The Original Csikszentmihalyi Model
Flow is a useful concept but difficult to develop as a teachable practice. Revising the model can help.
For a number of years, I’ve been keenly interested in the Flow concept as researched and developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Dr. C). While the concept and theory are exceptionally well researched and presented, practical application of the concept was difficult for me. What I experienced was that, knowing Flow Theory, it became easy to recognise when a Flow state had been attained in performance. It wasn’t difficult to recognise a Flow State before knowing Flow Theory, I just didn’t have labels for the state. What was missing was an understanding of the process that leads to generating a flow state.
The primary tool for outlining the process is the Flow Model that Dr. C created to encapsulate his theory.
His model looks like this:
The model is a simple matrix using two axes, one for a progression of intensity (Level of Challenge) and one for a progression of capability (Level of Skill). Eight emotional states populate the interior of the matrix representing the path to the Flow State.
From this model, it appears that there are many paths to a Flow state (which is probably true) but no predictable means of getting there.
There must be more to it than what this model shows.
A Useful Addition to the Original Model
Studying the model carefully over a significant period of time I first came to a realisation that there were two more dynamics that were impacting the attainment of a Flow State. The first dynamic is the Level of Action. This is a parallel dynamic to the Level of Challenge. Level of Action is different because it is about the pace of the activity and not the difficulty of the activity. Action or pace may or may not increase the Challenge but Challenge exists independently of Action. As the Action increases the likelihood of Flow State attainment also increases.
The second dynamic is Emotional Quality. As the model shows the Emotional Quality is low on the left side of the matrix and high on the right side.
The modified model now looks like this:
With the revised model it is now possible to see that where it is possible to generate high Quality Emotions in situations that require high Skill and offer a high degree of Challenge combined with high levels of Action a Flow State will have an increased likelihood of occurring.
Not all of the dynamics need to be at high levels to attain a useful state of functioning although the state may not be what Dr. C has defined as a true Flow State.
Further Model Development Through an Inspired Realisation
Close inspection of the revised model reveals another helpful insight. Looking at the two emotional states in the middle of the matrix, Worry and Control, one can see that these two states are opposite sides of the same coin. That coin is the coin of Confidence. Worry and Control, in their form as emotional states, represent the ends of a continuum that represents the Confidence spectrum.
With this realisation, the model can be further adjusted to look like this:
With the realisation that the second level of the matrix deals with Confidence, terms more appropriate for expression of Confidence can now be used. Worry is replaced with Doubt and Control is replaced with Assurance.
It can now also be seen that we have continuums in both the horizontal and vertical planes. We have now also exposed two very valuable additional realisations. These two realisations create the environment where a process begins to be revealed. It is now possible to see the path for training through to the consistent achievement of a Flow State in performance.
The Horizontal State Pattern
As the model has now developed it is possible to see that there is not one continuum of States but three continuums. These continuums represent the essential performance elements of Perception, Belief and Activation. Any performer must be operating at a high level (right side) of each of these continuums in order to achieve an effective Flow State in performance.
The model now looks like this:
The mystery of Flow State achievement now begins to be unravelled. We see that development in the areas of Perception, Belief and Activation will lead to an improved likelihood of consistent Flow State achievement. It is highly possible to work effectively in each of the three continuums. Each of the three continuums can be worked on independently. Creating a program to address and improve function in the three continuums will improve general performance maturity which, in itself, will improve performance while making Flow States easier to achieve and more frequent in their occurrence.
The Vertical State Pattern
With the inclusion of this dimension, the auxilliary development of the model is now fully complete (at least in our usage context). We can see a full, multi-dimensional, process oriented, model that can be used to develop and monitor performer acquisition of Flow State creation skills.
By using the vertical perspective, we can now see that, from left to right, the model indicates differing levels of performance maturity. The characteristics of the leftmost state are those of the Novice. The middle state denotes attributes of a Performer or journeyman and the rightmost state is that of the Master.
As the model now indicates the path from Novice to Master is also the path to being able to consistently establish a Flow State during performance. It is quite likely and totally consistent with the model to have a performer operating at each of the three maturity levels simultaneously. In fact, this would be considered to be the norm. A performer may have certain elements of the performance that are fully mastered where Flow State occurs consistently and naturally. The same performer will have areas where only the Performer level has been attained and Flow State is only rarely attained during those aspects of the performance. And, of course, the same performer can have areas where the Novice level exists. These areas would most likely be areas where very new technique or capability is being introduced.
What this means to My Coaching Practice
The methods and techniques for coaching a performer differ according to the level of maturity in the development process. The same methods and techniques for training are not effective at all of the levels of maturity. While the process is the same the methods and techniques need to match maturity level. Novice level maturity requires a high level of input and control over the training program by the coach. For the Performer level the input is primarily in the nature of guidance and occasional suggestions for improvement. At the Master level the coaching relationship turns to more of a mentoring role.
The big insight for this work, aside from now having a process whereby Flow States can be consistently achieved, is that the same performer requires different coaching approaches depending on the maturity level of each aspect of the performance spectrum.
The best coaches assume that this ability to recognise maturity levels within individual athletes and between different athletes is an intuitive gift.
This gift however, comes from an accumulation of knowledge of both the performance area and human nature over many years. The gift can be learned and developed. Using the work of Dr. C on Flow States can help further your development and hopefully this addition to the model can give you a path to do that work successfully.