Monday, February 26, 2007

In the "Zone": What Others Think of Flow

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (pictured left) is famous for his naming of and research on "flow," or the point at which heart, mind, and will are all synchronized and working together, and concentration is a conscious-less feat. Flow can be experienced while doing almost anything—from knitting a sweater to computing a math problem—as long as the person is not using conscious thought, the activity is challenging, and his or her skill level meets that of the challenge. Athletes who are experienced in a sport often experience flow, because they are able to play without actively thinking about what they are doing. Most of the time players refer to this as "being in the zone," which is key for confidence and concentration when competing and practicing. This week I found blogs that are about flow and related them to sports through questions and comments (my remarks are available at those posts as well as below). The first response is to Dr. Ted Klontz and Dr. Brad Kontz's post (they are a father and son team), which aims to offer consultation to individuals and companies. I found this post to be well written and thoroughly thought-out, and agreed with much of what they wrote. The second response is to Mr. Ewout Stam's personal post, who regularly writes opinion articles on productivity and software. His piece was very opinionated and at the same time a little too vague.

In response to your post, I found some "strategies" to be confusing: first, I thought flow was only achieved when the person was fully immersed in their activity, and not consciously thinking of what they are doing. For example, people who play sports get so involved in the game that they do not actively think about what move they will make next, but they just know it is the right move to make. If this is true, then would not holding a conversation with someone (which requires much cognitive functioning) not be considered a "flow" activity? Second, the fourth strategy is confusing in that it seems as though "being active" is equated with experiencing flow. Although I certainly agree that taking a proactive jump at life is better than sitting back and watching TV, I think if you said "become good enough at an activity so that flow may be achieved in the future," the statement would hold more true to Csikszentmihaly's ideals. If people start endeavors at which they are not skilled, they experience anxiety or arousal, not flow.

When you say "Flow takes a bit of time to 'get into,'" that brings up many more specific questions in my mind. How long would you say an average athlete takes to get into "flow" during a game? Do you think they jump right in and experience flow from the moment they touch the ball, or may they possibly have to play for a while before they can get into the zone? Or perhaps if they are truly concentrating on their game, they can achieve flow in warmups even before the game has started? Also, what are your thoughts of whether players can be in flow for longer periods of time because they do not really have the distractions of, say, the office? When I watch football, I believe the players only experience flow while the play is going, but as soon as the whistle blows their flow is interrupted. Basketball players on the other hand do not have their plays frequently start and stop, so therefore they can experience flow for longer periods of time. Is flow such a fragile thing that can be broken easily, or is it something that is stronger; something that can withstand a large crowd of fans or a break between plays? Please tell me what you think.

2 comments:

Ewout Stam said...

I have posted a reply to your comment about flow on my blog:

http://www.ewoutstam.com/2007/02/20/flow-for-fun-and-profit/#comments

Dr. Brad Klontz said...

Thanks for your comments. I am a clinical psychologist with an expertise in sports psychology and peak performance (among other things). I am also an ex-college athlete, coach, and tennis club pro, so I am intrigued by your thought provoking comments and blog. Below are my responses to some of the excellent issues you raised:

“I thought flow was only achieved when the person was fully immersed in their activity, and not consciously thinking of what they are doing.”

Flow is not a lack of cognition but rather a lack of self-consciousness due to full immersion in an activity. Athletes experiencing flow will often engage in complex cognitive tasks, although without much self-awareness. For example, before beginning a point, a tennis player may plan to hit a kick serve to the opponents backhand and rush the net with the goal of hitting a sharp angle volley to the forehand side. However, the advanced player experiencing flow would not consciously think about how to hold the grip on the serve, when to take a split step, remembering to follow through to the target, etc.

“…would not holding a conversation with someone (which requires much cognitive functioning) not be considered a "flow" activity?”

It can be easy to “lose yourself” in a stimulating conversation and achieve flow. In fact, I think I am experiencing flow right now.

“the fourth strategy is confusing in that it seems as though "being active" is equated with experiencing flow. Although I certainly agree that taking a proactive jump at life is better than sitting back and watching TV, I think if you said "become good enough at an activity so that flow may be achieved in the future," the statement would hold more true to Csikszentmihaly's ideals.”

I agree with you that activity in and of itself does not equal flow. However, research shows it is easier to achieve a state of flow in certain activities more than others. My intention was to offer some ideas to my readers regarding activities that are more likely to produce flow.

“If people start endeavors which they are not skilled at, they experience anxiety or arousal, not flow.”

Being unskilled at an activity will not necessarily keep you from experiencing flow. Nor is it true that all flow experiences result in excellent athletic performance. Achieving flow involves matching your skill level to an appropriate level of challenge. As long as you are not approaching an activity in a way that is overwhelming or underwhelming, it is possible to achieve flow. For example, a tennis lesson aimed at a novice’s skill level can be a flow experience. However, thrusting that same novice into a highly competitive tennis match with people much more skill than he or she would likely induce a sense of self-consciousness and anxiety rather than flow.