Flow and The Zone

In their book Flow in Sports, Drs. Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly define the state of flow as: “a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions.”

They continue defining this extraordinary experience as: “a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred.”

They also say that “flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and it is in those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.”

So the experience of flow is about a lot of things, but mostly it's about the human peak experience. In tennis we call this peak experience “playing tennis in the zone,” and being able to reproduce the the zone is what this website is all about.

There are psychological and emotional definitions for the zone. But being in the zone is not just about your mental state or your emotional state. It is also about your operational state.

It's about how you, as a Visual/Cognitive/Motor (VCM) operating system, interface with and within the tennis environment.

In other words, playing tennis in the zone is also about the way you use your eyes, your brain, and your body; your VCM operating system.

The Parallel Mode Process has a different way of defining what happens when you are in the zone. It involves the difference between operating in a Serial Mode of operation versus operating in a Parallel Mode of operation.

A Serial Mode is when your operating system interfaces with the individual parts of the tennis environment separately and sequentially.

For instance, when you focus on your opponent (that's one part), then you refocus on the ball (that's another part), then you refocus on the ball again as it moves across the net (another sequential part), and, finally, when you refocus on the contact between ball and racquet (the final part of the focusing sequence).

That’s a Serial Mode of operation with its inherent Serial Interface. And when you are in a Serial Mode, you are NOT in the zone.

A Parallel Mode of operation is when your operating system interfaces with the individual parts of the tennis environment equally and simultaneously.

This happens when you fix your focus on the plane of your contact zone and simply locate the contact point along this fixed visual plane.

That's a Parallel Mode of operation with its inherent Parallel Interface. And when you switch to a Parallel Mode of operation, you will also start playing tennis in the zone.

The equations look like this:

Serial Mode (SM) = Normal State
Parallel Mode (PM) = FLOW

What this all means is that you can create the zone by reproducing the mental and emotional characteristics of flow, or you can create the zone by reproducing the operational characteristics of flow.

In other words, make the switch from a Serial Mode of operation to a Parallel Mode of operation and you will immediately switch from your Normal Performance State to your Peak Performance State. And when you are in your Peak Performance State, when you are in the zone, you will experience the mental and emotional characteristics of flow.

The Components of Flow

Jackson and Csikszentmihaly define flow as "a psychological state… a mind-set,” and they explain that there are several dimensions or components to this “mind-set.” These flow components are:

1. Challenge-skills balance
2. Clear goals
3. Unambiguous feedback
4. Concentration on the task at hand
5. Action-awareness merging (automatic-pilot)
6. Sense of control
7. Loss of self-consciousness
8. Transformation of time
9. Autotelic experience

It is suggested that by mastering these flow components you will increase your chances of having a flow experience. If you synthesizing the parts of the flow state, you stand a better chance of actually experiencing the flow state.

The Parallel Mode Process suggests a completely different way to create the flow state. The PMP suggests that by reproducing the underlying VCM operating mode of the flow state, you will also reproduce the flow state, and you will experience all of flow's component parts in the process.

Bottom line: sports psychology looks at the psychological dynamics of flow, while the PMP looks at the operational dynamics of flow. One approach requires mastery of flow's psychological state; the other requires mastery of flow's operational state.

The following pages look at these various components of flow in more detail. Please read on!

Flow (Part 1)
Flow (Part 2)
Flow (Part 3)