The State of ‘Flow’ and Combat Sports

The state of ‘flow’, often referred to as being in ‘the zone’, is an important concept in psychology, especially in sports psychology. The flow state, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a state where a person is completely absorbed in a task or activity, particularly one which involves creativity. It occurs when a task is being performed that is difficult and requires concentration, yet is performed in a manner which feels effortless, natural and without deliberate thought. Flow state, therefore, is the state of mind conducive to the greatest level of growth and achievement in relation to a skill, task or action. There are several steps necessary to achieve a flow state, per Csikszentmihaly. These are, briefly, as follows:

  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.

A flow state can occur during any activity, even a task as mundane as eating food or cleaning dishes. However, it is usually associated with activities such as art and especially sport. Indeed, many elite athletes in professional sports have described the flow state, or ‘being in the zone’ as a critical element of their success. Scientific research backs up these claims, showing that the flow state directly correlates to improved athletic performance. According to several studies, achieving the flow state is associated with a measurable reduction in the amount of errors made in a sporting situation, as well as a heightened state of overall awareness, leading to enhanced performance.

Control over the mind and thoughts is especially important in combat sports. These sports are often characterised by the casual observer and non-practitioner as being only concerned with physical strength and ability. The mental and psychological aspects of these sports is often overlooked or dismissed outright. From personal experience as a practitioner of Muay Thai kickboxing, I argue that this could not be further from the truth. The ability to perform in any sport, especially a combat sport such as Muay Thai, requires complete control of one’s mental state, thoughts and emotions. The ability to control your mindset and thoughts in relation to executing a task in a state of flow is essential for a combat sports practitioner, particularly the latter stages relating to distraction, fear of failure and self-consciousness is critical. All the physical conditioning and preparation counts for naught if training occurs under during a state of mental anxiety, unease and self-consciousness. A routine training task, such as hitting pads or shadowboxing can one day be relatively simple and the next day exhausting if emotions are not kept in check. This disparity in exertion for the same task becomes even greater if emotions are not kept under control in a more complex situation such as live sparring. Coming to terms with this fact and mentally training to attain a state of flow has become the primary ongoing obstacle for me to overcome in my Muay Thai training. As difficult as the physical fitness aspect of training in this sport has been thus far, training the mind to be calm under duress has been far more difficult an obstacle to overcome.

Though I have used the example of Muay Thai to illustrate the concept of the flow state and the importance of controlling the thought process in mastering skills and executing them in an effective manner, flow state can occur in any instance. The process of outlining clear goals, deconstructing the goal into manageable yet challenging steps and then practicing these with a positive mindset that focuses on practice as an opportunity to learn and develop, rather than as something to feel apprehensive or self-conscious about is a process and mindset that can be applied to anything in life. An awareness of how the flow state occurs and how to work towards it can improve performance in all manner of tasks.


In Defence of Mixed Martial Arts

The sport of mixed martial arts, or MMA, is growing at an exponential rate. The sport is as big as it has ever been by any commercial measure and media coverage of the sport is at unprecedented levels. Athletes such as Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have transcended the sporting landscape into popular culture, bringing the sport of MMA to new audiences who previously unaware or uninterested in the sport. For all its growth however, particularly in Australia, the sport still has many critics among the mainstream media.

Following the UFC’s first event, UFC 193 at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia last month, many columnists and opinion writers in Australia’s newspapers and magazines took aim at the UFC and the sport of MMA. Among the most vocal of critics was Peter Fitzsimons of the Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote a piece after the event which was scathing in its criticism of the sport. It is clear from the outset that he has little, if any knowledge of the sport. His first claim, a popular one among those unfamiliar with MMA and the UFC, is that bouts are essentially no-holds-barred fights. This has not been the case for many years, since the very first UFC events of the early 1990s. Modern MMA, under the unified rules, has a clear and extensive range of rules and regulations which prevent particularly dangerous strikes or grappling techniques. Another, even more bizarre insinuation, one which is shared by his Sydney Morning Herald colleague Sam Varghese, is that the participants are somehow competing against their will. Varghese even goes as far as likening the bouts to human cock-fighting, a comparison first made back in the 1990s by United States senator John McCain. It is important to remember, however, this quote was made in the context of MMA being essentially a no-holds-barred sport in its infancy. The sport has moved on since then, with changes even being acknowledged by McCain. The lingering stigma and prejudice against the sport from many in the media, however, has not.

The prejudice against MMA, particularly when considered against the broader Australian landscape and culture in general, is perplexing, to say the least. Australia has a long and storied tradition of sports which are physical in nature, such as Australian Rules football, Rugby League and Rugby Union. The physicality of these sports is a central part of the sports themselves as well as their appeal to mainstream Australian society. In each of these sports, injuries are frequent and sometimes debilitating. Yet, in the case of these sports it is rightly accepted that harm and injury is a natural risk associated with participation. Even boxing, despite being a combat sport, is not held to anywhere near the same level of scrutiny as mixed martial arts is among Australian media. This is despite boxing actually being a more dangerous sport overall than MMA, despite common misconceptions.

As is all too often the case in modern society, broader social issues such as street violence, aggressive public behavior and domestic violence are blamed on a single factor, in this case the sport of MMA. Despite offering no statistical evidence or even a specific anecdote to draw upon, Fitzsimons confidently asserts a direct correlation between the increased popularity of MMA and increased violence in Australian society. Street violence and domestic violence are of course pressing issues which must be addressed by society. However, to claim that the presence of MMA in Australia worsens such issues, without evidence to back it up, is simply wrong. Banning the UFC from Australia, as Fitzsimons pleads for at the end of his piece, will not reduce rates of street or domestic violence. By removing a sanctioned, regulated platform for people to compete in MMA, the sport will simply be driven underground, with less oversight and much more danger for participants. That scenario, rather than the current situation where MMA and the UFC are legalized in Australia, would be a truly worrying prospect to consider.