Coaching 'flow'

The concept of flow is used to describe optimal performance. Characteristics of flow include time dilation (or contraction), using psychic energy to concentrate only on the task at hand, loss of focus on self, and a feeling of oneness between the athlete, the action, and the environment in which the action occurs. In athletic events flow might happen by chance in seemingly random or unplanned activities but it is more likely that flow would occur in structured situations.

Swim training offers a good example of how flow can occur since much of the endurance type of training in swimming consists of repetition of specific distances on an interval. For example, a training set might consist of 10 x 200 on 3:15 ("ten times two hundred meters leaving every 3 minutes and 15 seconds"). The amount of rest the athlete gets between efforts is determined by how fast they swim each 200 m distance.

If the athlete's skills match the requirements of the training set then an achievable challenge has been created and it is possible to achieve a flow state during the set. If the athlete's skills are such that the interval is not challenging or the opposite, that the athlete can't possibly cover 200 meters even once in 3:15 then the flow state cannot be achieved and something has to be adjusted. Either the distance has to be made shorter or the interval increased. For flow to occur the activity must challenge the athlete's ability but not so much that success is unlikely.

Enough psychic energy needs to be used to accomplish the training set in order to prevent other distractions from interfering. Here the level of the challenge also plays a role. Sets that are too easy or too difficult will not engage the athlete enough to devote psychic energy to accomplishing it. If the set is too easy then psychic energy will be used to concentrate on other things; too hard and no concentration on the set will occur at all.

A well designed training must meet the following criteria:

  1. It is designed to that desired training effects are actually reached.
  2. It presents an achievable challenge to the athlete.
  3. The set encourages the athlete to focus attention on the task.

Creating a flow environment

It is one thing to understand the concept of flow but quite another for coaches to be able to implement training and practice strategies that encourage flow states in their athletes. Flow is a psychological state and consists of nine components:

  1. Balancing challenge and skills
  2. Merging action and awareness
  3. Having clear goals
  4. Receiving unambiguous feedback
  5. Concentrating on the task
  6. Having a sense of control
  7. Losing self-consciousness
  8. Feeling a transformation of time
  9. Being rewarded simply by performing the activity (autotelic experience)

Coaches must create an environment where these components work together. Based on the nature of some of the components coaches may not be able to affect all of them and should focus on those they have direct control over. The athlete's role cannot be discounted. The old saying "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," applies to any training environment. Coaches can structure the environment so that flow becomes possible but they can't create it directly, that's up to the athlete.

As Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi noted in their 1999 book Flow in Sports, the flow experience "offers a state of being that is so rewarding one does it for no other reason than to be a part of it." It's easy to see why athletes would seek to repeat flow experiences. Since liking an activity enough to repeat it frequently is essential to becoming better at it coaches naturally have an interest in creating environments where these experiences exist. At the youth level especially, a coach is able to shape the practice environment so young athletes will look forward to their sport experiences.

The good news is that sport provides flow experiences almost half the time while other less physical activities provide far fewer opportunities to experience flow. So whether the activity is based on individual or team participation the most important part of the flow equation may simply lie in making it fun. But manipulating flow components varies a bit between team and individual sports.

Individual sport

A swimming coach could create a flow environment when teaching technique by having the athlete focus on specific parts of the technique. Counting strokes per length is a tool for developing efficiency: The fewer strokes an athlete takes the more efficient the stroke becomes. Focusing only on this, however, leads to very efficient but slow swimming since it's easy to exaggerate the stroke so much that the athlete moves slower and slower as the number of strokes decreases.

The coach knows that efficiency is only part of effective technique so a quick 'flow fix' would be to have the athlete continue to count strokes per length but also focus on hitting a certain time in each effort. This requires a broad internal awareness of stroke length and rate, and maintaining a steady streamlined kick during each effort. At the end of each effort the athlete checks the time to see if the prescribed goal has been reached. The athlete has several options on each effort that will keep keep their mind on task, changing stroke rate or length, and kicking faster can be combined in different combinations. The challenge is hitting the right time with the lowest stroke count on each effort and since the variables are independent of the student's skills they already have the requisite skill level.

Though only a very basic example, this kind of set illustrates how mental and physical focus can be achieved. Almost any level of swimmer would be able to use the variables and achieve some measure of success. Paying attention to the variables would help create a flow environment because the athlete would have to be focused on what he was doing to achieve success.

Team sport

Creating flow experiences in team activities is different because multiple team members are involved in most activities. Practicing individual skills in a training session resembles individual sport more than a team activity since individual efforts are the focus of such activity. Coaches can design flow experiences into team activities though by emphasizing the merging of action and awareness, identifying clear goals, and providing unambiguous feedback.

Simulation training can be used to create a flow environment in team activity. The simulation resembles the actual competitive environment that athletes will play in, much like a dress rehearsal. After the athletes have learned the skills involved in the activity (usually a play or series of plays) the simulation allows the skills to be practiced as a whole. An effective simulation will allow the plays to be repeated enough so that athletes will be able to perform them without anxiety. Simulation also helps remove the competitive novelty from actual competition environments.

Practicing the plays as a team allows players to merge their actions with an awareness of how those actions are important to the overall strategy, which includes the other players, where they are on the field, and how their actions affect those of the other players.

Coaches who create flow experiences in practice situations will have better practices because athletes will want to be there more often. This addresses two problems found at the youth sport level i.e. attitude towards practice and frequency of practice. Understanding how to manipulate the components of flow to create better experiences for young athletes could result in fewer athletes dropping out of sport, a goal that both coaches and national sport organizations can embrace.