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Research overview: Flow state performance and its relevance to motorsport athletes

Last week the psychology community learned of the sad news of the death of Professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. If you're an athlete you may well be aware of his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which first presented the notion of performing in a state of concentration and complete absorption in a situation, or ‘in the zone’ as it’s colloquially known.

As well as defining the concept of flow in talented performers across a number of domains, Csikszentmihalyi went on to work extensively with sport psychology researchers to apply his ideas specifically to athletes. As well as identifying the characteristics of performance in a flow state, he also attempted to narrow down the antecedents to athletes achieving it; and crucially how this could be replicated from one competitive event to another.

In the context of motorsport, flow performance is most commonly defined as the performance of a perfect single lap; however there are also clear applications in more sustained concentration over the course of a race distance and the notion of 'finding a rhythm.' There can be no better motorsport specific example of this than the great Ayrton Senna's Monaco 1988 weekend, where an incredible qualifying lap on Saturday saw the Brazilian take pole position by an astonishing 1.427s from teammate Alain Prost. After the session, Senna famously stated that he did not feel in control of the car, was driving in a completely automatic and unconscious manner, and almost felt like he had an 'out of body experience' where he could see himself driving the car from above during the lap. This apparent flow state performance was to carry through to Sunday's race, where after building up a seemingly unassailable 55 second lead Ayrton then unfortunately and famously lost concentration (allegedly after being distracted receiving a radio message from the team to slow down) and crashed out after clipping the barrier at Portier corner with only 11 laps to go.

Iwao (under Wikimedia Commons licence)

The concept of Ayrton's unconscious flow state experience from qualifying is well reported by athletes across all sports in the field of psychology, and is something unique to expert performers who have become so adept at performing a skill that it becomes almost cognitively autonomous to them. In this instance, Ayrton was performing so automatically that it’s reasonable to suggest that the sudden unexpected stimulus of a radio message in his ears would have been quite jarring, and enough to effectively cause a catastrophic drop in performance. We’ve also seen examples more recently of Lewis Hamilton crossing the finish line in races and querying with the team whether it’s the final lap. While there are other factors that could cause this, it’s reasonable to surmise that as these have occurred when he’s been focused on a specific task at hand (i.e. chasing down a rival or maintaining a lead) that this was a form of flow or zone state performance enough for him to unconsciously disregard radio messages or pit board instruction.

Applied research suggests that with gradual practice and awareness, flow performance can be induced to some extent through the use of mental skills such as visualisation and relaxation strategies. Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi (1999) supported this notion by suggesting that a performer should apply any factors which they feel are conducive to achieving a perceived flow state of performance to their pre-performance routines in every subsequent competition they take part in; although they also acknowledge the fact that it can be difficult to judge which factors directly influence this state. They further suggested that one of the key antecedents to achieving a flow state of performance is for a performer to focus their attention purely on the present in a task-based manner, and that devoting any attention; either to prior performance in the past or thinking ahead to possible outcomes, can be detrimental to mental readiness and therefore ultimate performance. This has some obvious crossover with the more general concept of living in the moment or focusing only on what is happening immediately around you as a focusing strategy. This was supported by Dintiman, Ward & Tellez (1998) who coined the term “alert-mess” referring to a performer whose focus is distracted by thoughts of past actions, meaning they are not sufficiently prepared to process subsequent stimuli and therefore are less likely to perform in a flow state of peak performance.

It is even suggested that the effects of flow performance can be so strong that they can cause alterations in the way in which information is perceived, with athletes reporting changes in their perception of size, speed and time through heightened visual acuity or an expansion of peripheral vision. Studies into MRI brain scans of performers who recalled experiences of flow state performance under hypnosis have supported this, finding that there were significant differences in certain areas of neural processing between flow state and normal performance conditions (Ferrell, Beach, Szeverenyi, Krch & Fernhall, 2006).

Bringing this back to another motorsport-specific example, drivers on street circuits will often say that they effectively see nothing above the line of the barrier; meaning that any stimuli considered unnecessary or superfluous to performance (e.g. the crowd, TV screens, track side scenery) is completely ignored, albeit on an unconscious level as cognitive processes are all tied up with the application of simply driving the car in a challenging environment.

"The world stops, and only the car, the circuit and your rivals exist." - Fernando Alonso

So what does all this mean practically, perhaps for you as a club racer or an athlete in another discipline? A key takeaway from much of Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s research is that the role of pre-performance routines in facilitating consistency of performance from one competition to the next can be extremely beneficial for athletes in replicating the specific conditions that are conducive to them achieving a flow state. As ever, this will be individual to you, and will be something you devise through experience and some trial and error on competition day. Your pre-performance routine may incorporate a range of mental skills including imagery, self-talk, relaxation and dynamic goal setting. Remember, the more practiced a skill becomes the more cognitive space you free up for the fundamentals of that skill application to become autonomous (e.g. driving the car), so the first step is to continue to work on the basics… as ever, practice makes perfect!

Further Reading

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Jackson, S.A. & Czikszentmihalyi, M. (1999) Flow In Sports. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

Referenced in this article

Dintiman, G.B., Ward, R.D. & Tellez, T. (1998) Sports Speed (2nd Edition). Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

Ferrell, MD., Beach, R.L., Szeverenyi, N.M, Krch, M. & Fernhall, B. (2006) An fMRI analysis of neural activity during perceived zone-state performance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. Vol.28(1), p.421-433.

Photo: Richard Towler


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