Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Running and flow
How can we experience psychological flow while running?
The runner runs to meditate, to create, and to become whole. Sheehan writes 'Running is finally seeing everything in perspective.....running is the fusion of the body, mind and soul in that beautiful relaxation that joggers and racers find difficult to achieve" (1978, p287)
What is flow? How can we experience psychological flow whilst running? This book chapter uses psychological theory and research to create understanding of flow theory and its application in the gaining of enjoyment from running.
Before delving into flow theory, it is important to consider motivation and emotion more generally. Motivation studies focus on what drives behaviour, and what energy sustains behaviour. To be motivated means to be induced or moved into action, and the emotions experienced are what push the individual to adapt to the environment. Motivation is diverse and studied across a variety of domains and cultures; the individual differences of these environments vary significantly (Deckers, 2010).
The field of positive psychology is relatively new and this emerging field uses empirical studies to address some of the big questions (e.g., What makes a life worth living? And how can one be happy?) around using an applied approach to build strengths, develop talent, foster excellence and help individuals reach their true potential (Seligman & Csikzentmihalyi, 2000). This is a shift from the previous approach which addressed weaknesses and pathological states of disintegration, sadness and despair. The aim is to amplify strengths, building positive qualities in an individual's attributes, competencies and skills to support him or her in the pursuit of intrinsic goals, and ultimately to live a life of happiness and optimal experience (Reeves, 2009, Csikszentmihali, 1990).
Art of Running
Running requires great personal motivation and discipline to attain a point where running is measurably enjoyable. The reality for new-comers is that it's not easy, enjoyable or fun to sustain the first 3 months of running practice (Noakes, 2001). This is due to a number of both psychological (personality, development factors and intrinsic motives) and physiological (fitness, aerobic capacity and past experience) factors.
Sheenan (1978), a philosophical running writer, believed that runners don't run to be healthy. He categorises runners into 3 groups: joggers, racers and runners. This division occurs on the basis of their motivations. Joggers are described as the ‘physically reborn’; racers are those taking on recreational events; and the runner continues to run for the enjoyment in the experience - the rhythmic state of being in complete harmony with your mind and body.
This chapter focusses on the importance of flow in sports, and how to experience psychological flow in running. See the motivational chapter on sport winning motivation to understand this in a similar way.
Self-actualization refers to the full use of one's talents, capacities and potential. This term was first introduced by Abraham Maslow in his famous theory termed the ‘hierarchy of needs’. Maslow made the distinction between deficiency needs and growth (Maslow, 1954). Nowadays, there is little evidence for the empirical model, however what still remains relevant are the actions we can take for self-actualization, by practicing positive behaviours such as making growth choices, being honest, positioning yourself for peak-experience, removing defensive reactions, letting the Self emerge and being open to new experience (Maslow, 1971).
People are happiest when they do activities that require skill concentration; this is part of our innate need to acquire competence, known as intrinsic motivation. This is the activation towards a positive experience to increase our capacities and experience enjoyment (Deci & Ryan,1985). People who are intrinsically motivated will engage in a pursuit willingly, learn more and focus their concentration with an aim to improve their skills and increase their capabilities (Deci & Ryan, 1985). This need to be competent is what enables us to be effective in our interactions within our environment and our willingness to seek new intrinsically motivating and satisfying challenges.
The most recent version of this theory is Self-Determination Theory, which suggests people have three innate needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. Intrinsic motivation will flourish when these needs are satisfied (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Research shows that scenarios which facilitate experiences for these psychological needs and factors, will enhance the likelihood of long-term persistence and enjoyment in an activity. (Deci & Ryan, 2008). It is this extent to which our psychological needs are satisfied that will determine the degree to which positive psychological outcomes (e.g. engagement, flow) are experienced, with the opposing feelings resulting in negative consequences (e.g. burn-out and anxiety). Research in sports domains aligns to this notion that basic needs satisfaction produces positive outcomes and self-determined motivations.
The Flow State Scale
So how did we know if you have experienced flow whilst running?
Think back in relation to your experiences in an activity you may have completed. The below questions relate to thoughts and feelings that you may have experienced during the event.
Think about how you felt during the event and using the scale below circle that number that best matches your experience.
1 Strongly disagree
3 Neither agree nor disagree
5 Strongly agree
|I was challenged, but I believed my skills would allow me to meet the challenge||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|I made the correct movements without thinking about trying to do so||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|I knew clearly what I wanted to do||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|It was really clear to me that I was doing well||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|My attention was focused entirely on what I was doing||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|I felt in total control of what I was doing||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|I was not concerned about what others may have been thinking about me||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|Time seemed to alter (slow or speed up)||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|My abilities matched the challenge of the situation||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
|Things just seemed to be happening automatically||1, 2, 3, 4, 5|
If you scored highly on 5/10 questions you may have experienced flow before whilst running. If not that's okay read onto understand more about flow, and how to control and experience more of it.
Adaptation from The Flow State Scale (Jackson & Marsh, 1996).
Athletes and Flow
Flow is an intrinsically rewarding, state like experience which is characterised by complete involvement or immersion in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Within his work, the Hungarian born Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi developed the idea of flow when he made a discovery around happinesss and optimal experience. He discovered that happiness doesn't happen by chance or due to outside events but correlates to how we interpret them. With this notion the theory suggests that people who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). He also learnt that the best moments are not the passive ones of relaxation but the ones for which we have worked hard, to the point of stretching our mind and body to achieve them.
The first studies looked at hundreds of experts in their respective fields, documenting what they were doing and when the felt enjoyment. From this, the concept of optimal experience and flow emerged, which is described as ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, the experience itself is so enjable that people will do it, even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Running is an active experience and the committed runners as described by Sheenan (1971) do find enjoyment in the activity. It is something that athletes seek out; that feeling of complete mind and body immersion working together in harmony in their environment (Jackson & Marsh, 1996). Thetheory proposes a zone of optimal performance, which can only be entered when athletes are challenged by activities which fall within their perceived abilities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In all activities it was found that this develops when learning creates a sense of discovery; a creative feeling of transporting a person to a new reality. This pushed the person to experience high-performance, and it was this growth in the self that lies key to flow activities.
The runners experience of challenge vs skills
The following diagram is used to support this case. Assuming the below graph represents a runner developing their skills. The two key dimensions are challenges and skills represented on the two axes.
Anna is a girl who is learning to run. The circles represent Anna at 4 different points in time. When she begins she has limited skills and her first challenge might be running 5 km, but in the beginning this might be enjoyed as completing this distance is just right for her fitness. However the runner cannot stay there for very long, if Anna keeps practicing her running ability will improve and the same 5 km will be easy and may cause her to get bored.
Consider an experienced runner taking her for a 10 km event with a specific time completion, she may realize that there are harder challenges but without experience its likely anxiety over performance will occur. Experiences of boredom and anxiety are not the desired state. The runner is faced with a new goal to increase challenges that align to their new skills. The flow dimension is never stable as skills and challenges can change, so the motivation serves to realign the runner back into the flow challenge, or discover new opportunities for using them (Csikszentmihalyi,1990). This flow spot is otherwise known as 'getting in the zone'.
Dimensions of flow
Common characteristics of optimal experience enable a sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand in a goal directed manner whereby feedback can be obtained, concentration is intense, and self consciousness disappears and the concept of time becomes distorted. The activity becomes so gratifying that people are willing to do it for the sake of doing it, without any concern for what they will get out of it other than enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Csikszentmihalyi's (1990) research identified nine interlinking dimenesions for flow, which were validated in a sports context (Jackson & Marsh, 1996). These are:
- A balance between challenge and skills
- A merging of action and awareness
- Clear goals
- Unambiguous feedback
- Total concentration on the task at hand
- Sense of control
- Loss of self-counciousness
- Transcendence of time
- Autotelic experience
In summary, flow experiences are dynamic resulting in a complex evolving state of balancing challenges and skills, and the above factors are conducive to experience flow in the individual.
Evidence in flow research suggests that personality traits and individual differences play a role in how people experience flow (Jackson, Ford, Kimieck, & Marsh, 1998). An autotelic personality is explained by Csiksentmihalyi (1988) to explain why some people experience it more frequently. This is because the individual engages in the activity without expectation of reward. Various hypotheses have been proven showing that some people are able to process information more effectively then others (Hamilton, 1981). Logan (1988) introduced the non self-conscious individual as one who can be engrossed in an activity, and research in intrinsic motivation suggests associations between intrinsic motivation and flow, due to innate needs for competence and self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 2008). It was found in research by Keller & Bless (2008) that certain personality traits such as individuals perceived high in 'action orientation' traits that generally orientate them towards action, and high levels of focus had greater chances of experiencing flow. Thus, people differ in their abilities to experience flow on a regular basis.
History, design and research
Attention to flow and its experiences in sport occurred in 1992, at the same time as the theory itself emerged. Historically, research adopted a narrative approach aligned to Csikzentmihaly's (1900 ) work and how this can be applied. Today, there is a move to a focus on optimizing performance in sports (Swann, Keegan, Piggott, & Crust, 2012). Flow is highly relevant to athletes seeking to perform at peak levels, and even more so when under pressure with great rewards at stake. Athletes tend to exhibit flow-like states based on the length of time immersed in the activity and when they have the opportunity to challenge themselves in competitive situations which is also proving relevant for recreational sports, but with varying intensities (Jackson & Marsh, 1996). The findings show that athletes do experience flow at least in training and in competition to varying levels .
Summary of design methods used in these studies
The relationship between flow and sports has been explored in a number of studies that focusingon the correlation, descriptive investigations, the use of imagery, self reporting scales, interventions and interviews to capture the subjective states (Swann, Keegan, Piggott, & Crust, 2012). All studies refer to Csikszentmihalyi's (1990) model as the framework for research in this area. The most successful and applicable measurement is the Flow Self State Scale (FSS), which consists of a 36 item instrument representing the dimensions of flow as discussed by Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 1993). This has been developed as a psychometrically valid scale to assess the flow state in sport and physical settings (Jackson & Marsh, 1996).
The FSS has been used in a myriad of experiments (Aheme et al. 2011, Bakker et al.2011, Hodge et al. 2009, Nicholls, Wiggen & Freeman 2000) supporting the conditions for flow. The FSS is highly adaptable and reliable quantitative measure of flow dimensions in sports, which has remained stable over its existence. However be wary when using such reports as flow is known for its mystique and investigating flow can be difficult as it has limitations.
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) cautions against too much weight on measures ‘the moment we say that flow is the balance of challenges and skills’ or ‘flow is a score of x’ we have mistaken reflection for reality(Jackson & Marsh, 1996). A broad approach using multiple perspectives is encouraged using interventions, a wide variety of groups applied in various contexts .
The strongest evidence in support for flow studies is found in those that consider psychological, physical and social factors. Whilst a comprehensive model exists using the nine flow dimensions has been developed to measure flow, further research is needed to identify causal mechanisms (Swann, Keegan, Piggott, & Crust, 2012). Similarly, a need exists to refine a scale specifically to running to support clearer insights in this area. The research focus on psychological constructs focussing on flow states in sports. Studies show that elite athletes commonly experience flow either during training or competition and this is the ideal state for performance (Bakker et al., 2011). For this reason, sports psychologists are exploring this zone further to understand how to control its occurrence in athletes.
Benefits of flow
Flow has many benefits including optimal quality of life, increased happiness, and the value of the inner-experience. These include increased creativity, peak performance, talent development, productivity, self-esteem, stress reduction, and support in psychotherapy serving as an engine for high complexity in the desired activity (Csiksentmihalyi, 1993).
Research has found that experiencing a flow state is positively correlated with optimal performance, arousal and intrinsic motivation in sports (Schweinle, Meyer & Turner, 2006) (Bakker, Oerlemans, Demerouti, Bruins, & Donovan, 2011). The positive correlation of flow and performance was found to relate closely to training behaviours as the causal factor. Studies revealed that flow didn't enhance performance in the case of marathon runners, but the occurrence of it during training reinforced training behaviours which promoted success in the race (Jackson & Marsh, 1996) (Schuiler & Brunner, 2008) (Schuiler & Brunner, 2008). Thus, people who experience flow states are more likely to engage in the task willingly and apply their attention to the task at hand during training to improve their skills.
Additionally, an optimal level of arousal was found to be important in controlling anxiety and promoting optimal experience during an activity. As running is a well-rehearsed activity, training complimentedmental preparation (Noakes, 2001). Thus, the solution to avoid stress either increases your level of ability, (by training) or to choose only challenges that fall within your perceived abilities. Attempting these new, more difficult challenges increases one's ability in harnessing the skill. Emerging from the flow experience, the individual feels more competent and has a greater sense of value, which is intrinsically rewarding. This results in personal growth, enhances self esteem and a relationship between subsequent motivation to perform well is likely produced in the individual (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, & Nakamura, 2005).
Flow is an effective method to promote a continual force of positive arousal and intrinsic motivation within an individual, reinforcing the benefits (Csiksentmihalyi & M, 1993). The key benefits of running reported by experienced runners were: a positive state of mind, reduced anxiety and tension, improved quality of life, increase in positive personality traits and stress resistance (Noakes, 2001).
How we can experience flow in running?
Flow is a skill that must be developed and this requires constant refinement to experience this state. It's something that sports psychologists have admired and striven for, to support recreational and elite athletes. However, there are things that facilitate flow which aspiring runners can perform to increase their chances of experiencing this elusive phenomena. Primarily the conditions for flow include compatibility in individual skills and the level of task demands the individual is confronted (Keller & Bless 2008). This means that flow occurs when personal characteristics such as skills and goals are equally matched to the environment aligned to task demands such as the outcome and incentives for performances. This intrinsic state is what occurs when an individual engages in activities that have clear goals, immediate unambiguous feedback and a perceived fit of challenge and skills. Thus, flow requires participation by interaction with the environment in a setting that enables execution of skills .
Significant research in flow demonstrates psychological factors that relate to flow like states (Jackson, Ford, Kimieck, & Marsh, 1998). The critical flow facilitators were confidence, positive mental attitude, motivation to perform, achieving optimal arousal level before competition and precompetitive plans (Jackson & Marsh, 1996). Flow pre-requisites entail having the right skills, concentration, perseverance, goals and feedback on success. It was also noted that environments that promote learning over competition produce greater chances of experiencing enjoyment, satisfaction, concentration and control (Stein, 1995). The athletes perception of their skills was also important to how they developed skills overall and took on new challenges.
Key constructions for application in a training program were to findwas to enhance concentration, support preparation, enhance motivation, controlling arousal and reducing anxiety, and athletes ability to control thoughts and emotions, overall perceptions and confidence, consideration of the environment, opportunities for feedback, and ways to enhance performance and the creation of opportunities for interaction (Swann, Keegan, Piggott, & Crust, 2012). These notions support the approach of reducing anxieties, apathy and worry about the challenge, and the perception of the individual's ability.
Thus, the occurrence of flow results from an interaction of internal states (e.g. focus, arousal, motivation, confidence, thoughts and emotions) and external states (e.g. environmental, situational conditions – weather) and behavioural states (training and preparation). The common goal when trying to increase flow is to build facilitators of flow and reduce the negative consequences that prevent or disrupt flow.
Analyse your motivation to run
When starting out it is best to first consider your motivation and discipline to run. This will help prescribe the best approach to reinforce your behaviour, drivers and thus future efforts. The experienced runners may chase that interaction of the mind and body, the jogger still chasing the health benefits, and the racer looking to accomplish a personal best on challenging new course.
Theprogression is simply a learning process that one experiences to determine the capabilities and the application of knowledge and skill to an appropriate training program. The outcomes and the anticipated outcomes will help target behaviours for success.
Challenge your skills
As demonstrated in the model previously, a runner's willingness to take on new challenges will enable growth in capabilities. This means actively taking on new goals and challenges that are unique to you will promote growth and optimal experience.
Initial studies revealed that people tend to experience flow in active activities more often then passive (i.e. watching running). It's important to invest time and energy in the experience, and research indicates that people need to continually challenge their skills to facilitate this especially in the sports arena. Hence the entering of a race or competition is the perfect way to do this. Be sure to match your skills to the task at hand.
Set goals and measure your feedback
In flow theory, goals must be inherent to the activity for the individual to strive towards. This could include finishing a running training session at a set target pace. One must have a goal to strive for and learn to make a commitment to that pursuit. So whether it is a 5 km, 10 km, marathon, or an ultra-marathon, it needs to be applicable to the skill level of the person. Goals and challenges will define your actions.
To develop your running skills it's important to monitor feedback and progress towards the successful attainment of your goals. Environmental factors will also play a role in supporting flow, as this interaction with the environment will enable self-regulation to match the set goals (Bakker, Oerlemans, Demerouti, Bruins, & Donovan, 2011).
Studies have shown that flow has a positive relationship between practicing mindfulness in the sports context for athletes (Swann, Keegan, Piggott, & Crust, 2012) (Csiksentmihalyi & M, 1993). Mindfulness is the ability to focus one's attention in the present moment, which is a Buddhist meditative tradition for improving concentration (Aherene, Moran, & Lonsdale, 2011). This is linked to the flow characteristic of ‘concentration on the task at hand’ and ignoring any distractions that could impact on one's success.
Mindfulness training encourages passive and non-judgmental acceptance of the situation. It brings complete attention to ones’ body, sensations and involvement in the actions of the moment. A study by Aherene et al. (2011) found that athletes who underwent mindfulness training over a 6-week period noted significant increases in the flow dimensions of ‘clear goals’ and ‘sense of control’. This was different from research undertaken by Kee & Wang (2007), which found that mindfulness training resulted in increased scores on the flow subscales of ‘ challenge and skill balance’, ‘concentration’ and ‘loss of self consciousness’. However it was noted that this was due to dispositional characteristics focusing on personal explanations, over situational attributions used by Aherene et al. (2011). The behaviours typically reported to support this were awareness of attention, control, goal-setting, imagery and self talk strategies. Mindfulness training appears to be a good method for increasing the flow state, and thus contributing to performance due to the ability to maintain a present moment focus.
Practical tips and advice
- Do something daily that relates to the attainment of your goal. For example: runners strength training, speed sessions, fartlek or rest days – enjoy them all.
- If you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable – the more activities we do with excellence and style the more life becomes intrinsically rewarding. Yes, running may cause you to ache and experience pain, but just think how exhilarated you will be after completing a new goal.
- Find ways to keep enjoying running by increasing complexity. That's right - new challenges mean new opportunities. Run on a different continent, set a personal best on your favorite course.
- Value your health and make time for physical activity
- Build habits of strength – the more discipline and energy you apply to something, the greater your success. Think of your future self.
- Take charge of your schedule. For example: schedule your runs around your circadian rhythms; or go running at lunchtime. Find a way to make it work within your lifestyle.
- Make time for rest and relaxation. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are just as important.
- Higher, faster and stronger – break through your own personal limitations.
- Find opportunities for action - http://www.active.com/running
Flowhas many applications, with many of these being yet to be explored. The purpose of flow is to keep on flowing. Although flow appears effortless its no such thing, it requires strenuous physical exertion and mental activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This emerging field of flow in sports is significantly beneficial to health psychology and how to support individuals to sustain exercise behavior and improve performance.
The overview of this chapter asked what is flow and how can we experience psychological flow in running. Hopefully, from this you have been able to develop your knowledge to adapt your own DIY action plan to experience flow to develop your skills and set new challenges for your self in running, leading to optimal experience.
Bakker, B., Oerlemans, W., Demerouti, E., Bruins, B., & Donovan, K. (2011, February 18). Flow and performance: A study among talented Dutch Soccer players. Psychology of Sport and Exercise , 432-450.
Csiksentmihalyi, & M. (1993). Evolving self: A psychology for third millenium. Harper Collins.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (2nd edition ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow:The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2008, June). Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well Bring Across Life's Domains. 14-23.
Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self determination theory in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.
Deckers, L. (2010). Motivation Biological, Psychological and Enviornmental (3rd Edition ed.). (Pearson, Ed.) Boston.
Hamilton, J. (1981). Attention, Personality and Self Regulation of Mood: Absorbing interest and boredom. Prgress in experiemental personality research , 282-315.
Jackson, S. A., & Marsh, H. W. (1996). Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Optimal Experience; The Flow State Scale (Vol. 18). (H. K. Publisher, Ed.) Queensland, QLD, Australia: Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology.
Jackson, S., & Marsh, H. (1996). Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Optimal Experience: The Flow State Scale. Journal of Sport and Exercise Pyshiology , 18, 17-35.
Jackson, S., Ford, S., Kimieck, J., & Marsh, H. (1998). Psychological Correlates of Flow in Sport. Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology , 358-378.
Kee, Y., & Wang, J. (2007). Relationships between mindfulness, flow dispositions and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytical approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise , 393-411.
Logan, R. (1988). Flow in Solitary Ordeals: Optimal Experience Psychological Studies of Flow and counciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Maslow. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper.
Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation (Vol. 50). Psychological Review.
Masters, K., & Ogles, B. (1995). An Investigation of the Diferent motivations of Marathon Runners with varying degrees of Experience. Journal of Sports Behavior , 18, 69-79.
Noakes, T. (2001). The Lore of Running. Cape Town, South Afica: Oxford.
Reeves. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (5th Edition ed.). (Johnson, Ed.) Iowa, USA: John Wiley & Sons.
Schuiler, J., & Brunner, S. (2008, April 21). The rewarding effect of flow experience on performance in a marathon race. Psychology of Sport and Exercise , 168-174.
Seligman, M., & Csikzentmihalyi, C. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. (A. P. Association, Ed.) American Psychologist , 55 (1), 5-14.
Sheenan. (1978). Running and being. Warner Books. New York.
Stavrout.N, J. S. (2007). Flow Experience and Athletes Performance with reference of the Orthogonal Model of Flow. (H. Kinetics, Ed.) The Sports Psychologist.
Swann, C., Keegan, R., Piggott, D., & Crust, L. (2012, May 15). A systematic review of the experience, occurence and controlliability of flow. Psychology of Sport and Exercise .