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Athletes who are continually seeking to extend their limits and who have the necessary commitment to keep developing their skills to keep pace with the ever-increasing challenges experience a tremendous sense of accomplishment from continuing to move their achievements to higher levels. Such athletes also experience the exhilaration of flow in what they are doing.”

          ~Flow in Sports by Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Human Kinetics, 1999)

  Row and Flow

When I took up indoor rowing at the end of 1987, I had no idea of the wonderful window of opportunity for improvement it would provide in the years to come. I knew that I’m happiest when working hard to achieve a challenging goal, but I was yet to learn about the concept of flow. Indoor rowing has allowed me to explore the joy of flow in all its dimensions, more than ever recently. Flow operates in all realms of life, but has special application to sports, where the rules are usually clear and the goals well defined. Athletes use the phrase “in the zone” or “on auto” to describe flow, or those moments when things are really going well. Weight training, where progress is measured in reps and pounds, and indoor rowing on the Concept 2, with its superb performance monitor, are especially good vehicles for flow.

I always strive to improve. Making progress toward a challenging goal is what keeps me motivated. As I wrote in Challenge Yourself: “Challenge lights the fire. Progress keeps it burning bright.” That’s basically the idea of flow, a concept known since the days of Aristotle, but fully developed in modern times by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD. “Dr. C,” as I call him, coined the term flow in the early 1970s and laid out the concept for general readers in his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in 1990.

Paraphrasing Dr. C., formerly chairman of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and recently C.S. and D.J. Davidson Professor of Management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, people who experience flow set appropriate goals, closely monitor feedback, and when they reach their goal, they up the ante, setting increasingly complex challenges for themselves. The formula for flow boils down to three things: Goals, Feedback and Challenge.

Susan A. Jackson, PhD, a sports psychology consultant and lecturer in the School of Human Movement at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, collaborated with Dr. C. to write Flow in Sports, where they expand the concept to include nine fundamental dimensions or components. Let’s explore the mind-set that produces flow in the context of my experience with indoor rowing, emphasizing the new refinements that help set the stage for flow.

  Challenge-Skills Balance

Like all the components of flow, CS balance is a state of mind. It occurs when the challenge you think you face matches the skills you think you have. This is the “golden rule of flow.” To set the stage for flow, you must perceive the challenge as neither too hard nor too easy. Importantly, to maintain the balance, when your skills improve, the challenge must also increase.

The CS balance is constantly in flux. As an example the authors use the four-minute mile, which was once considered the ultimate challenge. Once it was achieved, however, elite runners began to believe they could run faster, and set greater challenges for themselves. Many mid-level runners now see the four-minute mile as realistic and achievable. Significantly, both the challenge and the skills must extend the person. In the words of the authors, the balance must “stretch them to new levels.”

For flow to occur, however, the balance must feel right and be right. The best athletes, according to the authors, know what they can do. When the balance is right, they are “eager and a little nervous,” but not anxious or afraid. They know, based on their training and experience, that they are capable of meeting the challenge. “There is order in their consciousness, with clear goals focusing their thoughts so intensely that not enough attention is left over to even worry about themselves or their problems,” the authors write. That’s flow, hard but wonderful.

The great thing is that “flow is not reserved for elite athletes.” You don’t have to win to experience flow. Only one person can win in most circumstances, but many can experience flow. “It is what the athlete chooses as the challenge that determines what skills are needed to match the perceived opportunity.” Athletes of all skill levels can set the stage for flow by choosing the challenge that’s right for them.

I’ve made that point several times in telling about my first experience in indoor rowing competition. Early in 1990, when I entered a competition in Denver, my goal was not to win, but to set a new personal best, a more realistic goal since I didn’t know anything about the other competitors. If I trained hard, I was confident that a PR was doable. It was an almost perfect setup for flow, and it worked beautifully. I set a PR in the qualifying round and felt good about my performance, even though I only placed seventh in the final. What’s more, I went home inspired to do better.

Based on what I’d seen in Denver (especially the performance of a young woman), I raised my sights and began training at a faster pace than ever before. I believed I could do better, and I did. Three weeks later, I improved my time in the 2500 meters by 15 seconds. It was a perfect example of upping the CS balance when the time was right. I didn’t read Dr. C’s book until later that year, but it was flow.

  Action-Awareness Merging

A merger of body and mind happens when you’re totally absorbed in what you’re doing. The authors call this “action-awareness merging.” It’s “perhaps the most telling aspect of the flow experience.” It’s not something you set out to do; it just happens when you put yourself totally into the activity.

I’ve had this happen many times when I’m lifting or rowing. I train alone and usually turn on the radio or television to keep me company. When I start a maximum set or begin an all-out piece on the rower, however, the radio or TV completely disappear from my consciousness. It’s not something I plan; it’s just happens when I’m totally focused on the effort at hand. I concentrate so hard that nothing else enters my awareness. For a time, nothing else matters.

The effort may be terrific, even painful, but the overall feeling is positive and one you want to repeat. “Recalling these moments brings back the positive emotions of flow and can be a source of motivation,” the authors report, “providing a blueprint for returning again to the optimal state.”

Let’s look at more of the elements that set the stage for flow.

  Clear Goals

Having a clear goal is essential to the flow experience. “Clarity of intention helps to focus attention and avoid distraction.” This is especially true of moment-by-moment goals. Learning this has improved my rowing experience tremendously in the last year.

In my recent article “Breakthrough” (# 134), I explained that I now have a specific plan for each rowing distance. Not only do I have an overall goal time in mind, I break the various distances (500, 1000, 1500 & 2000 meters) into segments and have a planned pace for each segment. I know what my pace must be in each segment to produce the target time.

Before I just picked a pace and tried to hold it to the end. As a rowing friend observed recently, this approach can get “pretty ugly” at the end. Another friend calls it the “fly and die” method. Frankly, I used to dread the final stage of every hard row. A steady pace gave me too much time to think about the unpleasantness, the pain that comes at the end of every hard row. It was an unnecessary and counterproductive distraction.

As Dr. Jackson and Dr. C would no doubt predict, having a meter-by-meter plan for each split focuses my mind. If I plan wisely, it produces a faster time and a more enjoyable experience. 

  Unambiguous Feedback

Without positive feedback most of us would give up training; it is critical to success in any athletic endeavor. Clear feedback confirms that we’re moving toward our goal. It keeps us motivated--and in flow. “In flow, the individual knows what she wants, and as the performance unfolds she knows that she is on target for achieving her goal,” the authors write. “Feedback is continuous, as are the goals that keep the athlete moving forward.”

The performance monitor on the Concept 2 rowing machine provides instantaneous and precise feedback. It is one of the main attractions of indoor rowing. The monitor allows you to compare your times to the performance of other rowers all over the world. I can, and do, compete with rowers in the UK, France, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA, and other places--without ever leaving home.

More importantly, the monitor allows me to measure my own progress. I can track my times to the fraction of a second, from workout to workout. I check my previous split times in my training diary before every workout, and use them to set goals for the next workout.

In individual workouts, the monitor tells me if I’m on plan, meter by meter; it gives me the clear feedback necessary to fine-tune my stroke for optimum performance. It’s a perfect setup for flow.   

Sense of Control

A sense of control over what you’re doing is another element of the flow experience. “More than actually being in control, it is knowing that if you try hard, you can be in control: you trust your skills and you know that the task is doable. The outcome of this knowledge is a sense of power, confidence, and calm.”

This is another benefit of my switch from the steady-pace method to a moment-by-moment approach. It was hinted at in my discussion of clear goals. As indicated there, a major drawback of trying to maintain a flat pace  is a fear of losing control at the end. Trying to hold a steady pace often caused me to crash and burn at the end of the piece. Dying at the end is painful; it’s no fun, it hurts. Fear of repeating the experience played on my mind and interfered with my concentration before and during hard rows, especially PR attempts. I was anything but calm. I had to force myself to start rowing, and often pulled the plug about half way through. Fear of what was to come at the end would cause me to stop rowing, even when things were going relatively well. It was not a pretty picture, and certainly not flow.

Breaking each distance into segments, and planning a different pace for each one solved the problem. It not only made me focus on the task at hand moment-to-moment, it put me in control at the end. Instead of dying, I was able to row strongly through the finish. I was like a race car driver seeing the checked flag. I actually began to look forward to the final sprint.

I worked out a different plan for each distance, but the common feature is that I’d finish strong and in control. When I overreach--usually after making a personal best--and lose control, I move on to another distance and start over again. In other words, I periodize (see art. # 8).

What a difference a sense of control has made in my rowing experience! I feel more confident from start to finish. I’m working hard and enjoying myself, which is the essence of flow.


Flow in Sports--all sports--is available from Ripped Enterprises; $15.95 plus $6.60 Priority shipping, $4.60 media. (See products page for more details: GO) For more about the psychology of optimum performance, checkout our new video/DVD: MOTIVATION; Go See. Order book and video/DVD by email if we have your credit card information with current expiration date cncbass@aol.com or call 1-505-266-5858.

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