|They talked about two main states: "making it happen" and "letting it happen"|
Most previous research on the relevance of flow to peak sports performance has come from interviews in which top athletes reflect on their entire careers. This study has the advantage that the golfers were interviewed within just a few days of a specific exceptional performance. The researchers studied these performances, including specific shots, and used this as a basis to probe the golfers' psychological states during periods when they'd displayed brilliant skill.
Although the golfers described both the "letting it happen" and "making it happen" states as being "in the zone", there were also important differences. "Letting it happen" was more likely to occur earlier in a competition, and tended to result from a sequence of good play. This built the players' confidence until they became absorbed in effortless play. "I didn't have any negative thoughts," said one player. "Everything I saw was positive". They lost sense of where they were and their goals became open-ended: "let's see just how well I can do".
The other state, "making it happen", tended to occur later in the competitions as players scented victory. This state involved intense concentration and seemed to produce exceptional play, rather than be caused by it. It was also associated with specific goals and a keen sense of the situation, including the current score and what the player needed to do to seal their win: "This was it, this was my time now. This is where I can win". The descriptions of conscious effort and heightened awareness of the situation distinguish this state from typical flow states.
Swann and his team said they hoped their findings could help "provide a refined understanding of the psychological states and processes underlying exceptional performance in sport". However, they acknowledged the limitations of their qualitative approach: "while we have presented our interpretations of the data, others could have coded them differently and may well have arrived at alternative conclusions," they said.
Swann, C., Keegan, R., Crust, L., & Piggott, D. (2016). Psychological states underlying excellent performance in professional golfers: “Letting it happen” vs. “making it happen” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 23, 101-113 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2015.10.008
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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