Tag Archives: Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

FLOW: the ideal swimming state

Every swimmer knows how the actual act of swimming can be both rewarding and frustrating. I can’t speak how it is for everyone else, but for me most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle, (like most of life). Sometimes the frustration is horrible, getting in the pool unconcerned but then the water feels like it is fighting me on every movement, my (already average) times are down, and I wonder what the hell I am doing wrong.

And then there are other days, days which are rarer. But from conversations with other swimmers, most recognise this state. The rare day is the day when you are completely in tune with yourself and the water and moving through the medium in a different fashion. It’s not specifically about speed, but as swimmers that’s how the feeling often manifests itself. I was reminded of this when I read a Tweet from Evan Morrison recently:

“50×200 SCY in <2.5 hrs this AM. Unexpectedly firing on all cylinders. Frankly, one of the best workouts of my life. We live for such days.”

Now you may know Evan is a ridiculously fast open water and Channel swimmer and Ederle Swim record holder, so don’t get hung up on the fact that most of us will never reach his times. Before Evan responds that he is not that fast, he has done 25k as 250 x 100, all off 1:30. No, the point is how even a swimmer like Evan also experiences this state. (Even Evan has a nice ring, doesn’t it?)

We can mostly remember those days for quite a while. A while back, I was doing repeat 200s when I realised I was doing my repeats 10 seconds faster than normal, and yet it was effortless. There really is no better word. It’s not that I was setting speed records, but I was in a different mental place to normal, which manifested itself as a different physical sensation.  I wasn’t even sure when it started, and my first thoughts were that I had been reading the lap clock wrong. I recall an unusual sensation of calmness. I saw the times, was curious, but utterly relaxed, and I didn’t get excited but just stayed calm, without trying too hard. And I held the times. I’ve had good days since then, but not quite as good as that. "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience"-Cover

In 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was published by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a study identifying a positive state of happiness that arose from the pursuit of expertise. He defines it as: a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. In the article, he identifies the following factors as accompanying an experience of flow.

  1. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  2. loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness. Action with awareness fades into action alone.
  3. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  4. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  5. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  6. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  7. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  8. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
  9. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging. Action with awareness fades into action alone.

The author says that not all these factors need to be concurrent for flow to be experienced, but I think, on those rare swimming days, those days that you literally couldn’t pay for, you probably are exhibiting most if not all of the list. In tune, in the groove, flyin’, all are terms we have for the sensation. According to Csíkszentmihályi, Flow state arises as a function of expertise and difficulty, which is ideal for swimmers, who spend years of complete concentration and dedication trying to make minute improvements, (to an extent that non-swimmers don’t realise). When the task is difficult and expertise is brought to bear on it, the flow state can result. Both must match for Flow to result. Now if only the flow state was more readily or regularly accessible. But even if it’s not, the sweet transcendent and rare taste of it, is something that keeps us swimming and pursuing other complex tasks. It’s one of the ineffable rewards of swimming.

Two days ago, I FLOWed. It was good.