Effortless. Automatic. It just happens. These are the words commonly used to describe the state of “flow” – the state of mind that characterizes exceptional sporting achievements.
Think Tiger Woods in his hay day. Think Roger Federer. They seem to play free from disturbance from conscious thought.
However, does “flow” always characterise their performance?
Sport psychologist Christian Swan sought to understand the state of flow by interviewing professional golfers immediately following an exceptional performance. This either referred to a tournament win, or, at the very least, the player was in contention to win on the final round of the tournament.
10 professional golfers were interviewed. The golfers included players from the European Tour, the Challenger Tour and the Europro Tour.
During the interviews, the players described two distinct states of mind that characterised exceptional performance: “letting it happen” and “making it happen”.
“Letting it happen”
What is it? “… described as a calm state with a focus on the shot at hand, absence of negative thought, perceptions of ease and automaticity in the performance, sense of control, enjoyment, and feeling like nothing could go wrong.”
When does it occur? A common theme amongst the golfers was that this state of mind occurred when their goal for the round was specific to exploring how well they could play. The golfers also described this feeling to emerge as their confidence grew. This usually occurred following a successful execution of a shot, or multiple shots, early in the round.
“Making it happen”
What is it? “… shared a number of characteristics with flow, including enjoyment, sense of control, absorption, and confidence. However, in contrast to flow, ‘making it happen’ was described as a more intense state of optimal arousal, with heightened and effortful concentration, and awareness of the situation (e.g., of the score and position in the tournament).”
When does it occur? This state of mind typically occurred in clutch moments, when the player had a fixed outcome goal in sight. For example, the golfers talked about moments when they realised they needed to shoot a certain score on the final few holes if they were going to win. One golfer said: “I knew standing on the 17th I needed to finish birdie-birdie for second… [and] it felt like I was trying more to get in that zone.”
Exceptional performance should not always be characterised as “effortless” or “automatic”, as per the typical definition of flow. Indeed, the context appears to influence whether “letting it happen” or “making it happen” is necessary for successful outcomes.