Flow is a special psychological state of total absorption in a task. When in flow, athletes are fully focused on what they are doing, and this heightened attention is associated with a number of positive factors. Accompanying a focused mindset are factors such as knowing exactly what one is going to do and how one is doing, having a sense of oneness with the task being performed, and feeling in control of one’s performance. A number of factors have to be in place for flow to occur, and it’s not an easy state for most to attain. However, once experienced, individuals are motivated to re-experience flow, because of how intrinsically rewarding an experience it is. Understanding the flow experience is important because it provides a gateway to optimal subjective experience.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the flow concept in the 1970s, after investigating the experiences of individuals when everything came together during times of involvement with a chosen activity. The types of activities initially investigated by Csikszentmihalyi were diverse, ranging from surgery to dancing to chess and rock climbing. Despite such diversity in setting, there was considerable consistency of responses regarding what was felt during moments that stood out as being special in some way for the individual.
Since his initial investigations where the term flow was chosen to denote these special absorbing experiences, Csikszentmihalyi has continued a research program examining this experience. Flow has been examined across diverse settings, from daily living to a state of mind associated with scientific discoveries. There has been remarkable consistency in how flow has been described by individuals across diverse settings. In addition to the enjoyment that flow brings an individual, the experience of flow is associated with many positive psychological characteristics, and is an optimal performance state. Flow has been identified as a key psychological construct in positive psychology, a growing field of interest in psychology, particularly with regard to positive subjective experience.
The Experience of Flow
When in flow, one feels strong and positive, not worried about self or failure. Flow can be defined as an experience that stands out as being better than average in some way, where the individual is totally absorbed in what is being done, and where the experience is very rewarding in and of itself. This definition covers several characteristics of flow, and Csikszentmihalyi has detailed the experience of flow into nine dimensions.
The first and perhaps most critical dimension of flow is the concept of challenge–skill balance. Flow is predicted to occur when the individual moves beyond average experience of challenge and skill. The moving beyond average signifies an investment of mental energy into a task. When the perceived challenges are matched by a belief in having the skills to meet the challenge, the stage is set for flow to occur. The perception of challenge, and of skill, is more important than any objective level of challenges or skills in flow state. That is, prediction of the experience of flow is more accurately based on what individuals perceive the levels of challenge and skills are in situations than by reference to the levels of challenges and skills that may actually exist in those situations.
In flow, one is totally involved in the task at hand. Flow can occur at different levels of complexity but, by definition, flow is intrinsically rewarding, regardless of whether it involves a simple task, or a complicated and dangerous gymnastics routine. Csikszentmihalyi categorized the different levels of flow into micro and macro flow experiences.
Micro flow experiences were proposed to fit the patterns of everyday life, whereas macro flow was reserved for experiences associated with higher levels of complexity and demand on the participant. These latter experiences are often associated with peak performance and peak experience.
The Dimensions of Flow
Csikszentmihalyi conceptualized the flow construct in terms of nine dimensions; the first of these dimensions, challenge–skill balance, has already been described. The other dimensions are action–awareness merging, clear goals, unambiguous feedback, concentration on task, sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, time transformation, and autotelic experience. Together, these nine dimensions represent the optimal psychological state of flow; by themselves, they signify conceptual elements of the flow experience.
The action–awareness merging dimension involves a feeling of being at one with the activity being performed. Often used in descriptions by people asked to discuss what it was like being in flow, perceptions of oneness with an activity bring about a sense of peace and harmony to an active engagement with a task. For some performers, feelings of automaticity are described, with well-learned routines enabling them to process subconsciously and pay full attention to their actions.
Clear goals occur in flow, with individuals describing knowing exactly what it is they are supposed to do. Such clarity of purpose occurs on a moment-by-moment basis, keeping a person fully connected to the task and responsive to relevant cues. Closely associated with clear goals is the processing of how performance is progressing in relation to these goals. This is the dimension of unambiguous feedback. When in flow, feedback is easy to receive and interpret. The performer receives clear, unambiguous information that processes effortlessly, keeping performance heading in the right direction.
The next dimension of flow is total concentration on the task at hand. This is one of the clearest indications of being in flow—one is totally focused in the present on the specific task or activity with which one is engaged. Being totally connected to the task in which one is engaged epitomizes the flow state. This connectedness relies on a present centered focus; flow resides in being in the present moment.
A present-centered focus leads to the next dimension of flow, known as having a sense of control over what one is doing. Being fully connected to the task or activity in which one is engaged allows a person to perceive a sense of control and confidence in what one is doing. This is an empowering feeling, and one that frees a person from a fear of failure that can creep into performance. The absence of thoughts of failure enables an individual to engage in the challenges at hand.
Loss of self-consciousness is another flow dimension, one characterized by a lack of concern about what others may be thinking of them. A lot of the time people live their lives surrounded by evaluations of how they are doing. This sense of evaluation can prevent a full focus on the task at hand. Because flow is defined by being totally focused on the task at hand, it allow for a loss of self-consciousness during engagement in an activity.
A sense of time passing differently defines the dimension of flow known as time transformation. For some, the experience is that time stops. For others, time seems to slow. Or it may be that time seems to pass more quickly than expected. These sensations come about through the intensity of involvement in flow. Because awareness is tightly focused during the intense concentration of flow, people can lose track of time, and afterwards can be surprised by the actual passing of time that has occurred during their task involvement.
Autotelic experience is the final flow dimension, and is the end result of the coming together of the previous eight dimensions. Autotelic experience describes the intrinsically rewarding nature of flow. As described by Csikszentmihalyi, the word is derived from two Greek words that describe doing something for its own sake (auto, which means “self” and telos, which means “goal”). The idea is that experience of flow is sufficiently enjoyable as to be, in itself, a much sought-after and self-rewarding state. The nine dimensions of flow provide a conceptually coherent framework for understanding optimal experience.
Flow in Sport
Research on sport involvement was a part of Csikszentmihalyi’s landmark 1975 book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, wherein the flow construct was initially conceptualized. Investigation of flow and related concepts (e.g., peak experience, peak performance) in sport started to become evident in the literature the 1980s. In the 1990s, Susan Jackson’s systematic qualitative and quantitative efforts to understand the athletic flow experience led to the 1999 publication of the Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi book Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Jackson’s in-depth qualitative examination of athletes’ flow experiences, for example, have demonstrated strong support for Csikszentmihalyi’s nine-dimensional model. Across various quantitative studies, positive associations between flow and several important constructs in sport psychology, including task-focused motivation, perceptions of ability, self-determined forms of motivation, hypnotic susceptibility, and use of psychological skills have been reported as well as consistent negative relationships between flow and anxiety. Factors perceived by athletes as influencing flow were identified in Jackson’s research that served to provide useful understandings of antecedent and disruptive factors. Examples of factors perceived by athletes to influence whether or not flow occurred during their performance included level of motivation toward the performance, physical preparation and readiness, confidence, and focus. Considerable interest in the flow construct led to development of different ways of empirically studying flow, and this research effort has made flow a more accessible psychological concept for the applied researcher and also to practitioners interested in flow in their performance settings.
Interest in the flow concept has led to a range of approaches to tap into this experience. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches have been used to assess flow. In-depth information about the experience of flow has been obtained through interviews. Sampling of experience as it occurs through the use of pagers programmed to sound at random times has been another approach used to assess flow. Self-report questionnaires are part of this approach, known as the experience sampling method. The development of self-report questionnaires that can be administered after performance, as well as more generally, has facilitated assessment of flow along with other psychological constructs, to understand factors associated with the flow experience. The set of Flow Scales developed by Susan Jackson and colleagues provide researchers and practitioners with a range of measurement options for assessing flow. These include scales based on the nine-dimensional flow model, assessed at state and dispositional levels.
Flow is an optimal psychological state that occurs when challenges and skills are balanced and extending an individual. The total focus of flow and the associated positive experiential characteristics of this state provide an opportunity for individuals to move their experience from average to optimal. One outcome of this heightened level of experience is that peak performance is often achieved. However, flow is important not so much for any performance outcomes that may ensue, but primarily for the opportunity it provides to experience full engagement in the present moment.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: HarperCollins.
- Jackson, S. A. (1995). Factors influencing the occurrence of flow states in elite athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 7, 135–163.
- Jackson, S. A. (1996). Toward a conceptual understanding of the flow experience in elite athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 67, 76–90.
- Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Jackson, S. A., & Eklund, R. C. (2002). Assessing flow in physical activity: The FSS-2 and DFS-2. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 24, 133–150.
- Jackson, S. A., Eklund, R. C., & Martin, A. J. (2010). The FLOW manual. Menlo Park, CA: Mind Garden.