Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t ask me how to pronounce his name) both pioneered and popularized the concept of “Flow” in athletic competition. Simply put, “flow” is a psychological state that allows people to perform at their potential. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the key to achieving flow is to allow one to become fully absorbed inane activity. It may sound hippity-dippity, but the physiological research supporting the concept is both substantial and profound. Generally speaking, athletes who employ techniques that are help them become immersed in an activity exhibit different neurological activity during their performances than those who don’t. Most of the time, these changes are accompanied by substantially superior athletic performances. Having employed Csikszentmihalyi’s techniques as both an athlete and and a coach (I’ve been practicing them professionally as a coach for the greater part of the last decade), I’ve had tremendous success following his protocols; I’ve summarized a few of the key concepts here in hopes that you find them useful in preparing for your next athletic endeavor.

Csikszentmihalyi identifies several ways athletes can go about psychologically preparing (or training) themselves to more easily achieve an immersive state. Many of you who regularly attend our Group Training classes are familiar with these cues. “Focus on your movements, the mechanics, and the thing syou need to be doing to ensure that you’re moving properly” is almost directly lifted from Csikszentmihalyi’s Focus on the Present principle. Similarly, if you’ve ever heard us tell you to focus on the variables you can control rather than the ones you can’t, then you’ve heard Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on Controlling the Controllables. Just like any training program, there’s no one universal cue that will prompt every athlete to drop into a Flow state. Different techniques work differently for different people. That said, there’s one cue that tends to work pretty well for a wide range of individuals, particularly as they’re faced with apprehensions about their performance at an upcoming event, called Finding the Challenge / Skills Balance. 

In his book Flow in Sports, Csikszentmihalyi presents a framework that illustrates – both literally and figuratively – the range of emotions and emotive states athletes are likely to feel prior to an athletic competition. He does so with a simple graph – on the X Axis, he’s charted Skills. Skills are the capabilities athletes have accumulated through the hours of training they’ve put forth. On the Y-Axis are Challenges. Challenges can be events, key workouts, or competitions – anything that will test an athletes capabilities. Athletes who pick a challenge that doesn’t adequately test their skills, or who pursue a challenge that far exceeds their skills don’t tend to get all that nervous prior to an event. Why? In the former case, they’re subconsciously secure in their knowledge that they’re doing something that’s well within their reach; they’re positive that the outcome will be in their favor. In the latter, the opposite is true. They know for a fact that they’re in over their heads, so all they can do is hope to go out and enjoy it. Athletes who pick challenges that adequately test their skills, on the other hand, tend to get quite nervous, as they’re subconsciously aware of the fact that the upcoming event is truly going to test their capabilities. In this sense, the presence of ‘nerves’ is actually a good thing, as they’re indicative of one’s inadvertent recognition that one is both:

  1. up to (or has the skills for) the upcoming challenge, challenge, and;
  2. Aware of the fact that success will not be a given.

Such apprehensions can also be detrimental to performance. If left unchecked, nervous energy can quickly turn into panic, which can introduce dozens of thoughts that prevent one from focusing on the task at hand. Even worse, these thoughts can quickly create a closed-loop of negativity which is impossible to recover from; When distracted by negative thoughts, athletes fail to recognize the reason WHY they’re nervous in the first place is because they’re well-prepared.

To prevent such tailspins, stop them before they start. In the days prior to an event, force yourself to think just as much about the work that you’ve done to prepare for the event as you do the challenges you’ll face within it. As the event gets closer, force yourself to recognize and accept the fact that the reason why you’re nervous is because you CAN do the work that’s required of you, and remind yourself that the reason why you’re nervous is because you’ve picked a challenge that’s sufficient to challenge the skills you’ve developed. In this sense, you’ve already won – 99% of people in the world wouldn’t have been able to challenge themselves the same way you’ve chosen to.