning.
Unfortunately for most of us it can seem to happen at random, leading to exciting experiences, gains in confidence and surprising levels of peak performance … once in a blue moon. We feel like we are coming out of a high-functioning trance after these experiences and are left guessing as to how we can maintain this mindset more consistently in future. It seems flow is the elusive experiential quality that drives performers, underlying the goals, fame and achievements people usually associate with motivational drive.
There are certain environmental and psychological predictors of experiencing flow that can inform us on how to increase its happening. Although it is impossible to unpack a flow experience after the event to determine what factor was the cause, we can improve our chances of having this motivating, confidence-boosting state of consciousness, by understanding its ingredients. Consistently achieving this state in training and competition is every performer’s dream. There is a mixture of factors that contribute to this heightened state of consciousness, and ways to increase the likelihood of flow in your performance world.
Unpacking Flow – The Ingredients
Attention – When our attention is in the present moment and completely on task, we increase the chances of flow. Doing exercises that increase mind-body connection (self-awareness) and present moment awareness such as mindfulness can also give us a heightened perception of our environment and presence/grounding in the moment, rather than thinking ahead or about what has just occurred. This attention target reduces distraction, both environmental and internal (thought), that can get in the way of a clean loop between seeing and doing.
Confidence – When we trust ourselves, our training and our ability, we tend to worry less and experience less nerves. Flow happens when we feel safe and powerful, not scared and threatened by the situation. Confidence increases the chances that we will resist worry about ego-relevant information such as being judged, winning or losing, letting ourselves or others down. We do not second-guess and we let go of the need to consciously control everything, freeing our automatic processes, such as our skill execution to do their job. This also allows us to allocate this crucial mental energy to taking in the performance environment and task at hand. Lacking confidence and trust in our ability leads to self-focussed attention, which has been linked to choking under pressure and anxiety.
Challenge-skill balance – We increase the chance we will experience flow when we train and compete at a level of demand that matches our skill so we do not find success too easy or too hard. Matching skill and challenge in training situations leads to more chances of flow occurring. Competing or performing at the right level for you can predict flow.
Emotional wellbeing & energy – If you are stressed, tired and strung out there are no stars that can align to get you in the zone. Our work/life or performance/life balance must be cared for, and our stress management skills honed, so we can increase our resilience and energy for performance situations. Flow is associated with positive mood and there are many ways to improve our mood and therefore improve our chances of experiencing flow. Music and imagery create a killer combo when it comes to quick mood adjustment. Also improving one’s emotional intelligence helps us to regulate mood when needed.
Energy levels associated with flow are complicated. Some report it to be a mixture of being energised but grounded and in control; a calm powerful state where we can access energy without getting overwhelmed or drained. There are several grounding and energising techniques we can learn to determine our own combination of calm and energised, as there is likely to be individual differences here.
Thoughtless thinking and sense of knowing – Flow is associated with a clear mind and efficient effortless mental processing. We do not think in thoughts and deliberate on choices logically. When we stop thinking, we open up the time and energy to improve perception and action at an automatic (or instinctual) level. It is as if there is a sense of knowing what we are doing and trusting ourselves to observe it taking place. A sense of knowing allows us to let go of mental control, which feels great. It is a pleasant surprise when we recognise that our training and experience has paid off with this autopilot-like feature.
Mindfulness and self-awareness exercises both in our performance setting and in everyday life can enhance our ability to achieve this clear mind and thoughtless thinking. It helps us to balance our experience of the observing and judging minds. Following our instincts more and letting go in training and practice and not being afraid to be instinctual and make mistakes also helps us to trust ourselves and follow that sense of knowing that comes with experience. We all have an individual way and style to perform and when we are in line with our natural way, we think less and feel more. When we notice our language centres quieting and our perceptual centres amplifying consciousness we are on the right track.
Game-sense and social cohesion – How we train and how positive our relationships are with the people in our performance world, whether it be our teammates or coaches, can influence the likelihood of flow occurring. Highly structured rule-based drills and repetitive training exercises are sometimes necessary but can reduce enjoyment and flow. When it is possible to replace skill drills with skill games that are more interactive, require quick thinking and observation and creative control, enjoyment increases and people tend to operate in a more present moment attention state to meet the multiple demands of a game. The nature of a game is a very different environment mentally and physically to a drill. Game-sense coaching principles are well documented and if you want to know more about this philosophy you can.
Social cohesion and positive relationships also increase enjoyment, motivation and the chance of experiencing flow. Humans are social creatures and we tend to function optimally in socially reinforcing situations, especially supportive accepting groups. A positive social environment, with positive communication also allows people to feel safe to be themselves, take risks, and reduces self-focussed ego-based thinking. To improve social cohesion, coaches can reduce the focus on winning and increase the focus on cooperation and improvement as a group. Competitiveness is important and must be valued I believe but all too often, winning and the most skilled people are praised and losing is seen as toxic. If the training environment is not balanced between competition and cooperation, winning and improvement, people will struggle.
Tips for Getting into the Zone
These tips are probably just the tip of the iceberg, but I think this is a great way to unpack the fundamental contributors to achieving flow in your performance world.
A Sport and Performance Psychologist can assist with enhancing your ability to access the essential ingredients for flow in your performance world. This is by no means a perfect recipe but the below ingredients represent a summary of what I have laid out above:
- Present moment task-focused attention;
- Mind-body connectivity;
- Confidence and self-belief;
- A balance of challenge/task-demands and skill/ability;
- Emotional wellbeing and positive mood;
- Energised but grounded and calm;
- Thoughtless thinking;
- Sense of knowing and trusting instincts;
- Game sense principles in training;
- Positive social environment.
If you are interested in finding out more about how you can “get into the zone” and find the benefits of flow in sporting or other activities, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Abra Garfield, BPsych, MPsych (sport & exercise), MAPS; Medicare ATAPS provider.
Abra Garfield is an endorsed Sport and Performance Psychologist, with a passion for helping others to achieve optimal performance whether on the sports field, in the classroom, home or office. By drawing on a range of therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Motivational Interviewing, Abra helps many people with goal setting, motivation, and overcoming anxiety.
Abra is the Principal Sport Psychologist and founder of Summit Performance Psychology. Visit the Summit Performance Psychology website to learn more or like us on Facebook to receive Summit Performance Psychology Articles and event updates.
Psychologist Abra Garfield has moved.
Find his details on his website: Summit Sport & Performance Psychology.