Last week I talked about flow and the challenge/skill balance and suggested that rather than looking at the challenge/skill balance as fixed that it can be manipulated. This is done by using tactics to adjust the challenge/skill balance and in doing this increase the frequency and predictability of flow.

Picking up where we left off, let’s think about endeavors that require some combination of technical skill and decision making savvy; a ski run, rock climbing route, or a musical solo for example. To increase or decrease the level of challenge the skier can change speed or alter the shape and timing of their turns; the rock climber can make subtle changes to the tempo, rhythm, and sequence of their movements and use of holds. The musician might make subtle changes to the tempo and play especially challenging elements of the composition with differing degrees of intensity. In individual settings the performer always has some capacity to manipulate the challenge/skill balance, maximizing the likelihood of flow.

Situations where the individual is competing directly against others could be a little trickier. Consider running, riding bikes, auto racing, swimming, or Nordic skiing. Each racer is working with their own level of skill (including physical capacity such as speed and endurance), the types of challenges the course or distance presents, and the challenges posed by need to respond to the actions of other athletes in the race. Decisions about intensity level, pace, tempo, and the timing of  changes in pace and intensity are made throughout the race to match the individual’s unique blend of skill and capacity to the challenges presented.

The same challenge/skill balance that maximizes an athlete’s opportunity to succeed in a race against other people should also increase the likelihood of achieving flow.

Team sports that present a dynamic environment such as basketball, soccer, hockey, or lacrosse can be even trickier. There are more variables present, particularly the addition of team dynamics, strategy, and matches/mismatches of opposing players. The same rules of shifting the challenge/skills balance apply. Teams win by making decisions to create the best matches of player and team skill to the situation at hand. There are almost always multiple plays to be made, and a range of options for how to approach each play. Some plays will be less right than others, but there are almost always at least a few options available. The same decisions made to match player and team attributes to the challenges of each game should also maximize the likelihood of individual and team flow.

Next week we’ll conclude this series by discussing training approaches we can use to improve our ability to manipulate the challenge/skill balance to our favor. We’ll also look at toddlers again. Have fun out there.