Sport Psychology (PSY407)
FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks-me-high) is credited with being the originator of the
FLOW concept. FLOW is not an acronym, but a way of expressing a sense of seemingly effortless and
intrinsically joyful movement.
You experience FLOW when you are engaged in an interesting activity for its own sake and for no
other external purpose or goal. In his original conceptualization of the FLOW construct,
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) described FLOW as an end in itself, something that is to be enjoyed and
appreciated. The key term in the FLOW construct is that of the auto telic experience. An auto telic
experience "refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future
benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward".
The nine defining characteristics of the FLOW experience are:
Requirement of a challenge/skill balance.
Merging of action and awareness (sense of automaticity and spontaneity)
Goals that are clearly defined
Clear , unambiguous feedback
Total concentration on the skill being performed
Sense of being in control without trying to be in control( paradox of control)
Loss self-awareness ( becoming one with the activity)
Loss of time awareness
Auto telic experience (end result of all of the above)
The nine defining characteristics of the FLOW experience form the basis of an instrument developed
by Jackson and Marsh (1996) for measuring FLOW. The FLOW State Scale (FSS) is composed of
thirty-six items that measure the nine dimensions identified by Csikszentmihalyi. In studying the FLOW
experience, Jackson identified factors believed to facilitate FLOW, as well as the other factors believed
to prevent the occurrence of the Flow state.
Factors believed to facilitate or to prevent the occurrence of the Flow state (Jackson, 1992, 1995)
∑ Development of a positive mental attitude
∑ Positive precompetitive affect
∑ Positive competitive affect (during contest)
∑ Maintaining appropriate attentional focus.
∑ Physical readiness (perception of being prepared)
∑ Unity with teammate(s) and /or coach
∑ Experiencing physical problems and mistakes.
∑ Inability to maintain appropriate attentional focus.
∑ Negative mental attitude
∑ Lack of audience response
Sport Psychology (PSY407)
Goal Setting in Sport
It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to become a world champion in any sport. An accomplishment of this
magnitude is only realized through the judicious setting of daily weekly and long-term personal goals. Goal
setting is a theory of motivation that effectively energizes athletes to become more productive and effective.
Goal setting by athletes represents either internal or external motivation, depending on whether or not the goals
are internalized and personalized.
Basic Types of Goals And Their Effectiveness
There are three basic types of goals that have been identified in the sport psychology literature. These three
different types of goals are outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals.
Outcome goals focus on the outcomes of sporting events and usually involve some sort of interpersonal
comparison. A typical outcome goal might be to win a basketball game, place first in a volleyball tournament,
defeat an opponent in tennis, or finish the season with a winning record. It is very typical of coaches to speak in
terms of the number of wins they hope to have in a particular season.
Performance goals specify an end product of performance that will be achieved by the athlete relatively
independently of other performers and the team. A typical performance goal for an individual athlete might be
to strike out seven batters; score twenty-five points in a basketball game serve five aces in a tennis match, or get
fifteen kills in a volleyball game. Intuitively, athletes and coaches should prefer performance goals to outcome
goals for two fundamental reasons. First, if performance goals are accomplished, there is a good possibility that
outcome goals will also be accomplished. Second, personal satisfaction can be realized from the achievement of
performance goals even if outcome goals remain unfulfilled.
Process goals focus on specific behaviors exhibited throughout a performance. The important thing for the
athlete and coach is that they understand clearly the distinctions between the three and use them all effectively.
Reasons Goal Settings Results in Improved Performance
There are four basic ways in which goal setting can influence performance.
1. Directed attention
Goal setting causes the athlete to focus her attention upon the task and upon achieving the goal relative to the
task. When she has no specific goal, the athlete's attention wanders from one thought to another without any
particular direction. Setting a specific goal causes the athlete to focus her attention on that goal and upon the
task that is associated with that goal.
Focusing the athlete's attention on a specific takedown move and practicing it until it was mastered would make
it possible for the athlete to achieve his goal.
Sport Psychology (PSY407)
2. Effort mobilization
Once an athlete's attention is directed towards a particular goal, it is necessary for the athlete to put
forth the effort necessary to achieving that goal. The very act of increasing or mobilizing effort will
have a positive effect upon improved performance.
For example, consider the bowler who wishes to consistently bowl a score of around 250. To bowl
consistently in this score range, the athlete must be able to follow a strike with another strike, or at
least a spare. Goal setting will therefore have an effect of increasing the athlete's effort during practice
so that he can accomplish his goals.
A third way that goal setting influences performance is through persistence. To be successful, an
athlete must persist for a long period of time. Persistence is a by-product of effective goal setting. As
long as the goal is present and the athlete wants to obtain the goal, he will persist in the effort needed
to accomplish it.
Take the example of Tiger woods; thirty days after winning the U.S Open by fifteen strokes, Tiger
woods won the British Open by eight strokes. In doing so he accomplished a career Grand Slam at
age twenty-four. Woods now masters in both U.S open as well as the British Open.
4. Developments of new learning strategies
Goal setting promotes the development of new learning strategies. Without goals for improvement, an
athlete is content to get along with the learning strategies and skills that she currently possesses.
Setting of new goals not only directs attention, mobilizes effort, and nurtures persistence, but it forces
the athlete to learn new and better ways of accomplishing a skill or task.
For example if the athlete is successful in setting and meeting process goals, improved performance
and outcome should be the result. It is interesting to note while watching major league baseball that
the catcher will frequently remind the pitcher of a particular process goal relative to pitching
technique. For example if the pitcher starts to drop his delivery release point* sidearm delivery) the
catcher often mimics the correct overhand throwing action to remind the pitcher of correct technique.
Which Types Of Goals Are Best?
A number of investigations have been conducted contrasting the three different types of goals.
Outcome goals, performance goals, process goals, are all good but research supports the position that
a multiple goal strategy is the best.
Used in isolation, outcome goals are probably the least effective, but when used in conjunction with
performance and process goals, they are helpful. It would seem that a goal-getting strategy that uses all
three types of goals is best for the athlete in terms of psychological development, achievement and
Cox, H. Richard. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications. (Fifth Edition). New York:
Sport Psychology (PSY407)
Lavallec. D., Kremer, J., Moran, A., & Williams. M. (2004) Sports Psychology: Contemporary Themes. New
York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers
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