Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sports: Golden moments of peak performance

On my list of five reasons I love sports is #4: They provide a "flow" experience: they are completely engaging and challenging.

In studying psychology in college as I prepared for teaching special education, I was introduced to the concept of "flow." Wiki-pedia provides this overview: "Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields."

Richard Bolles in his classic work on finding your life work (What Color is Your Parachute), talks about finding the activities where you lose yourself and time disappears. That's flow. The amount of "flow" time one experiences in a week seems to vary from country to country. In the US, it's less that two hours a week. Yikes!

However, if you know what you're looking for, things are easier to find. If you are looking for flow, you can find it. I consistently find flow in sports.

I love the "mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing." I love the "feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." Time disappears, and so do cares.

During the early 90's my family life revolved around helping my wife with her anti-cancer dietary regimen (Gerson). This diet involved consuming about 5,000 calories a day of high quality foods mostly in the form of juices and soups. All during the day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, we made fresh juices almost on the hour. This didn't leave a lot of time for sports, but...

I bought a portable volleyball net. We live across the street from a small park. On a Saturday, we'd set the net up, and bring a timer. On the hour, we'd take a break, and one of us would go make a juice back at the house. 45 minutes out of the hour, we experienced flow: energized, full involvement. All the cares of life disappeared. We re-created.

If sports can provide flow in the most difficult of times, they can surely provide it under the normal stresses and strains of life.

But flow is more than full involvement. It is "full involvement and success in the process of the activity." Sports psychologists speak of something called "peak performance." In the course of a game, good plays happen. Some plays make the "highlight reel." Momentary success unfolds in a peak performance. Oh, how sweet. Sometimes it lasts the entire game, but more often, it's more fleeting. But by being involved in the activity, chances of these "glimmers of greatness" or "sparkles of athleticism" break out. That's when I know, I am an athlete. And I smile. (I may be on the floor on my back after having made a diving play, but I'm smiling.)

Sports is not the only place flow happens, but for me, it is a consistent occurrence. That's one of the reasons I stay involved as a participant.

Once in a great while, in the midst of an athletic contest, I'll find my mind wandering to some stress situation, usually work-related. I hate that. I resent that. I feel violated by the intrusion. When such a thought occurs, it's usually a sign that something is really, really bothering me, and I'd better do something about lessening the stress. Later, I will deal with the "tresspasser." But right then, I need to get my head back in the game.

Sports are not just engaging, they are challenging. Electronic games use increasingly difficult levels to maintain interest and challenge. Game developers understand flow, and they use it to create games that compel you to keep playing.

A good sports game provides a flow experience and some golden moments of peak performance. But it doesn't stop there. The sports game also provides fun exercise, a social fix, a window into your co-players character, and... the opportunity to develop a strong work ethic. All good reasons why I love playing sports.


  1. These sports posts are motivating me to consider joining an organized sport. Before the kids, I enjoyed that feeling of flow and fulfillment from sports. I try to encourage my children to be active in sports. Good for the mind and the body. Another enjoyable, informative post Don. Thanks!

  2. @septembermom: Look out, you could find yourself with more energy, more endorphins, more tone, and more skills. If you're on the lookout, some sport will present itself. Let me know!


  3. I love the "flow" moments... I especially remember them while running the mile under the lights during high school track meets... They are surreal and addictive! :)

  4. @Miss H: I have to think that your hiking provides something similar these days: engaging and engrossing? But it is sweet to picture a mid-western night-time track meet. Small towns do sports in a big way. So great that Title IX prompted equal access for female athletes. My sisters only had GAA (Girls Athletic Association). Track and Field is great because there are so many varied specialties.

  5. You're right, I have flow moments while hiking too, some really incredible ones in fact... But, even still, my favorite flow moments would still be those barely-warm spring evengings running under the lights on our black all-weather track that circled the "sacred acre". :)

    P.S. I too am glad that I had the chance to experience sports of all sorts. It's just one more example that shows how far we've come in treating folks equally. Yeehaw for progress!

  6. @Miss H: I hear you. I'm glad hiking provides some opportunities for flow, but I understand that there are memorable, even "golden moments of flow." Some moments, some seasons, some situations come together to provide those "favorite flow moments." (And a tip-of-the-hat to an ex-miler. That is not an event for the faint of heart.)