By Abid Iqbal Choon
If you play sports, competitive online games, or just about do any other task, there must be some instances where you felt like you were so ‘absorbed’ into the task that you are doing, such that you do not even notice the flow of time and as a result you actually do your task effortlessly and exceptionally. In a branch of psychology called positive psychology (which deals with using scientific understanding to produce a positive outlook of life), such a state of mind is called flow and has also been dubbed as ‘the zone’ by many athletes and sports players. This phenomenon has been named by a Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me high. Chick sent me high!”, get that right!). It has been named ‘flow’ due to several people describing their experiences as being carried by a water current.
Being ‘in the zone’ is the holy grail of competitive sports. One might achieve something spectacular (like breaking a world record or have a personal best) with it. An example is Michael Jordan during the 1992 NBA championship series against the Portland Trailblazers. He hit seven 3-pointers in a row and scoring 35 points in the first half. He himself was puzzled and couldn’t explain what happened.
Learning what enable this state of mind will not only be useful in competitive sports, but in many other areas of life since we will be able to be ‘in the zone’ and accomplish more with such mental state. There must have been instances where you realized to do the same work, you needed, say three hours but when you are ‘in the zone’, you just need half an hour to finish the work. In general, it is safe to say that being in the state of mind of flow will improve our daily life quality.
But, how do you open the door?
It can happen when doing any task at hand but most likely it will happen when you are doing something that you intrinsically enjoy; purely because you truly love the task, or maybe because you have a deep motive for doing the task, for example, when revising a lecture for the day, you are actually revising it because you just love learning in general or you are interested in the topic that is covered in the lecture and not just for the sake of exams. (I know, this hurts right?) However, note must be taken there is no way to ‘forcefully open the door’ and to ‘enter the zone’ at will and by taking note of the components below, one can only increase the likelihood of being in the flow state of mind.
Csikszentmihalyi has identified the following 9 components of the state of flow:
• Challenge-skills balance
This just means that you know and are confident that you have the skills in order to rise to the challenge encountered.
• Action-awareness merging
Being so absorbed in the activity or task that you are currently doing, with a tunnel vision that makes you to not take notice of anything else.
• Clear goals
When you have a clear goal in mind about what to achieve, specifically with the task at hand.
• Unambiguous feedback
Real-time feedback such as from coaches and fans if you are in a competition, for example.
Focusing the task at hand with full concentration and without other distractions
• Sense of control
Sense of control is heightened especially when you know you are in and can control the outcome of the game
• Loss of self-consciousness
This happens when you are not constantly self-aware of your own success in the game and just trying to focus in the moment.
• Transformation of time
You will lose track of the time flow in this state.
• Autotelic experience
As explained above, you have the internal drive, from within, and not for any other external reward to succeed in the task that you are doing. In other words, you do the task because you just love it a lot.
The Experience Fluctuation Model
In 1987, the 8-channel model of flow, also called the Experience Fluctuation Model was published by Csíkszentmihályi and co. It shows the relationship between one’s perceived challenges and perceived skills which will affect their mental state. As it can be seen from this model, the flow state is more likely to occur when the perceived challenges and skills are above than average. However, there are several problems with this model. One of them is that a study showed low challenge situations which are surpassed by skill are associated with enjoyment, relaxation and happiness, in which they claim, contradicts the flow theory. 
Taking this model into account, if challenges exceed skills, it will make us anxious but if skills exceed challenges, we would just be very bored, like that one classmate that sleeps in the Further Maths class because it is too easy for him (and gets 100% anyways). So applying this in a competitive sport perspective, to enter the flow state of mind, say tennis for example, your opponent must be good enough to make you play your best game and not feel bored but not too good such that you are unable to make any plays against him/her. In other words, playing an opponent around your skill level will most likely make you enter the flow state.
When one plays a game or a sport competitively, they might not remember why they enjoy the game so much in the first place since they are too fixated on winning (which produces frustrations when mistakes are made and that will probably make one perform worse). In the Prince of Tennis anime, the secret of unlocking the Pinnacle of Perfection (TeniMuho no Kiwami) which can be compared to the ‘magical’ flow state, was to have fun in the game, even if the stakes are high. Having fun in the game and just focusing in the moment allows you to not focus on anything else that does not require your attention and in return, allows one to be one with their play in the game. Thinking about the consequences of losing the match can also hinder one from being ‘in the zone’ in any important match.
Flow, now what?
Primarily, as discussed above, in a flow state, as one is working to master and conquer the challenge at hand, it necessitates a growth principle or mindset in the individual. In order to maintain the flow state, greater challenges need to be seek (more than current skill) in order to sustain the drive for the particular task. A sort of self-fulfilling prophecy can happen as well since if one enters the flow state and performs better in the tasks at hand, and by performing the tasks well, it motivates one even more to perform better and this would make one to maintain the flow state better.
Of course, another consequence of being in the flow state is that it is able to “produce intense feelings of enjoyment” since you have a better performance at doing the things you truly enjoy. In the long run, it can lead to a positive mindset and happiness. Since Csíkszentmihályi stated that happiness is derived from personal development and growth (which is one of the reasons for flow), therefore the flow state allows one to develop themselves even more which leads to happiness.
All in all, focus is pretty much the key to performing well in anything that we do. As they say, a laser sharp focus can even break a diamond!