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To feel completely at one with what you are doing, to know you are strong and able to control your destiny, at least for the moment, and to gain a sense of pleasure independent of results is to experience flow.

Being in the zone, in tune, or on autopilot, are all ways of describing a flow state in sports. It’s within these periods of total control that we thrive, that our pursuits feel completely natural and effortless. For many, this is the holy grail, the reason we do our sports in the first place, but these moments can sometimes be fleeting.

In 1999, the book Flow In Sports was released, a book that broke down the keys to achieving this zen-like state in our sports. Written by Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the book remains an important piece of work in modern sports writing.

In this serialisation we break down the nine chapters for you, giving you insight into how we all can experience flow more often, and acknowledge the right mix of conditions needed to achieve it.   

Defining Flow

Men and women have learnt to use the body in ways to bring mental and physical enjoyment. Whether it’s painting and sculpting, making music, or swimming, these endeavours are as much about accomplishing a goal, as they are enjoying the experience.

Flow is that sacred ground where performance and pleasure converge. A state of consciousness where you become totally absorbed in what you are doing to the exclusion of all other thoughts.

“Flow is about focus,” writes Jackson. “More than just focus. Flow is a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred.”

Although people often associate flow with peak performance, flow doesn't depend on winning and most often delivers a feeling more valuable that a medal. Perhaps this is why flow has an intrinsic link with solitary pursuits like skiing, snowboarding, surfing or climbing.

Challenge And Skill Graph - Flow State

The Challenge-Skills Balance and Flow

If a challenge is too easy, we can do it without thinking, which often leads our minds to wander. To achieve flow, we need to be presented with a challenge that we believe we can do, but that requires concentration and our best effort.

Having clear goals helps to focus our attention so intensely that we have no time or space in our minds to think about ourselves or other problems. By striking that perfect balance between our level of ability and a challenge that requires all of our skills, means we can hit that perfect line of concentration.

Why Flow is Important

When we’re concentrating, we usually put in our best effort, which pushes us to the edge of our limits. This is the main reason why flow is associated with peak performance. However, flow also has a close link with progression as the need to push the challenge-skill balance increases.

Naturally, as we become more accomplished in our chosen sport, we need increasingly more difficult, or complex opportunities to keep those scales even.

Too easy, and it’s not going to be fulfilling, but if we choose challenges that are too difficult, then we run the risk of missing the experience in a futile pursuit of victory. It’s that middle ground, that momentary experience that we need to hold on to as that’s where happiness and enjoyment truly lies.

Understanding flow allows you to develop as a sportsperson, but the fundamentals of flow are also applicable to other aspects of your life, allowing you to approach situations less stressed and chaotic, but calm, poised and focused.