Friday, July 9, 2010

Flow and Cycling

Flow can be difficult to understand, in 1996 Jackson and Marsh created the Flow State Scale (FSS) in an attempt to measure the existence of flow during an activity. Examining the sub-scales of the FSS, as listed below, allows for a better understanding of what flow really is and how to achieve it in an activity.

An athlete doesn't need to meet all the criterion below to experience a flow state, but the sense of flow is greater when more of the sub-scales are met at the highest degree.

Action-Awareness Merging:
The individual is so deeply involved in the task that action is automatic. The cyclist does not think about pedaling, but just does it. The cyclist may even feel like a machine because pedaling feels so smooth and automatic.

Clear Goals:
Unambiguous objectives give the cyclist a clear idea of what they need to accomplish. For example, a clear workout objective may be to do three 10 minute Lactate Threshold intervals with 5 minutes of recovery between them.

Unambiguous Feedback:
The cyclist receives clear and immediate feedback, which could include a time for the interval or instruction from a coach.

Concentration on the Task at Hand:
The cyclist is completely focused on the task. While riding, the performer thinks only about riding and not about other aspects of life, or even how much cycling may hurt at the time. During a state of flow, cycling does not hurt no matter how great the demands.

Sense of Control: The cyclist has a clear feeling of control, but does not have to focus on gaining control. It is easy for the cyclist to power up hills or surge on a competitor without experiencing a feeling of great effort.

Loss of Self-Consciousness: The cyclist does not think about how they may appear, but is rather focused only on doing the activity. This could also include losing consciousness of the crowd, other competitors, or the scenery.

Transformation of Time: The perception of time may be altered, whereby time either feels as if it slows down or speeds up. The former is more likely to occur in ball sports, while the latter is likely to indicate flow during cycling.

Autotelic Experience: The activity is intrinsically rewarding and is done for its own sake. An individual is likely to find utter joy with the act of riding itself, and not have a preoccupation with time or performance against others.

Challenge-Skill Balance:
The cyclist experiences equality between situational challenges and personal skills, especially when challenges and skills are at a high level. The flow state is far more enjoyable when the demands are high.

Flow can be mysterious and difficult to achieve, but there are things that every cyclist can do to increase the likelihood that they will experience the flow state.

An easy way to experience flow is to feel good on every ride and to hit each workout, even the most challenging ones, with relative ease. This would be the way to match skill with demands. This is easier said than done. Those that ride regularly and train heavily realize that effortless feelings while doing challenging workouts/rides are difficult to come by, and even more difficult to explain. It is much easier to change mental focus before and during a ride to increase the likelihood that you will experience flow.

Before you ride, drop any preconceived expectations that you will have some phenomenal performance. This lessens the level of challenge and makes it more likely that your physical skills on that day will be able to match the challenge, even if you feel suboptimal. By lessening your focus on performance you will allow yourself to enjoy riding for its own sake, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will have an autotelic experience.

During the ride, be sure to associate rather than dissociate. This will increase the level of action-awareness merging, concentration on the task at hand, and will promote a loss of self-consciousness. You should not expect to experience flow on every ride, but you may increase your chances of achieving Flow.

Achieving a flow experience may provide a great boost of confidence and may be the most positive emotional state in all of cycling (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), so it is certainly an experience to strive for.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Flow and Cycling: An Introduction

Some days the pedals turn over with ease, the gaps are closed with ease, your power is strong and steady.

Riding feels smooth and effortless and you can go forever.

No matter how hard you push the pedals, you don't hurt.

Each pedal stroke, each acceleration, each breath brings focus and clarity.

Almost every cyclist and athlete has had this feeling, it can be difficult to explain and even harder to replicate for most. This is the state of flow, and is described by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) as the optimal balance between skill and demand. The flow experience is sheer enjoyment and may result in optimal performance. If a cyclist has the ability to achieve objectives in training and experience flow, that cyclist will likely have increased confidence come race day and an increased opportunity to experience flow.

Csíkszentmihályi identified the following ten factors as accompanying an experience of flow:

1. Clear goals, goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities.

2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.

5. Direct and immediate feedback, success and failure is apparent.

6. Balance between ability level and challenge, the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.

7. A sense of personal control over the situation.

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs, one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it.

10. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

You don't need to experience all of the above to experience the flow state.

Flow can be difficult to achieve, but there are things that every cyclist can do to increase the likelihood that they will experience the flow state during a race or training.

This is the first post on Flow, subsequent posts will take a more in depth look at the mechanisms, and conditions for flow and the steps each athlete can take to optimize there performance through the knowledge and application of flow.