Achieving a Flow State in Golf

Flow StateI’M IN THE ZONE!  Ever had that feeling before? I am certain that you have, and it’s called flow.  It happened to me this summer in the first nine holes of a round where I shot my best ever 9 hole score of 1 under par.  But I lost the feeling on the back nine and fell apart too sadly only shoot a 78.  Great score for me but not compared to the front nine.  So…what happened, how did I get into that “zone”, what is the “zone”, and why did I lose it on the back nine?

Recently I attended a conference where a great deal of the information presented had to do with a flow state.  This is the term that scientists call being in the zone.  All genres of performance have a name for this state, whether it’s a sport or corporate business.  But what is the zone?

Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman”, describes flow as an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.  Scientific evidence even shows that when we are in a flow state our brain actually produces unique activity patterns from that of our regular state of being.  Unfortunately, with all our scientific progress, it seems that no one has found a reliable way to produce this state whenever they want.  If we knew how, then our achievements would theoretically have no limit..right?

This post is not meant to outline everything that a flow state is, it is meant to try and help us get into a flow state on the golf course.  Steven Kotler has come up with 17 triggers he feels contribute to entering a flow state and I will attempt to relate these to golf as best I can.

17 Flow State Triggers  

As mentioned above, 17 triggers of a flow state have been theorized to be the following:

Psychological:

  • 1. Intensely focused attention
  • 2. Clear Goals
  • 3. Immediate Feedback
  • 4. The Challenge/Skill Ratio

Environmental

  • 5. High Consequences
  • 6. Rich Environment
  • 7. Deep Embodiment

Social

  • 8. Serious Concentration
  • 9. Shared Clear Goal
  • 10. Good Communication
  • 11. Familiarity
  • 12. Equal Participation (and skill)
  • 13. Risk
  • 14. Sense of Control
  • 15. Close Listening
  • 16. Always Say Yes

Creative

  • 17. Creativity

17 Flow State Triggers Applied to Golf

Before we jump into this I want to make it clear that we don’t necessarily need every one of these triggers to enter a flow state particularly given that most of the situations you find yourself in on the course do not even involve some of these triggers.  For instance, the social trigger “shared clear goal” will not apply to a single player but it would apply to a tournament player who has a regular caddy.  In this light, since most of you are not touring pros, or at least not touring pros that have a regular caddy, I will be skipping explanation of the social flow state triggers as they mainly apply to achieving a group flow state.  Now lets discuss some more specifics of the psychological, environmental, and creative flow state triggers and how we can apply them to our golf game.

Intensely Focused Attention

This one seems pretty straight forward but what might not be clear is that prolonged periods of focused attention are required without interruptions.  It also means that we must focus on a singular task and it must be in solitude (ie. alone). So to apply this to golf we must learn to:

  • Have intense focus as often as possible on the course while blocking out others and any distractions (and while practicing for that matter).  But how can you focus absolutely when there are such long interruptions from shot to shot.  That’s a difficult questions and my best answer is to stay in the moment as much as you can.  However, the most important thing is to have a process to focus your attention, absolutely, at the time of each shot (ie. pre shot routine).

Clear Goals

This also appears to be straightforward on the surface…I want to shot a good score! But it must be more specific and more in the moment then the lengthy goal of a 18 hole score.  The goal needs to be focused to each individual shot.  Furthermore, you must be committed to the approach you are about to take or else your goal will not be clear.  So how can we apply this during our rounds:

  • Make sure you are focused on one shot at a time..not the final score!
  • Make sure you are 100% confident with your approach to each shot.  For instance you must feel 100% confident that for the current shot you are going to hit a draw, or a fade, or your normal go to shot, etc.  If you are not 100% certain of what you want to do with this shot, you do not have a clear goal

Immediate Feedback

We must receive immediate feedback on the results of the actions towards our clear goals.  This allows us to improve or make corrections moving forward.  In golf, feedback on our shots is almost instantaneous, the only issue is our next shot is not for another 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes.  So, our opportunity to apply fixes to the immediate feedback is limited.  So, to apply this during our rounds, we must:

  • Observe the results of each shot without negative emotion (ie. anger, judgement, etc).
  • Do not try and fix swing mechanics during a round unless you have major confidence in your ability to do this.
  • Apply the feedback to your process regarding concentration.  For example, the outcome of that shot was not as I intended because I did not follow my pre shot routine, or I was distracted, or I didn’t have a clear goal, etc.
  • If your feedback indicates that you are mainly hitting a certain shape of shot all day, play for that shape on your next shot.

Challenge/Skill Ratio

In order for us to reach a flow state the challenge that we are facing must be just the right amount above our skill level.  This provides the proper balance of anxiety to focus our attention with the necessary confidence. So, think about applying the following to your golf game:

  • Use your handicap when playing against better players so the challenge isn’t too great.  But to increase the challenge to the sweet spot, maybe drop your handicap 1 or 2 points.
  • To slightly increase the challenge you could also play one tee box back if you are getting close to the recommended handicap for that tee box.
  • Try and hit different types of shots you have been practising but not yet tried on the course.

High Consequences

High consequences is different for each person and each situation.  For instance, an extreme athlete has high consequences because they may actually be in a life or death situation where failure literally has the highest consequence there is…death.  But for someone with public speaking anxiety all they need to do is simply step up and do a presentation to get a similar effect.  But what about golf, here are some ideas to increase the consequences during your rounds:

  • Play for small (or large if you can afford it) amounts of money with friends.  This could also be playing for a drink or maybe a trophy or something.  Make it an actual competition.
  • Enter some tournaments.
  • Play as a single with people you don’t know
  • Play a difficult course with lots of hazards

Rich Environment

This flow states trigger refers to the novelty, unpredictability, and complexity of the environment.  The greater these three factors are, the more it forces us to focus our attention.  I will not mention much about this for golf other than the fact that a golf course tends to be a very complex and unpredictable environment so we should all be good with this one without even trying.

Deep Embodiment

Being in tune with all streams of environmental input is the core of this trigger.  This means not just paying attention to visual input, but also input from every other sense and super senses (ie. sixth sense) you may have or think you have.  Some describe this as becoming one with the sporting environment, I am not just part of the environment I am the environment.  Another important point here is that much of this input eventually becomes automatic as it takes too long to process it all consciously.  This is a strange concept to explain, but achieving it is a bit easier.  All you need to do is to practice paying attention to all of your senses on the course and most of them can potentially become automatic:

  • How does the ground feel on your feet (read a putt with your feet) – minimalist shoes help with this specifically
  • Feel the wind with your body, eyes and mind
  • How does the air feel (humid, high pressure, low pressure, hot, cold, rain, etc)
  • How does the grass feel, what direction is it growing in, what type of grass is it?
  • How do my clubs feel today

Creativity

The ability and/or freedom to be creative is another flow trigger.  Recognizing patterns and linking ideas and techniques together to develop new approaches in situations can trigger flow and flow then creates a greater capacity for creativity.  So on the course, try some creative shots that you have some comfort with (remember the challenge/skill ratio), but if you have already entered a flow state, you may be more creative without realizing it.

Well, there it is.  My attempt at applying the appropriate flow state trigger to golf.  I will be working on the above and hopefully this has inspired you to try it for yourself and maybe even apply it in your own way.

Sincerely,

The Barefoot Golfer

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