Going with the flow is easy, finding it is the hard part

By Dr Ed Coughlan

When an athlete’s body and mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something challenging, such as shooting 60 in the final round of the Scottish Open, as Brandon Stone did last week, they are said to be in a state of flow.

This almost intangible performance experience speaks directly to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: Me high? Cheeks send me high!).

His suggestion was that people find genuine satisfaction when they are completely immersed in an activity that requires their creative abilities, in order to be successful on that task.

Athletes often experience this feeling when things appear to go really well for them on an especially important day.

They score every free that is awarded to them in an All-Ireland hurling or football final. They kick every penalty or conversion in a Six Nations decider. They shave the hole on the final putt of the last hole to be the first player in European Tour history to shoot 59.

The list of sporadic instances in sport of what could be termed examples of flow is endless. In fact, it is likely that most people who play sport have had a day — or certainly moments in a day — that everything appeared to fall into place.

When athletes speak of these untouchable experiences, they comment on being in the zone and often struggle to articulate what had actually just happened, apart from really enjoying the experience.

This should be seen as a massive opportunity to learn and, if not seized, an equally massive opportunity lost.

Interestingly, since the introduction of ‘flow’ in the 1970s, it has become somewhat of a mystical, mythical part of sports performance. We tend to throw our hands in the air on those flawless days as if to say, we have no idea what just happened and there is no point in questioning it, because it was just one of those days.

For athletes and coaches with an interest in playing an active role in determining their own destiny, rather than leaving it up to the sporting Gods to tell them when it is all going to fall into place, flow can be a portal into the domain of consistency.

At the elite level of sport, the margins of effort and application from one athlete to another are minimal. Everyone is working hard, some more appropriately than others.

In fact, the more appropriate your practice, so long as you’re doing a sufficient amount of it, the more likely it will be the best gauge of how you will perform.

Moreover, for every moment you do not engage in relevant, specific, context-filled practice, you move further and further away from being in contention the next day you compete. That is what will be fascinating to watch in this week’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.

In addition to following the exploits of Rory, Jordan, Dustin and company, what will Brandon Stone have learned from his wonder round of last week?

The question is pertinent, because, before last week, no-one was picking him as a potential winner in Gullane at the Scottish Open; no-one, and why would they?

In his previous 16 starts of the season, he missed the cut on nine occasions, with not a single top-10 or even atop-20 finish.

We often hear commentators link a defining performance of a player that released them on a run of good form. That does not happen by accident.

That happens because of an increased awareness of what is going on with their performance. That is what was included in the early definition of flow.

Total immersion. Not a passenger holding on for dear life with your eyes closed hoping not to wake up from a dream, but fully locked into the process of what playing to your potential feels like and engaging in those processes before, during, and after competing in varying degrees, to bleed every ounce of learning from the experience.

Again, in this regard, Stone merits closer examination. A graduate from the European Tour’s second-tier Challenge Tour in 2015, he has won once each year since progressing onto the full tour. In 2016, he won on his second start at the BMW South African Open.

In 2017, he won the first event of the season, the Alfred Dunhill Championships, but managed only three top-20s for the remaining 23 events.

This young man is clearly a world-class golfer when things fall into place, but that description could probably be applied to most, if not all, professional golfers, and in fact professional athletes in general. Everyone at that level is world class when it all falls into place.

What about engaging in the learning so that the wait is less of a lottery, in anticipation of some serendipitous alignment of the stars?

It is important to note that this is not about winning every week; that is not a fair expectation to put on anyone. It is about being in contention consistently. Stone is still young and this may be an unfair scrutiny of his potential, but following his brilliance last week, he is in the international spotlight at The Open, and for very good

reason. It is a burden he would rather have than not have.

Jack Nicklaus famously said that pressure is an indication that you’re in contention. He is one of only a handful of golfers to truly exhibit the level of control of his game under discussion here.

He never spoke about luck, apart from the odd break here and there. His performances were built on control, managing his energy and knowing how to learn from every experience.

Every sport has its luminaries and they will all differ, because there is no one template to follow for becoming great.

Nevertheless, there will probably be consistencies between them to combine them all. The skill of how to learn may well be that link to connect all great athletes.

How to experience and celebrate success when it comes their way. To have the presence of mind while it is unfolding to learn from it and be able to recall the important aspects of the performance so it is repeatable and tangible.

These are qualities that lead to consistency. These are skills that put athletes in contention.

Yet, these are also opportunities lost to passive practice and performance. Equally, there is danger in being overly analytical. Therein lies the rub: How to get the balance right between playing with freedom, while also having an awareness of what is going on?

No-one said this was easy, but all too often, the forensic examination looks to the outcome as opposed to the thinking and the processes that precede it. Somebody, hopefully one of our own, will raise the Claret Jug on Sunday.

It may well be a flash-in-the-pan performance, something they will have no issue with whatsoever, but it may also be the beginning of something great or it may remain a fleeting glimpse of their potential before vanishing into thin air.

Though the answers will lie within, only time will tell whether the lessons were ever learned.

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