Flow states and peak performance

mental skills coaching

Flow, as defined by Csikszentmihalyi, (2002) is a deeply rewarding experience characterised by an intense focus on activity to the point of becoming totally absorbed by it and excluding all other thoughts and emotions. The study of flow emerged under the increased focus in research investigating positive psychology. Seminal research examining flow and flow states was conducted in organisational psychology and has since generalised to a broad spectrum of expert domains, including sport, with Jackson (1992) producing the first scientific evidence of flow in sports. Flow states have often been associated with elevations in self-concept, positive subjective experience, and objective outcome measures of performance (Haworth, 1993).

Despite two decades of research, the concept of flow is markedly perceived as elusive and lacking in understating (Chavez, 2008, Aherne, Moran & Lonsdale, 2011). Studies have focused primarily on defining and characterising flow experiences. This has led to a notable discrepancy in the knowledge that limited the extent to which practitioners and coaches can practically implement strategies targeted to optimise flow for performance: While flow has been acknowledged as correlating with the execution of peak sporting performance, in training or competition, the operating mechanism through which flow influences performance remain elusive. However, recent investigations have endeavoured to identify conditions conducive to creating flow experiences, factors inhibiting flow during performance and methods of restoring flow (Bakker, Oerlemans, Dermerouti, Bruinstt & Ali, 2011).

Firstly, to operationalize the phenomenon; flow is characterised by 9 dimensions, these dimensions are further categorised in to conditions or characteristics:

 Flow conditions are the prerequisites for the occurrence of flow experiences:

  1. Challenge – there must be a balance between skill and ability in the situation whereby success is a challenge but still attainable.
  2.  Goals – clear goal must be in place to facilitate monitoring of achievement
  3. Feedback – clear and unambiguous feedback regarding the extent goal attainment must be available.


Flow characteristics describe what an athlete experience during a state of ‘flow’

  1.      Concentration on task
  2.      Action awareness
  3.      Low self-consciousness
  4.      Sense of control over their actions
  5.      Transformations of time – athletes often describe their peak performances as being like an out of body experience where event either happened in slow motion or time passed so quickly and effortlessly that they find the event difficult to recall.
  6.    The final dimension of flow is the presence and combination of all characteristics simultaneously.

To translate the description and understanding of flow experiences for athletes to practical guidelines for coaches to increase and enhance flow experiences and subsequently improve performance, further studies identified that certain dimensions of flow were more salient than others. Examining athletes’ perceptions of the most important dimensions that influence the extent to which flow is achieved and investigating the mediating effect of environmental factors on these dimensions has commenced. Research of this nature has provided practical guidelines for coaches and suggested optimal strategies to promote flow states during training and competition.

A recent study examined the relationship between three environmental factors (autonomy, coach support and feedback) and flow among talented Dutch soccer players (Bakker et al. 2011). Interestingly, this study is one of a limited number to investigate flow experiences in a team sport, flow research has predominantly focused on individual sport, however, preliminary investigations and previous evidence of group dynamics in team sports demonstrate that individual experience have a contagion effect on the group; Guzzo and Shea, (1992) presented the team effectiveness model to explicate how intragroup inputs combine to influence intragroup processes and ultimately influence group outcomes. Thus, understanding the interaction between individual athletes’ experiences flow and group outcomes is salient to apply practical interventions targeting increased flow in team sport settings. The study used self-reports completed by both coaches and athletes and objective outcome measures of performance during a soccer match.

 The results showed that coach support and feedback correlated with the presence of flow during performance, but not autonomy. Creating a supportive environment and providing clear, goal orientated feedback will increase the presence of flow. It is suggested that this is a result of providing athletes with the opportunity to realise their self-regulatory capacity and secondarily increasing feelings of self-efficacy and auto-telic (self-directed) motivation to seek out further opportunities to experience the inherently rewarding flow state. Importantly, the authors noted that flow may impair the ability of athletes to stick to tactics, becoming absorbed in the action and forgetting to attend to opponents weaknesses or pre-decided game plays. Further research examining flow in team settings is warranted to identify possible limiting factors of flow and appropriate interventions to combat any deleterious effects on performance.

Swann, Reegan, Piggot and Crust (2012) in their recent systematic review of the literature investigated the experience, occurrence and controllability of flow states in elite sport.  The results showed that certain dimensions of flow occur more consistently than others, specifically, concentration (reported in 75% of studies) action based awareness (reported in 50% of studies) and loss of self-consciousness (reported in 30% of studies). Additionally facilitators and debilitators of flow states have been identified. These should be considered when coaching and planning for training/performance environments to encourage the frequency and controllability of flow experiences among athletes.

Facilitators to flow states are subdivided in to intrinsic factors, extrinsic factors and behavioural factors.

Intrinsic factors

–           Focus

–          Arousal

–          Motivation

–          Thoughts

–          Emotions

Using mindfulness, self-talk and task orientated goal setting can optimise intrinsic factors to achieve flow (Swann et. al 2012)

Extrinsic factors

–          Environment

–          Feedback

–          Coach support

–          Leadership

Using creating a mastery orientated environment that provides a balance between skill level and challenge, clear goal-orientated feedback and implanting self-evaluative, reflective practice is recommended to optimise extrinsic factors associated with achieving flow. External factors that increase athletes’ perception of efficacy and controllability of flow attainment will provide motivation and opportunity conducive to more frequent flow experiences (Swann et. al, 2012).

Behavioural factors

–          Preparation

–          Imagery

–          Self-regulation

Increasing athletes’ mental skills through the use of pre-performance routines and self-regulatory exercises in training conducive to controlling focus and attention will enhance their perception of and ability to achieve and restore flow experiences during competition.



Aherne, C., Moran, A., & Londsale, C. (2011). The effect of mindfulness training on athletes’ flow: An initial investigation. The Sport Psychologist, 25, 177-189.

Bakker, A., Oerlemans, W., Demerouti, E., Bruins Slot, B., & Karamat Ali, D. (2011). Flow and performance: A study among talented Dutch soccer players. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 442-450.

Bernier, M., Thienot, E., Codron, R., & Fournier, J. (2009). Mindfulness and acceptance approaches in sport performance. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 4,320.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Haworth, J. (1993). Skills-challenge relationships and psychological well-being in everyday life. Society & Leisure, 16, 115e128.

Jackson, S., & Roberts, G. (1992). Positive performance state of athletes: Towards a conceptual understanding of peak performance. Sport Psychologist, 6, 156-171.

Jackson, S., and M. Csikszentmihalyi. (1999). Flow in Sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Swann, C. Keegan, R,J. Piggott, D. Crust, L. (2012) A systematic review of experience, occurrence and controllability of flow states in elite sport. Psych sport & exercise, (13) 807-819.