Updated: Jun 4
Flow can be seen and described as an expression of what you currently know how to do. There is a match and symmetry between your skillset and the challenge that is in front of you.
The below image of THE FLOW CHANNEL captures where and how you can reach a flow state.
As you can see from the diagram there is a FLOW CHANNEL running through the middle diagonal. This is what is also called the “Goldilocks” effect. Not too hot, not too cold, the one that is just right.
At point 1 on the diagram, you will become anxious if the challenge is too high and your skills are too low. Inversely, at point 2 on the diagram you will become bored if your skills are too high, but the challenge is too low.
You want to get yourself to point 3 which is the sweet spot where your skills are matched to the environment you are in.
This blog will look to give you an understanding of flow as well as the practical tools to use to get into your flow channel for best results when it really counts. But accessing flow will not be available to you without a lot of deliberate practice to back it up. Your skills need to be honed and crafted. You need to "reach and fail" many, many times first. To ensure your skills are high and match the high challenge in front of you, you need to get your deliberate reps in. Work on mastering the art of showing up, time and again.
Being in flow is the ideal state to be in during matches and situations of high stakes. This is where you can express your current skillset to its maximum and become removed from the winning and losing. You can get lost in the moment and you can begin to lose a sense of time.
You need to be slightly outside of your comfort zone to get the most out of yourself and to access the flow state. Studies are showing that if you can expose yourself to roughly 4% above your skillset this is the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety.
“The tougher and closer the competition, the more I enjoy golf. Winning by easy margins may offer other kinds of satisfaction, but it's not nearly as enjoyable as battling it out shot by shot right down to the wire.” – Jack Nicklaus
THE DIRTY, HARD WORK
No matter how much you want to strive to be in the flow state and reach this every time you play; the dirty, hard work needs to be done to get there.
I write a blog on this subject called Deliberate Practice – Why You Should Lean Into “Reach and Fail”.
As you now know from the above model, the ideal flow state happens when your skills are high, and this is matched to a challenge that is also high. The challenge will always feel too great if you have not put the technical, tactical, physical, and mental work in. So, you need to get out there and “reach and fail”, get intentional and deliberate with your practices, get your reps in, master the art of showing up, and especially so even when you don’t feel like it.
You need to continually work on and hone your skills. You want them to be as high as possible. Knowing that the higher your skills are the better the chance of you reaching the flow state should be, and that should be inspiration enough.
I mentioned it briefly above, there is a lot of evidence now pointing to something being called the 4% rule. The 4% rule is very hard to measure specifically and accurately, but it’s a good way to think about your environment you are exposed to and how to create your environment to practice accessing the flow state. The proposal is that you will increase the chances of finding flow if the challenge, your environment, is 4% higher than the skills you currently have. Can you find an opponent 4% better than you? Can you change the drill to be 4% out of your comfort zone? Can you put limitations on yourself about certain shots that make them 4% harder to execute?
Later in the blog I address ways to deal with a mismatch in skills vs challenge. But more on that later.
THE SCIENCE OF THE ZONE
Specific parts of the brain are activated when in flow and other parts of the brain decrease in activity. When in flow, the activity in the frontal lobe decreases and this then means the volume of inner chatter is turned down. This in turn minimises chatter about the past or the future. What remains is the present and the task you are focussed on.
Your automatic nervous system is split into two-parts. Your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze responses) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest). Usually, 1 system is less active while the other is more active. But while you are in flow your brain activates both parts of these systems in your body at the same time. This allows you to be calm while you are active. Intense but not distracted.
The activation of the two systems releases several chemicals that enhance performance, reduces pain, and induces pleasure and euphoria.
ATHLETES IN THE ZONE
When interviewed, athletes say they are calm and focussed on the task at hand. There is not incessant attention to the score or negative eventualities. Flow is a blissful place where body and mind can become one. There becomes a greater sense of where the next shot would be played, or the next movement should be executed.
Below are some direct quotes form athletes who have performed on the highest stages and accessed flow when it really mattered. Think about some of the words and phrases they use and look out for the common ones that keep popping up time and again.
STEPH CURRY (basketball player) – “The game is slow. It just feels so comfortable, smooth, natural. It’s the confidence that when I’m out on the floor only good things are going to happen. Any move I want to make it happens. I’ll miss shots but there is a flow to everything that I do. It’s cool. I’m on cloud nine”.
TIGER WOODS (golfer) – “I tend to have these blackout moments where I don’t remember. I know I was there, but I don’t remember actually performing the golf shot. I’d get so entrenched in the moment my subconscious takes over. I am just enthralled in that moment”.
SIMONE BILES (gymnast) – “I just fallback on training and do what I’ve done. Because once you’re up in the air you don’t have time to think about what’s happening. And it all happens so quickly. It’s mainly just autopilot which I’m very thankful for. So, you just have to get in your mode, and you go. Before I do a routine, I just think confidence and how many times I have done this routine. I just try to relax and just think about it right before I go”.
SERENA WILLIAMS (tennis player) – “There is a state I like to get into. I like to call it my zen state. My zen state is just quiet time and reflective time. And thinking about what I want to do on the court. I get really focussed. I’m just a woman on a mission”.
LEBRON JAMES (basketball player) – “Once you get into a zone you feel like you’re shooting a golf ball into an ocean”.
RORY MCILROY (golfer) – “Flow is a mental thing. You’re picturing good shots. Visualising the lines and you’re not getting in your own way”.
ANIKA SÖRENSTROM (golfer) – “The most important shot is the one you’re going to hit now. I just try and stay in the now”.
What you will find from hearing about athletes talk about flow is that there are no distractions as well as no multitasking, only ultimate focus. There is often a loss of the sense of time. They are totally involved in what they are doing.
In flow there is no room for self-scrutiny. Flow is an egoless thing, there is no self-judgement or judgment of the task at hand. There is a letting go and letting things happen automatically. There is little overthinking and there is full trusting.
THE GLASS AND THE JUG
I use the following analogy to describe flow and ask players to think about this when trying to access this state. As you now know, flow is about expressing what you currently know how to do and is that sweet spot where your skills match the challenge in front of you. You will access the flow channel. You are not too bored or not too anxious. You are in the “Goldilocks” state.
Flow should be seen as an empty pint glass. There is only a pint of volume that can fit into this glass. This is your skillset right in this moment just before competition when trying to access flow.
Now also think about a large jug of water. Now imagine pouring the water from the large jug into the pint glass. This is you trying to access flow in a match. The idea is to pour the water in steadily and consistently until it reaches the top and fills the maximum volume of the pint. If you pour too quickly it will get messy and go everywhere, if you pour too slow it may never reach its full potential before you run out of time (think of this as trying to get to point 3 on the above flow channel diagram).
Once you have filled your glass to the top i.e., maximising your full skillset you have available, if you try and force anymore water into the glass it will spill over and start to cause a real mess. This is the same as you trying to push hard to fill the glass with even more water. To try and eek out shots, or movements, or skills that are just beyond you right now. It is impossible. It will just cause chaos and tip you into that anxious state. You need to try and fill up this glass to its maximum and be happy and satisfied to keep it there. This is your current skillset on this day right here and right now. And the real success lies firstly in realising your level, and secondly maintaining it when the glass is full.
Over time you may be able to grow your volume of the glass, but regardless of how large the volume of the glass is, this is your level in the moment when you are trying to access flow. There will always be more water in the jug than can ever fit into your glass.
Do not make the mistake of overfilling your glass. A lot of people do. And they expect more of themselves than their current skillset can deliver on the day.
WHEN YOUR SKILLS ARE TOO LOW
Let’s be honest, there will be times and opponents who you realistically will not beat. This is not a defeatist attitude, but rather one of realism. Focussing on winning these types of matches may actually take you further away from the flow state you are trying to achieve.
I have written a blog on this subject and give some tools and practical tips to players who are entering a match when playing someone who is too good.
As you know, to access flow your skills need to try and match the challenge. The challenge (in this context when playing someone who is too good) is above and beyond what you can realistically produce. So now you need to reappraise your challenge and set yourself certain skills that may be achievable and break them down into a game within the game.
In a match like this for example, you could challenge yourself to volley every return of serve straight. Or you could look to set yourself a goal to stay on court for a set period of time by extending the rallies. Or you encourage yourself to step in and take the ball in straight and short when the opportunity is there and attack your stronger opponent when the opportunity presents itself.
When you can do this, and play a game within a game, and deliver, this will give you a much greater chance of accessing flow when the challenge is unrealistic to win. And if you can do this and know you have done all you can, this is true winning.
WHEN YOUR SKILLS ARE TOO HIGH
There will be times that you know that even on a very bad day you are still likely to beat an opponent. This is where it can be easy to become bored and be apathetic. If this happens it can also easily transcend into a hard and horrible match where you are slogging and fighting against yourself the whole time as you are not in the flow channel because you are under aroused.
If this is the case, then like in the above chapter, begin to play a game within a game. Your skillset is greater than the challenge posed to you. So, this is your chance to put some limitations on yourself to set your challenge higher than it currently is. By doing this you are still likely to win the match just as easy (maybe even easier), but it’s your perception and mindset that has altered to get you working on and practising accessing flow.
You need to try and not see the final score as good or bad, but the way you set your intentions and worked on putting limitations on yourself and then playing the game within the game. This is what you want to hold yourself accountable to and use this as your yardstick of success.
For example, you may put a limitation on yourself to work on a weaker part of your game. Maybe you have the tendency to clip the side wall too often on your drives, or your movement to the T is a bit deeper than it should be, or you are hitting too many cross courts from the front. Think about what you may need to work on and make this the focus. Maybe challenge yourself to play only straight lines for the remainder of the match, or to lift the ball every time you get taken in short, or to try and get one foot in front of the short line each time you get back to the T. Make it specific to you and your game and attempt to stick to the task to work on your focus and concentration to execute your intentions.
I see it all too often when players perform mental sabotage on themselves even before they have stepped on court. They are getting themselves into a wound-up, nervous, and anxious state before a ball has even been hit. If you recall the FLOW CHANNEL graphic at the start of this blog this would be point 1 on the graphic. Whereby the challenge is high but the skill is low. But this can often be an illusion, a story made up in your mind, your monkey-mind hijacking you, your inner critic doing the talking.
For example, you may be closely matched with an opponent but doubts and fears start coming into your mind the night before or day of the match. "What if they start really strong?", "What if I miss my length at the start?", "They played really well last time we played.", "My backhand drop was feeling a little nervous in my last match.", "I don't think I have been moving too well lately".
As you can see these statements are mental sabotage and begin to convince you that your skills may be too low and subsequently the challenge in front of you will be too high. Your inner critic is jumping in and taking you to point 1 on the flow channel graph. Why would you let this happen? These thoughts are offering you no benefit. No ball has been hit. You have no idea what your opponent is thinking about you! Maybe they are the ones having these doubts and fears?
It is ok to have these thoughts of course, it can be nearly impossible to stop them. But the skill and the practice about training your mind is to tag and acknowledge these thoughts and to then avoid getting behind the energy of them and giving them more fuel.
A great and timely little reminder in the below video from Headspace about thoughts and feelings being like traffic on a busy road. And your job is to just sit there, perfectly at ease, letting them pass through you without trying to chase after or control them. Keep letting them go, time and time again.
YOUR OFF-COURT LIFE
I talk a lot about the spill over effect and there is a lesson in the SquashMind app dedicated to this concept. In simple terms, I propose that everything we do goes into everything we do.
If we can go about most of our daily experiences with moments of mindfulness, presence, calm, clear, and rational thinking, the likelihood is we get good at these things in other areas. In essence they spill over into all parts of life. And wouldn't we want this?
On the other hand, however, if we are reactive, impulsive, distracted, stubborn, and blame others, then we are cultivating those behaviours and instincts within the brain.
“What we practice grows stronger”. – Prof. Shauna Shapiro
If we practice impatience with our friends, family, or co-workers, we grow impatience. If we practice judging others on their behaviours, we are growing judgement. If we practice impatience in a task or how difficult the learning may be, we grow impatience. All behaviours that would not be welcomed on the squash court and behaviours that take us further away from finding flow.
Getting your off-court life in order will play a vital role in accessing the flow state when you are on-court. I am yet to meet anyone who spends more time on-court than off-court. So, with that thinking, most of your lives can be used and seen as a practice canvas for working on parts of your brain to then use and transfer onto the squash court. I would encourage you to try and use life, and all the highs and lows it brings, as your practice arena, as your training ground, as your ultimate test to finding your flow.
In summary, getting into your flow state will be highly personal to you as an individual. The key thing to use as your benchmark is to match your skills to the challenge. The sweet spot is where your skills are high, and the challenges also matches this. You can tweak this to your needs depending on if on or the other is too high or low and there is a mismatch.
Your mind needs to be calm, clear, and void of chatter and overthinking when wanting to step into a flow state. This is how you should try and approach matches and situations where you want to access flow. Being mindful and present in these moments, as well as having fun and not taking everything too seriously, will positively contribute to you accessing flow.
A final comment to make is that when you think you are in flow, you are not. You have gone to a flow reflection phase. Reflection is one-step forward put of your flow. You may be lucky enough to step back into a flow state and some of what has been written above, as well as in the practical tips below may assist this.
- Be deliberate in your training and work on heightening the stakes and pressure situations to mimic competition.
- See competition as a challenge to meet rather than a threat to avoid. This gives you a feeling of safety and your flight/fight/freeze part of your brain starts to slow down and be less reactive.
- There are the 3 M’s of finding flow and all can be used and adapted to you personally in pre-match situations if you are feeling anxious or bored. This gives you the chance to operate in your flow channel. The 3 M’s are:
- Use visualisation tools to work on the brain and seeing and feeling yourself in flow.
- Practice mindfulness mediation to calm the mind and to heighten your awareness in all situations.
- Have an honest assessment if your skillset is matching the challenge. If it is you have a greater chance to access flow.
- You can manipulate the environment to suit you to heighten the chances of accessing flow. For example, set yourself restrictions if you are bored, or set yourself achievable and controllable tasks if you are anxious.
- Give your brain very specific tasks to focus on as we cannot focus on many things at the same time, especially when under pressure. This quiets the chatter in the frontal lobe. For example, focus on where you may want the ball to go rather that focussing on a specific aspect of the swing.
- Get your off-court life in order. You will struggle to access flow if all you do outside and away from the courts is in turmoil. Remember the spill over effect.
- In the end it’s a game. So have fun with the process. The more fun you have the better you will perform. The better you perform the more fun you will have. It’s a cycle that fuels itself. Remember what it was like to play sport as a child or when you first picked up a new sport? The fun was immense, and you lost yourself in this. Get back to having a child's mind especially so when the stakes may be high.
If you liked this blog, please do share with others that may be interested on this subject and find it of use. I work closely with players on all aspects of their game and mind. I offer online Zoom lessons and become a mentor and accountability partner for players. I find 1:1 online lessons immensely powerful for learning and am now using the court more so for practice. Being able to learn away from the ‘distractions’ of playing is proving to be highly valuable.
“Learn online, practice on-court.”
Please do get in touch by emailing me: firstname.lastname@example.org