Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Toward a Conceptual Understanding on the Flow Experience in Elite Athletes

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Toward a Conceptual Understanding on the Flow Experience in Elite Athletes

Article excerpt

Flow state is a valued experience and source of motivation for many individuals undertaking physical activity, whether it be in high-level competitive sport or a fitness endeavor. Being able to attain flow during sport or exercise participation can elevate an experience to higher levels of enjoyment and achievement. Flow in physical activity remains, however, an elusive concept that is difficult to define precisely or describe in its fullness. The purpose of this investigation was to attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the flow state through the eyes of the elite athlete.

Positive experiences, such as flow, are arguably at least as important to understand as the negative experiences of sport that receive substantial research attention (e.g., anxiety, stress, and burnout). First, flow is related to positive performance outcomes (Jackson & Roberts, 1992). Second, flow is a very enjoyable state; in fact, it is often referred to as an optimal experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Another term Csikszentmihalyi (1990) uses to denote flow is fun.

Fun, or enjoyment, is regarded as a primary motivation of many sport participants (e.g., Brodkin & Weiss, 1990; Gill, Gross, & Huddleston, 1983), and yet understanding what fun, or enjoyment, means is also a challenging task. Scanlan and her colleagues' (e.g., Scanlan, Carpenter, Lobel, & Simons, 1993; Scanlan & Simons, 1992) work in enjoyment has contributed to a greater understanding of how this construct operates in sport through the development of a conceptual model of the factors contributing to sport enjoyment. Other researchers have focused on either peak performance or optimal experience in sport. For example, Ravizza (1984) examined the construct of peak experience, applying Maslow's (1964) model to athletes' experiences. Several researchers have focused on understanding peak performance (e.g., Cohn, 1991; Garfield & Bennett, 1984; Jackson & Roberts, 1992), focusing mainly on high-level athletes' descriptions of the achievement of optimal performance.

While sharing some similarities with all three constructs, flow is distinguishable from enjoyment, peak performance, and peak experience. For instance, flow is enjoyable by definition, yet there are several other dimensions by which flow is defined. Enjoyment, too, is experienced by sport and exercise participants in diverse ways of which flow is just one. Scanlan and colleagues (Scanlan, Carpenter, Schmidt, Simons, & Keeler, 1993) defined enjoyment as "a positive affective response to the sport experience that reflects generalized feelings such as pleasure, liking, and fun" (p. 6). This definition focuses on an affective experience; flow involves other dimensions than affective, and the positive affect associated with flow state can best be seen as one component of the total experience.

Flow is also distinguishable from peak performance and peak experience. Peak performance denotes a standard of accomplishment rather than a psychological state. Peak experience may bear the closest similarity to flow, with the main difference being one of intensity of experience. It is possible, however, that peak experiences may not necessarily involve flow (Jackson, 1993). The constructs may best be regarded as overlapping but with unique characteristics. It is hoped that by examining the relevance of Csikszentmihalyi's (1990) conceptual model of flow to elite athletes' experience of flow, a greater conceptual clarity of this construct and its unique characteristics can be attained.

Csikszentmihalyi (1975) first developed the concept of flow after examining autotelic, or self-motivating, activities such as playing chess, rock climbing, dancing, and surgery. Csikszentmihalyi (1975) found complete involvement of the person with the activity, and the use of the term flow came from descriptions of these involving experiences by the respondents. The word flow is a succinct way of expressing the sense of seemingly effortless movement characteristic of this experience. …

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