Performance psychology

Finding Flow and the Freedom of Play

(This article originally appeared in Tennis Pro)

During the stress of performance and competition, there is a strange tension between thought and feeling, and process and outcome, that stretches the routine constructions of the mind. Despite the innate wiring maintaining the equilibrium of mental functions, it can be hard to recognize when we immerse in patterns that lead to poor decision making. An awareness or thinking about thinking is a meta-process that allows reflection about choices and the roots of decision making. Then we are not automatons and can consider the ‘dialogue’ in mind, on our way to mastering the process of ‘noticing’ or being a level above the information.

To notice is to be a witness to the workings of our mind and body and is at the heart of self-awareness. This is the ultimate reason for reflecting on practice, competitions and life in general. In this practice of self-reflection, we can untie the knots that are barriers to progress, as well as intensify the aspects that are moving us forward.

The tension between process and outcome has a distinct influence on play, and therefore the quality of performance. If we take a moment to truly notice what is happening in play, we observe that when we feel we are playing at our best, the process is close to or in ‘flow’. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brought the concept of flow into light and has written numerous works on the topic. He described several elements of the state, but I would like to look at two in particular.

• Our sense of time transforms and either speeds up or slows down.

• There is a merging of our actions and our awareness so that we are not thinking self-consciously about performance. We are simply in it.

From these two elements, I want to suggest that in flow, we are experiencing play in a different way. First, in not being self-conscious, we are not critical of self and not engaging the cycle of thinking and feeling about outcomes. It is not that we don’t notice them, but rather they are part of an overall process and of a different quality.

Second, in flow we are truly in the present, a witness to actions rather than immersed in expectations. What happens… happens, and we continue to flow. A simple change in description may be helpful; products or outcomes are in phrased in the past or future, such as “I won” or “I lost” or “I want to win.” Process is phrased in the present, such as “playing” or “executing” or “moving.”

While this may seem a play on words, it is not. It is noticing the power of language and its impact on beliefs and expectations. The second you merge process and product, you begin to fool with your sense of time, as well as actions and awareness. The mind plays tricks and thinks the outcome can be “lost.” Feelings that accompany a sense of loss are then inevitable. But consider that in the moment you have nothing and therefore nothing to lose.

For the outcome exists in a future time – not now.

Now, I am not saying that you do not script, set outcome goals, visualize and mentally rehearse. These are all important and reinforce key mental and physical aspects of performance. What I am saying is to trust in the moment – in muscle memory, working memory, and other executive functions; focus on playing versus being played by the desire for an outcome. The moment desire enters the mental space it gets crowded, and tense, and the dialogue begins. For thoughts and feelings play an imaginary pinball game with the future and the past and invite desire’s closest friend – fear.

Consider a pure image of being in the present and deeply into the process — children playing. How free they are and absorbed in the moment without a sense of time. And though it seems like there may not be a plan or a progression, there is, for play is thematic and not chaotic. The major difference is that in the purest sense play is the goal in and of itself. Once you expect something out of the process, you are in a difference space. At times we may step back and measure to get a sense of where we are in the process, but the vital skill remains being able to let it pass and let go of any desire for the outcome to be now.

The present moment calls for competing, adjusting, executing, strategizing and the like. And in flow, the motivation is intrinsic and self-rewarding. In maintaining this perspective, you will find this space is one lacking in fear and pressure and all energy draining attributes. This has nothing to do with lack of caring, effort or intensity. It has everything to do with the freedom in this private space, and the beauty of meeting the moment as it arises.

For coaching and teaching players of all levels, we can inspire the process of ‘playing’ and promote improvement, growth and development. We can help athletes to notice thoughts and feeling and patterns of choices. We can use language that helps players notice the process that produces the outcome, as well as the conditions of flow. Goals and vision are extremely important for they guide the process. But, in the end, it comes to the only control we have…

What can you do right now?

Photo credit: Adam Kring,

1 thought on “Finding Flow and the Freedom of Play”

  1. Your article on finding flow in sports strikes a chord in the realm of sports psychology. The exploration of the tension between thought and feeling, and process and outcome, adds depth to the mental dynamics of competition. The emphasis on “noticing” and being a witness to one’s actions and thoughts, as well as the distinction between process and product, provides valuable insights into achieving flow.

    The reminder to trust the moment, let go of outcome desires, and immerse oneself in the present is powerful. The analogy of children at play captures the essence of freedom and joy in performance. Practical advice for coaches to inspire the process aligns with core sports psychology principles. Thanks for sharing insights that bridge theory and practical application in sports psychology.

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