Flow is not the same as peak performance. Flow can be defined as a psychological experience when the individual is engaged in a challenging activity. Flow can happen in almost any activity that has a balance between challenge and skill level, involves total concentration, and requires participation to achieve a goal. You cannot experience Flow watching TV, but you can experience Flow writing a book chapter. Flow can also happen at work or leisure activities such as gardening, cooking, or driving.
Peak Performance is a superior functioning to achieve an outcome such as a victory, your best, or break a world record. Peak performances can happen when the athlete is experiencing Flow, but it does not need the Flow states to occur. Other not so positive emotions such as anger and fear, and in the right amount for the individual, can improve performance and lead to physically extreme accomplishments. Of course, performing at your optimal level will bring a positive experience; but it is not the same as Flow.
Peak experience is a positive and intense moment of highest happiness, a fulfilling and meaningful moment. It is an emotional and personal experience that can be related to an excellent performance or not.
Sometimes the individual can experience Flow and not show “superior performance”. Or the individual can show “peak performance” and not experience the optimal feelings of Flow. Sometimes all three can occur together. And sometimes Flow can precede peak performance which can precede peak experience.
It is common to see many sport psychology professionals trying to sell the roadmap to Flow. However, the extrinsic motivation of pursuing Flow to receive external rewards can disrupt it. The psychologist who defined Flow said:
“As soon as the emphasis shifts from the experience per se to what you can accomplish with it, we are back in the realm of everyday life ruled by extrinsic considerations (Csikszentmihalyi)”.
If you want to increase the chances of experiencing “Flow” it is important to remember:
Challenge must be in balance with skill level. For example, you are trained to surf in a certain type of waves and not bigger than ten feet, but during a surf trip or competition, you encounter bigger, faster, and more challenging waves. The different and challenging environment can trigger anxiety and lower the chances of achieving Flow. The same happens if your skill level is too high and the waves are too easy; most likely, you will feel too relaxed and unable to keep your focused attention on what you are doing. And it is impossible to experience Flow if you lose concentration and focus. Also, your motor abilities must be so well trained that they become automatic; thinking too much about the execution of a skill disrupts Flow. Finally, you will also need intrinsic motivation, something that you want to achieve because it is personally rewarding.
If you want to talk about peak performance and Flow states, contact me.
Andrea C. Dias, MA, ABSP
Masters in Sport and Performance Psychology
American Board of Sport Psychology; Board Certified Sport Performance Consultant
Jackson, S. A. (2011). Flow. In Morris, T. & Terry, P. (Eds). New sport and exercise psychology companion (pp. 327-357). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Tech.
O’Connor, E. (2016). The Great Courses (Producer). The psychology of performance: how to be your best in life [DVD]. Available from https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-psychology-of-performance-how-to-be-your-best-in-life.html