Why is flow such a big deal? There seems to be a fundamental paradox in how we look at flow; on one hand many people consider Csikszentmihalyi’s concept as an ideal performance state, on the other many of the same people struggle to achieve a Flow state with any frequency. Flow just starts to seem like some sort of ephemeral ideal, to be enjoyed during the rare moments it occurs, but not to be counted on.
The key ingredient for flow is an optimal balance between the difficulty of the task and the individual’s level of skill. The level of challenge must be high enough to demand the performer’s full attention without overwhelming their skills, thoughts, or emotions.
I believe that the struggle to achieve flow is frequently caused by falling into the mental trap of believing that the difficulty of the task and the ability of the performer are, at a given point in time, fixed quantities. The key either fits in the lock or it doesn’t. Given all of the other uncontrollable variables present in the performance environment this makes finding the right challenge/skill balance pretty arbitrary.
What if we could reliably create the right challenge/skills balance?
Let’s look at toddlers. Toddlers are wired to learn and perform skills. In a toddler’s world success, skill, and competence are measured in effort and engagement. Until roughly the age of six, if the child works hard and is engrossed in an activity then they consider themselves good at it. I’m pretty sure that toddlers spend quite a bit of their time in flow states.
Watching my son learn to ride his kick bike has been instructive. We usually ride in a cul de sac, he starts by making a series of laps around the circle. With every lap he changes something to increase the challenge. He continues to increase the challenge to the point of failure and then backs it off slightly. Then he rides more or less at that degree of difficulty. Usually he’s completely engrossed for at least five minutes and sometimes for as long as an hour.
The trick in creating flow experiences is in manipulating the challenge/skill balance to our favor. This is nothing more than tactics. Think of all the skill-related variables present in your sport or activity. Assuming a reasonable level of skill there are usually multiple pathways a performer can take to a successful result. We use tactics to take control of matching our own unique skills and other attributes to the unique demands of the situation in such a way that we are creating the optimal challenge/skill balance. Just like a toddler.
Next week we’ll look at how to do this on game day and in settings where the performer doesn’t have the luxury of setting the pace. Have fun out there.
Just an awesome song…