In the zone: how to hack flow for performance and well-being

 Sophie pascoe, new zealand's most successful paralympian, knows how to enter flow.

Sophie pascoe, new zealand's most successful paralympian, knows how to enter flow.

There is a lot of talk in sporting circles about ‘the zone’, or 'flow'. It is a mysterious and often illusive place from which peak performance naturally 'flows'. While many refer to it and even experience it from time to time, few can put their finger on what it actually is. Fewer still are able to access it on demand. This means that the majority of athletes only experience their best rather irregularly, or even accidentally. Yet, flow is said to underpin every gold medal ever won!

Personally, I love flow. I love how it feels and I love what it produces. Most of all, I find it fascinating and I love helping people understand and experience their best through finding more of it. 

Flow has been the topic of a great deal of research within Psychology, with elite performers from the worlds of extreme sports, chess, music and art, all of great interest to researchers of flow. The research to date has uncovered some fascinating stuff – here is what you need to know:

What is flow?

  • Flow is both a peak performance and peak experience state. This means that when in flow you feel your best and function your best. Unsurprisingly, people who experience the most flow in their lives also tend to be the happiest.
  • When in flow, time is altered – it appears to slow down or speed up – hours feel like minutes or actions unfold in slow-motion.
  • When in flow, everything feels right, you feel intensely alive and deeply connected to all around you.
  • When in flow, the pre-frontal cortex (the part of your brain that houses your inner critic), temporarily shuts down. This is called transient dorsal hypofrontality, and is the reason why your sense of self disappears in flow. As this happens, you lose the ability to calculate time, which enables you to feel fully present and free from worry about the past or anxiety about the future. How good is it to be free from that nagging inner voice!?
  • When in flow,  your body floods with six pleasurable and performance enhancing neurochemicals. These heighten your awareness and information processing, making you up to 500% more productive, creative and motivated.
  • Flow is not a permanent state, but occurs in a 4-step cycle of struggle; release; flow; recovery. Therefore, our goal is to help you experience more flow, and enter it on demand, but not for you to live in flow.

So, how do you find flow?

Leading Positive Psychology researcher, Martin Seligman suggests that “Flow is entered when your highest strengths are used to meet challenges”. The first step to finding flow is therefore to develop a deep understanding of yourself – what are your personal strengths? What are you thinking, feeling and focusing on when you are at your best? Knowing this enables you to intentionally bring your best self to challenging situations. This self understanding is potentially your greatest performance asset. With this, the second step is to take an attitude in which challenges are embraced. By accepting and leaning into challenges, you are able to move beyond fear and into flow. It is this attitude or 'letting go' that enables the five neurochemicals of flow to flood your body, helping you feel and perform at your peak. 

Once you are in flow, it is about staying there as long as you can. Any distraction can take you away from this state. The most common distractions, and the greatest barriers to flow, are thoughts about outcomes. Whether these thoughts are about success or failure often doesn't matter, as both can be harmful to performance by taking your focus away from the present. This is why good coaches tell you to 'control the controllables', 'focus on the process' or 'stay in the moment'. This need to stay focused only on the present moment was also a key theme that emerged from my research with former Australian Cricket captains, as captured in the following quote:


“One of the strengths of really good players is moving on. Putting that behind you and moving on. Just looking for the only thing that is important and that is the next ball that is bowled and doing something about that.”


Unsurprisingly, these sporting legends had not only recognised the importance of flow, but also developed strategies to stay in flow for long periods. Equally important was that they identified flow as a key factor in their overall well-being. Their strategies for staying in flow typically boiled down to two things: 

  1. A personalised routine that made them feel good and brought their attention back to the moment.
  2. An attitude in which enjoyment of the contest/challenge was seen as the ultimate. This enjoyment enabled them to relax, which in turn gave them the best chance to perform at their peak. 

So, flow is both a peak performance and peak experience state, which means we will all benefit from finding more of it. In saying this, it is important to remember that every individual is unique, which means that we all have different formulas for finding flow. This is why understanding yourself, your unique personality and strengths, are absolutely crucial to you reaching your peak. 

With this in mind, I encourage you to think of finding flow as a skill, one that can be improved with practice, just like any other skill. The importance of this cannot be understated, as alluded to by one of Australia's greatest cricketers, who I interviewed for my honours research:

“I felt like the game was about 90% mental and 10% skill, and we work on the skills 90% of the time and probably the mental side 10% of the time. I feel like we had it the wrong way around.”  Former Australian Cricket Captain. 

So, what's your formula for flow?

RUNNING FREE: WHAT USAIN BOLT TEACHES US ABOUT POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

On August 14, 2016, the world watched in anticipation as Usain Bolt attempted to become the first athlete in history to win 3 Olympic gold medals in the 100m sprint. As the cameras scanned the line-up, we saw close-ups of the seven athletes seeking to deny Bolt this final glory. Their faces fiercely focused, as you would expect in the lead up to the moment they had dedicated their lives to for the past four years, or more.

And then, the camera panned to Bolt. His beaming smile bringing mighty cheers from the Rio crowd. The cheers grew louder still as Bolt proceeded to pull faces to the camera and jiggle with rhythm befitting of his Jamaican DNA. In this all-important moment, with the expectation and pressure of the world upon his shoulders, Bolt stood out from his rivals. Instead on narrowing his focus, he broadened it. Instead of looking anxious, Bolt looked...well...happy. 

The race began and, as is often the case, Bolt was last out of the blocks. His main rival Justin Gatlin of the USA took a clear lead. By the half way mark, Gatlin appeared to draw further ahead. The world held its breath and the thought of a beaten Bolt became a real possibility. Then, with about 40-metres between him and his legacy, Bolt unwound. As we have come to expect from this great champion, he found another gear, striding through the field, leaving Gatlin and co fighting for silver and bronze. In characteristic Bolt fashion, there was no final dip at the line for a better time. Instead, the celebrations started early as he seamlessly strode through the line and into his victory lap! He proceeded to pose with mascots, lean in for selfies with spectators and leave his shoes with a young fan.

It is difficult not to love watching Usain Bolt. His energy is infectious and the pre and post race antics entertaining to say the least. However, the spectacle that is Usain Bolt teaches athletes an important lesson. A lesson backed up by rigorous research in the field of Positive Psychology.

So, what’s the lesson?

In short: positive emotion improves performance. In a world where the prevailing formula is ‘success brings happiness’, such a claim may be quickly dismissed. However, this formula is broken. It is around the wrong way. Research from the field of positive psychology is showing us that in most contexts, happiness actually brings success. See, Bolt wasn’t just smiling, in a good mood and feeling alive after he crossed the line. He was equally as positive when taking his place in the start blocks (I encourage you to go back and watch a replay and compare Bolt to the other athletes on the line).

But how does this make Bolt (or you) run faster?

There are numerous reasons why positive emotion can fuel performance, but essentially the research boils down to the fact that feeling positive broadens the thoughts and actions available to us in each moment (see Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden and Build theory'). To see this in action, think of a time when you felt negative or stressed, what were you thinking? Chances are you couldn’t see past the problem. Now think of a time when you felt really good, what were you thinking then? Chances are you felt optimistic and could see countless possibilities and solutions. This is because positive emotion floods the body with dopamine and serotonin, which dial the brain's creative and learning centres up to higher levels. And when you feel positive and excited about challenges, more blood actually flows to the working muscles, increasing physical performance. 

A recent study from the German Sport University measured the influence of anxiety and happiness of sprint performance. The researchers found that athletes who were induced into a happy state prior to sprinting ran significantly faster than when they were induced into an anxious OR neutral emotional state. Back to the 60-meter mark of the Olympic final, had Bolt been in an anxious state, fearing he may be beaten, he likely would have. It was here, however, that his pre-race positivity appeared to keep him relaxed and in the moment, enabling him to stride into top gear. In the end, eight milliseconds was the difference between Bolt claiming his legacy and an Olympic upset. 

The mini-moments matter, and so does your mood.