This elusive feeling of flow

Walking the alleys of endurance psychology, the term “flow” appeared many times. Flow, a feeling many runners mention to describe some of the special moments in this experience called running. Flow is a state of consciousness in which a person becomes fully immersed in activity. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as a state of complete decline in activity. Flow can be defined as a state of focus in which a person is completely immersed in his work. He describes it as the “optimal experience.” Of course, the motivation for an activity in which one experiences flow is first of all the activity itself.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are ten factors that accompany the flow experience. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience them all for flow to occur:

  1. The activity is substantially rewarding.
  2. There are clear goals that are challenging but still achievable.
  3. There is a full focus on the activity itself.
  4. People experience feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  5. People have feelings of peace and loss of self-awareness.
  6. There is immediate feedback.
  7. People know that the task is doable and there is a balance between the skill level and the challenge presented.
  8. People experience a lack of awareness of their physical needs.
  9. There is strong concentration and focused attention.
  10. People experience a lack of time, or a distorted sense of time, that involves feeling so focused on the present that you lose the sense of time that passes.

Stoll & Ufer review the issue of flow in sports. They describe the experience as being “in the zone”, reaching a state of flow that allows the athlete to experience a loss of self-awareness and a sense of complete control over performance. Attention and performance occur spontaneously and without a sense of effort, like autopilot, without distractions or negative thoughts, so this situation is considered an important factor in achieving good results. Various researchers describe ways to control the flow state and utilize it for the benefit of the athlete. Some athletes actually describe an experience of awareness of effort, but one that is combined with a feeling of physical capacity, and an endless supply of energy.

Ten factors were found to be associated with the onset of the flow state: focus, preparation, motivation, arousal, thoughts and feelings, self-confidence, environmental and state conditions, feedback, performance, team play, and interaction. These factors, whether they appear before or during the sporting event can promote or delay a state of flow. But since flow is a subjective state, it is necessary to understand the individual differences that affect the appearance and experience of flow. Individuals with low anxiety levels and positive feelings about their emotions were found to have a higher probability of experiencing flow. Researchers argue that sustained physical exertion such as long-distance running leads to a state of flow and a feeling of effortless attention, loss of sense of time, and a fusion between activity and awareness. From my own experience these are some of the sweetest moments of my runs.

Is it possible to control the sense of flow? Indeed, many people claim that they can return to a state of flow even if they have been distracted from it. Others say that they prolong the feeling of flow by positive distractions and disengagement from the task. It is interesting to learn that those who set themselves “open” goals (such as: how far can I go) reached a state of flow, as opposed to those who set themselves closed goals. However, various studies have not found an unequivocal relationship between the state of flow and the quality of performance these athletes.

In long-distance running, an indirect relationship was found between flow and performance: flow during a marathon had a positive effect on motivation to continue running in the future. And I think: Maybe it is all about continuity? Does setting open goals that encourage a flowing situation actually contribute to long-term motivation to keep running? Undoubtedly the flow is a positive experience that has a clear impact on people’s confidence and well-being, but no less important – it encourages them to persevere in training.

The use of the flow experience takes place in the worlds of therapy by sports, painkillers, post-trauma PTSD, occupational therapy, and today also in medicine by virtual reality. In post-trauma sufferers – the motivational effect of the flow experience is found to be extremely important. Studies show the contexts but still fail to indicate the cause. However, it can certainly be said that the sense of flow raises the level of motivation and plays an important role in various rehabilitation processes. Regarding performance improvement? This is still unanswered at this time.

Ref’s.

What is a Flow State? By Kendra Cherry, February 17, 2022, Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD.

Csikszentmihalyi M. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books; 1997

Flow in sports and exercise: A historical overview, Oliver Stoll & Michele Ufer, in: Advances in Flow Research, Editors: Corina Peifer & Stefan Engeser. 2019.

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