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.