Elite golfers describe their experiences of being in the zone

They talked about two main states: “making it happen” and “letting it happen”

The psychological concept of “flow” has been around for a while and yet it still retains an air of mystery. Most experts agree that it involves an enjoyable sense of being fully absorbed in a task or skill, and that in sporting contexts it often coincides with peak performance. Now further insights into the nature of flow in sport come from a new study of elite golfers published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Christian Swann and his colleagues interviewed 10 male players who’d recently won or performed extremely well in top European competitions. The players described having experienced two similar but distinct kinds of psychological state during their successes: “letting it happen”, which closely resembles formal definitions of flow, and “making it happen”, which seems similar to flow in some ways, but not others.

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.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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

further reading
Does your heart rate hold the secret to getting in “the zone”?
Sports psychologists understand surprisingly little about “the yips”
Speed matters when it comes to imagining the perfect putt
Social flow – how doing it together beats doing it alone

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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