The Science and Psychology of Being In The Zone
“I was in a groove. I was in a rhythm that I can’t really explain. I started hitting three’s like they were free throws. The rim seemed like a big ol’ huge bucket, and I can’t miss it. After awhile I just looked at Marv (Albert), Magic (Johnson) and those guys and just said, ‘What can I say? It’s not me, it’s just the moment.’”
Above are the words of who many regard as the best basketball player to have ever played the game, Michael Jordan, discussing his 39-point performance in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. Jordan hit six three-point shots in the first half and then famously turned to the broadcasting crew and simply shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in disbelief at his own performance.
Perhaps the play-by-play man, legendary Marv Albert, said it best, “Did you see that look? Michael indicated he can’t believe it!”
There is arguably nothing more fun to watch in all of sport than when a player enters the kind of zone Jordan entered that night. Observers and participants alike often describe this as an almost supernatural state of being in which seemingly nothing can go wrong.
What might surprise many fans is that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has actually studied this experience scientifically. He first became intrigued by such work observing supremely talented painters. He noticed that on some occasions, these painters would become so absorbed in the their work that they would lose track of basically everything happening around them. They were seemingly oblivious to any sort of pain, fatigue and even time. They became totally absorbed in the work they were doing.
This experience Csikszentmihalyi observed would later be called “flow,” and this is what is occurring when professional athletes describe being in the zone.
Here is an account of Ben Gordon, then with the Chicago Bulls, pulled from a 2005 issue of Sports Illustrated, which is a clear description of a flow experience: “You lose track of time, what quarter it is. You don’t hear the crowd. You don’t know how many points you have. You don’t think. You’re just playing. Offensively everything is instinct. When the feeling starts going away, it’s terrible. I talk to myself and say, ‘C’mon, you gotta be more aggressive.’ That’s when you know it’s gone. It’s not instinctive anymore.”
During flow, a person is totally immersed in what he or she is doing while simultaneously having a feeling of being energized, intense focus, full involvement, all while experiencing success in the activity. Another way to think of this is what Csikszentmihalyi described as “working at full capacity.”
During a flow experience a person has a very clear goal he or she is trying to achieve and the focus is narrowed exclusively towards meeting that goal. In addition, the person loses self-consciousness and is totally absorbed in the activity. Another way to think of this is that the sense of self as a social actor is lost. As Gordon noted above, “You don’t hear the crowd.” It’s almost as if one is in a world by himself and isn’t aware of evaluations or judgments from the outside world. One loses oneself in the activity to the point that other needs are ignored or feel as if they are not even present. Hours pass by as if they were minutes.
Reading these initial characteristics of the flow experience, many people are tempted to believe they experience flow while watching a sporting event or doing something more passive. Such events would not be characterized as flow because in order to achieve flow one must have some kind of control over the outcome. Despite what some fans think while being enveloped by watching their favorite sporting event, they have no control over the outcome.
In addition, for one to experience flow the activity must meet a delicate balance between ability level and challenge. If we do not experience enough of a challenge, we will not achieve flow. However, if the challenge is too daunting and we don’t have the resources to achieve it, we will also fail to experience flow.
Reflect back to Jordan’s famous flow experience. While he was one of the best basketball players on the planet, he didn’t experience flow every night. It took the right mix of circumstances for him to find the crucial balance between ability level and challenge. The NBA Finals provided that balance. The experience also must offer immediate feedback, which is something sport most certainly provides.
Finally, the activity must be intrinsically rewarding. That is, we must love engaging in the activity for the activity’s sake. In other words, professional athletes who are playing simply for the money are not likely to experience flow since the activity is extrinsically, as opposed to intrinsically motivated.
It is important to note that flow can be experienced in myriad of activities and is not limited simply to sports. For example, in my own life I experience flow while teaching, engaging in therapy or communication training and writing. However, much like Jordan didn’t experience flow in every basketball game, I do not experience flow every time I engage in the aforementioned activities.
Research has indicated that people who experience flow very much enjoy it and want to experience it more frequently. However, it has also indicated that people engage rather infrequently in the activities that are likely to induce flow. Perhaps our quick fix society is to blame as it can be so much easier to engage in superficial activities that provide us with an initial increase in positive affect but do not promote true flow experiences.
Flow concepts are being implemented in business, education and a number of other areas of society. The question being asked now is what kind of environment best fosters flow? This must also be combined with the question of what skills do we each possess that can be actualized in such a way as to promote flow.
Obviously, not every NBA player has the skill-level of a Michael Jordan, but that doesn’t mean that every player cannot experience his own flow experience. The challenge for NBA organizations is to create the unique environment for each player to maximize his opportunity for flow.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.