How to achieve the "Flow State" in Athletics and Life

By: Phil Del Vecchio III, M.A.

Truthfully, the concept of Flow, in and of itself, is a paradoxical state of mind.  The concept has elicited detailed descriptions and analyses, yet “it” (that is the Flow state) is experienced as a fleeting moment in time.

“Flow” is a state of mind – achieved when athletes feel completely engaged in their performance, lose their perception of time, concentrate on the moment (without distraction or dilution), and, perform at extremely high levels.

Essentially, these are the moments in sport that we as athletes, coaches, and consultants are all striving to accomplish. Not only has the Flow state of mind been linked with outrageously positive accomplishments in sport, it is also the state of mind that has been shown to offer us meaning in our lives.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or “Chicky”, as most of us (his students) refer to him, first presented his research on the Flow state decades ago, and has continued this lifelong research throughout his illustrious career.  Click here to see Chicky on TED TV talk about “Flow”.

He has taught us that everyday life is filled with challenges, and it is how we respond to those challenges that define us.  Although this advice might sound contrived, it is anything but; Chicky means to suggest to the world that it is our own appraisal of the challenges that we face that define our entire lives.

In fact, there is a systematic and empirically researched method, known as the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) that has provided results that suggest we can all find the Flow state of mind in many different settings, and that the challenging situations we encounter are actually just opportunities for us to flourish. If we don’t perceive these life challenges in such a positive appraisal we will most likely become bored, uninterested, apathetic, and more importantly, more likely to perform below our true potential.

At this point, I hope that you have all come to the conclusion that the theory behind the Flow state of mind is mostly anecdotal; to which I certainly agree. And from what Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has told me, he has no intention to develop a more applied approach to Flow theory. You see, Chicky is grounded in theory and typically pursues the clean evidence that supports his idea. That being said, it is of no disservice to his intellect that I propose a few applied methods for us to use in our own lives, and performance situations that Csikszentmihalyi has not yet suggested himself. Simply speaking, I have found a process that can help athletes become more aware of the challenges that they face, and manipulate their perceptions and arousal levels such that they increase their propensity to achieve the Flow state of mind.

The academic literature on this topic is in its infancy, so I applaud those of you who take the following suggestions with a grain of salt, but there are a few strategic ways to find the Flow state of mind in applied settings, such as athletics. Mainly, the process all starts with your approach:

1. Be mindful (aware, but non-judgmental) about your thoughts and feelings as you approach your competitive environment.

2. Decide whether you feel anxious because your perceived skill level is not high enough to match your perceived level of challenge, or if you feel somewhat bored because your perceived skill level is above you’re your perceived challenge.

3.  If anxious, use an arousal control technique, such as relaxation, to relieve your anxiety; If bored use a focusing technique, such as imagery, to increase your concentration.

4. Visualize yourself becoming fully engaged, prepared, and confident when you step up to your opponent.

5. Let yourself become engaged, feel the Flow state of mind, and have fun competing.

Former MLB recruited baseball player, professional level snowboarder, and experienced baseball coach, Mr. Del Vecchio III is a Sport and Performance Consultant with an M.A. in Sport and Performance Psychology from the University of Denver. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Colorado, Boulder and has not stopped his education since. Del Vecchio III currently attends Claremont Graduate University (Claremont CA.) where he contributes to research involving Mindfulness and Flow within sport organizations and consults with a Positive Psychology philosophical orientation. Mr. Del Vecchio III has worked with youth, high school, university, and professional level athletes meanwhile consulting with business people from companies such as Sony Ericsson, CBS Radio, and others. By May of 2011, Del Vecchio III plans to obtain another M.A. in positive organizational psychology and evaluation, and looks forward to obtaining his PhD in Organizational Psychology in 2013. You can visit his website at tripleplayconsultant.com

11 thoughts on “How to achieve the "Flow State" in Athletics and Life

  • November 13, 2011 at 4:50 am
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    Hi. I just learned of flow force in Warren Miller’s film. I totally agree it is really real.
    Yours Corey.

    Reply
  • August 7, 2012 at 9:08 pm
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    Hi, I realized some time ago about the existence of the Flow, many times during competition, I found myself in this stage where I feel that everything moves very slow, even the ball in table tennis (which moves up to 80 miles per hour) was very slow. Also is sometimes risky, since you can not feel the injuries, and you keep playing making the injury even worst. Now I trying to find techniques to get in the flow. Thanks and very good article.

    Reply
  • October 7, 2012 at 7:27 am
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    Hi I had a flow experience yesterday. I am just struggling to recreate it because my mind keeps jumping back to “reality.”

    Reply
    • October 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm
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      Rowan,
      The “Flow” State by definition is totally focused on the NOW MOMENT – & – THE TASK AT HAND. When you consider that both are anchored in the reality of the moment and the reality of the task at hand, one can achieve a “Flow State” tying one’s shoes. Even by perceiving the challenge as nothing – a ‘MINDFUL’ focus on tasks as simple as this can enable one to achieve and practice repeatedly the “Flow State.” When the challenges become difficult enough for us to require “mindfulness” in accomplishing them – “Flow” comes more naturally…..especially when we practice on “any” chosen task no matter how simple. Good luck with that.
      doc

      Reply
  • March 26, 2015 at 4:48 am
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    Very well explained. I have been learning Flow and applied it during my Flow State training. It really feels great to be in state where you seem to be in your own world, without minding anything and enjoying the moment. I wished more athletes will be aware about this state cause it’s really good.

    Reply
    • May 4, 2015 at 8:22 pm
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      Good point Romeo,
      Stay tuned to a golf video that features a different form of discussion on this from the point of view of Justin Rose. It’s very inspiring and I hope to have it up in the next couple of days.
      believe in yourself,
      doc

      Reply
  • September 13, 2018 at 9:48 pm
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    Thank you. Great TED talk! I was inquiring about the video from the point of view of Justin Rose though. Maybe I misunderstood.

    Reply

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