Finding your flow with Dr Trish Jackman
“Allow yourself to be spontaneous,” says ex-Waterford camogie player and now sport psychology lecturer Dr Trish Jackman as we talk about reaching and maintaining consistent flow in performance.
Over the course of half an hour, I spoke to Trish in regards to the notion of reaching a state of flow within sporting performance, what it exactly entails and the steps needed in order to reap its benefits. When asked to define it, Trish, who lectures at Lincoln University, firstly compared it with the feeling of not being in flow.
“One of the biggest differences is that sense of effortlessness. Often when we perform in a sport we are thinking about what we’re doing. If we’re running then we’re really focussed on our technique, each step, each stride, every arm movement. When we are in a state of flow it tends to be a lot more effortless. It almost feels as though we’re not thinking about it at all, but of course we are thinking about something, but not necessarily in the same conscious manner as we often do.”
Instead then, what are we are concentrating on?
“We’re able to concentrate on what is important in the task, but it doesn’t seem to take the same mental strength it often does. We have a sense of control, we almost feel like we’re in control but not necessarily needing to exert lots of effort to be in control. I think a key characteristic is we’re really enjoying what we’re doing. Sometimes we go into an activity and we start to engage into it and we’re doing it but we’re not enjoying it. A key aspect of flow is we’re enjoying what we’re doing there and then in the moment.”
A large part of it, Trish suggested, relates heavily to the idea of having the mental space and agility to just accept and experience every situation as it comes to you. In a sense, you morph into the mindspace of what is required for that specific moment with minimal fuss.
“You’re much more spontaneous and able to make decisions in the moment. Another characteristic is the loss of self consciousness. We lose concern for how people evaluate us and because of that it can almost liberate us and free ourselves. We lose some of the shackles we place on ourselves when it comes to performance and we’re free to try certain mannouvers we may not otherwise try with such freedom.”
That feeling Trish speaks of, the imaginary shackles being off, stems from boundaries that we internally place on our performances. What we’re capable of, what we’re not capable of, all stemming from a deep-rooted sense of I. This, a lot of the time, in a need to define ourselves as a person and competitor, sees us compete in sport for outcomes.
“(Performances with shackles on can come from) a sense of fear, a fear of failure, not performing well and the consequences of that. The fear of making mistakes, the anxiety that may come if you don’t reach a certain outcome. As you get closer and closer to your aimed goal, a lot of the time we’re recognising that there’s something important on the line or a big consequence.”
The best way, Trish says, to help individuals find more flow within their performance comes from the simple question of delving into “why?”
“Stripping it back a lot of the time, asking the people why are you doing this activity is important. If we can start to get in touch with that and your values, we can then try to get away from the focus on the outcome. At the end of your sports career, medals are not going to mean as much to you as memories. Getting athletes to tap into their why is so important, if they understand that, it’ll help them channel their energies and be motivated in the best way.”
Although this mindset is a hugely beneficial mental destination, it’s important to avoid viewing it with rigidity, which goes against the entire idea in itself. It shouldn’t be substituted for being able to switch to different mindsets when needed.
“Often if things are going really well and you’re in flow you can almost free your mind of the bigger picture, but if things start getting a little tighter you naturally start to recognise the importance on the line here. If it’s a crucial stage of performance, we may start to focus on the bigger context and thinking about the outcomes again. This may focus on executing manoeuvres in a certain way, controlling the tempo of the game, slowing down or speeding it up. We see athletes who’ll be in flow and then suddenly they become aware of how far they have to go until the finish line and switch into a much more deliberative state.”
This, Trish suggests, means that it is hugely important for athletes to build the mental flexibility and agility to understand what is needed from their mind at that moment in time. If flow is the most appropriate at that moment in time, so be it. The ability and awareness of what tool to use out the toolkit, Trish says, comes from experience.
“What’s really interesting is that those who are more experienced in particular tend to have a more advanced metacognitive knowledge. As players get more experienced, they have more tools in their tool kit they can use when things get hard. In a performance context, if they have the capacity to know first of all what strategy they need to use in order to respond to that information, it’s hugely important.”
Trish’s Three Tips to Reaching Flow
- Have autonomous motives. This means you should want to do the activity because of the intrinsic rewards you’re going to get.
- Try building confidence in the activity. You can do this from more reflection on the actual task at hand — look at what you’re achieving in a training session, a warm up or a match.
- Avoid setting really specific goals if you can. Focus on more non-specific goals and allow yourself to be spontaneous.
Describe yourself in three words
Disciplined, motivated and a leader
How would your family and friends describe you in three words?
Committed, loyal and passionate.
Are you more introverted or extroverted?
Introverted normally, professionally I can be quite social though.
Biggest personality strength
Biggest personality weakness?
Lack of self compassion
Best advice you’ve ever been given or would like to give to readers?
Enjoy your sporting career whilst it lasts because it’ll pass you by in a flash