The Brain’s Power: How Athletes Achieve ‘Flow’ State

Athlete achieving the flow state during a game.

Liverpool Football Club’s current unbeaten streak in the Premier League showcases the team in what many refer to as a ‘Flow’ state. Ever lost track of time because you were so engrossed in a task? That laser focus and sense of purpose are characteristics of the ‘Flow’. Let’s delve into the intricacies of how this psychological state works in our brain.

Read more: The Brain’s Power: How Athletes Achieve ‘Flow’ State

The Concept of ‘Flow’:

The term ‘Flow’ was popularized in the 70s and 80s by the Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He described this mental state as one where an individual feels challenged, connected, responsible, or extremely interested. From studying for exams to participating in a sports match, achieving a ‘Flow’ state is attainable for everyone. For a vivid depiction, check out this video where athletes discuss their personal experiences: YouTube Video.

Neurological Insights into ‘Flow’:

To answer the intriguing question of what exactly happens in our brain during ‘Flow’, I turned to the research paper, “Neurocognitive mechanisms of flow state”, penned by David J. Harris and his team from the University of Exeter.

Harris identifies three foundational conditions for achieving flow:

  1. Clear objectives
  2. Immediate feedback
  3. A balance between challenge and skill

So, how do you actually achieve this elusive state? Harris and his colleagues list these key elements: focus, preparation, motivation, arousal, and positive thoughts. However, a caveat is that these factors were deduced from experimental approaches, meaning there might be a difference between theoretical and practical applications.

Flow in Action:

Numerous studies have aimed to understand the brain’s activity during a flow state using visualization techniques and tools like MRI and fMRI. The results? Not shockingly, the brain regions responsible for attention are more active. There’s a reduction in self-consciousness, an increase in positive emotions, and automated actions become dominant. Chris van de Togt, a renowned sports analyst, mentioned, “In martial arts, for instance, a confident fighter can react swiftly to an opponent. However, with doubt, they tend to overthink, resulting in slow decisions.”

The Role of Coaches:

The term ‘Flow’ is now ubiquitous in sports. For coaches, the challenge lies in crafting conditions conducive for players to enter this state, especially in team sports like football. Ideally, players possess the self-regulating capability to trigger this ‘Flow’ in one another. While a coach might not have a direct ‘Flow’ switch, they can certainly provide the necessary preparation, motivation, arousal, and positive reinforcement – often seen in motivational speeches before matches or during half-time breaks.


This blog aimed to give you a brief understanding of the brain’s activities during a flow state. To illustrate the slow-motion experience some athletes report in a ‘Flow’, I leave you with a scene from ‘The Matrix’ where Neo manages to dodge bullets: Matrix Scene.

For an in-depth understanding, watch the TED talk by the pioneer of the ‘Flow’ concept, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: TED Talk.

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