Sports Psychology Flow

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.

Theoretical Background

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.

Measuring Flow

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.


  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: HarperCollins.
  4. Jackson, S. A. (1995). Factors influencing the occurrence of flow states in elite athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 7, 135–163.
  5. Jackson, S. A. (1996). Toward a conceptual understanding of the flow experience in elite athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 67, 76–90.
  6. Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  7. 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.
  8. Jackson, S. A., Eklund, R. C., & Martin, A. J. (2010). The FLOW manual. Menlo Park, CA: Mind Garden.

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