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.

Mindfulness and Meditation – A Primer

 

The concept of mindfulness is one which has been talked about much in the media and popular culture in recent times. This concept is often described as an antidote for the various stresses, anxieties and problems faced by large portions of the population. In the last decade mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has gained much mainstream traction in psychological therapeutic practice. Mindfulness is, simply put, a state of open and active attention to the present moment that is free of judgement. In this context, a judgement-free state of attention to the present moment means simply acknowledging the current moment as it is, whether it be a good or bad situation, without further emotional judgment. Rather than being preoccupied with thoughts about the past or the future, mindfulness, when practiced correctly, allows for calmer, clearer and more rational decision-making and thought. Mindfulness and concentrating on the task at hand, practiced over an extensive period, leads to a variety of quantifiable benefits, including reduced stress, increased memory and reduces emotional reactions to situations.   Though it is often talked about in relation to meditation, mindfulness can occur at any moment, during or outside a period of meditation.

Mindfulness and meditation are often coupled with Eastern religions and spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Though the practice originated with these traditions, mediation and mindfulness is not inherently a spiritual or religious practice. It is quite possible and in fact beneficial to de-couple the practice of meditation from religion. As famed neuroscientist Sam Harris notes, many meditative practices derived from Buddhism and Hinduism are inhibited by the beliefs associated with these practices. Rather than focusing on the beneficial aspects of meditation, these practices often concern themselves with ritual and religious dogma, much of which detracts from the act of meditation itself. One of the forms of meditation that avoids this pitfall is vipassana, or ‘insight’ meditation. This form of meditation focuses on non-judgemental attention to the present moment and creates the conditions necessary for mindfulness.

Many scientific studies have shown the clear psychological and neurological benefits to a regular practice of meditation. Despite its reputation as being an impractical spiritual practice, meditation has quantifiable benefits in a variety of ways. For a start, it has been proven to create more grey matter in the brain, which has a positive benefit on cognitive performance, processing of information and reactions to situations. Meditation practice has also been associated with changes to the amygdala, which regulates ‘fight or flight’ responses, allowing for calmer and more rational decision making under duress.

Meditation, like most new skills and practices, is simple to understand, but difficult to truly master. The first step, sitting down, closing your eyes and breathing, is relatively easy for most people. Being able to concentrate on the act of meditation without either being consumed by or repressing thoughts, however, is significantly harder. Distractions quickly arise and can easily overwhelm the beginning meditator. When this inevitably occurs, it is important to focus on an anchor, such as the breath to ‘reset’ the mind back on the task of meditation. Though the breath is a common and ideal starting point, anything can be used as an anchor. Developing an ongoing mindfulness and meditation practice is not an easy task. It requires discipline and work the same way as developing a consistent practice in any other activity does, whether it be an exercise routine, a diet or learning an instrument. For those willing to put in the effort of a consistent practice, however, the benefits are clear and worth the time investment.