A Tribute to MC Flow, and How to Play Better by Balancing Challenge and Skill

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MC Flow was not a hip-hop artist, nor a pioneering disc golfer from the early ’80s. He was a psychologist, and no one has ever referred to him by that name except me, in this post.

While researching my book, Three Paths to Better Disc Golf, I learned that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the person credited with the concept of Flow. In the context of athletic performance and contemporary language, “In the Zone” may be the more familiar term for this state of being.

I read yesterday that Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chik-sent-mee-hai-ee) died on October 20th, a great loss to the academic community. After learning some new things about his teaching and having had a few years to reflect since mentioning him in the book, I decided to once again bring him to the attention of disc golfers who seek the elusive but wholly available nexus of optimized performance and enriched experience on the course.

Csikszentmihalyi was best known to academics who study psychology for his larger body of work exploring happiness and creativity. His codification of the ideal state of productivity, production, and engagement (flow) was his greatest contribution to the larger world’s understanding of the human experience.

Although the concept of flow applies to any long term endeavor that a person wishes to undertake and ultimately master, athletic competition provides the ideal vessel to understand, witness, and hopefully experience this elusive state.

When you think of an athlete being “In the Zone,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me it’s a basketball player who is making the right decision at every juncture, making every shot no matter how difficult. When this is happening, we’ll also hear phrases like “automatic,” “unconscious,” and “out of her mind.”

As I have come to understand it, though, flow isn’t a trance-like state where we’re either in it or we’re not- a plane of existence we may be lucky to stumble into once or twice in our lives. It is a target at which to aim, and much like aiming for one center link of a basket, even coming close usually produces positive results.

Csikszentmihalyi (aka MC Flow) used flow to describe a person being in a state of complete absorption with whatever they are doing, of being so involved in an activity that nothing else exists. In an interview with Wired magazine he explained it as “”being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away,” he said. “Time flies.”

If he had stopped there, this insight would still have been fascinating, but not very useful to those of us obsessed with optimizing performance. But thankfully he didn’t stop there.

The actionable crux of MC Flow’s hypothesis is a roadmap on how to get there. To achieve a flow state, he said, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer.┬áIf the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur as both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results. If the challenge level is high and the skill level is low, the result is anxiety.

This brings me to the main new thing I learned about MC Flow’s hypotheses yesterday, and how it supports my concept of Disc Golf in a Vacuum.

Csikszentmihalyi believed that autotelic personality – in which a person performs acts because they are intrinsically rewarding, rather than to achieve external goals – is a trait possessed by individuals who can learn to enjoy situations that most other people would find miserable. According to the Wikipedia entry on the man and his work, “Research has shown that aspects associated with the autotelic personality include curiosity, persistence, and humility.”

When I had the mountaintop (Top of the World at DeLaveaga DGC, to be specific) epiphany that led to me formulating my own hypothesis on optimizing both enjoyment and performance in disc golf, I was zeroing in on some of the same general ideas as MC Flow. My big personal discovery had three parts:

  1. Immersing myself in the selection, planning, execution, and then evaluation of a shot, solely for the sake of doing so (the intrinsic reward) rather than as a step to achieving a low score on my round that day (an external goal) is the richest, most gratifying way to experience disc golf
  2. Remaining in or close to this state for an entire round almost always results in optimized execution and therefore optimized scoring
  3. Despite being wholly absorbed in each shot as it happens, I’ve found I am much better equipped to go back after the round, often many hours later, and relive the whole round

Csikszentmihalyi listed several conditions for flow, and others have taken it upon themselves to flesh out his hypothesis even further. If you’re interested in the broader topic I encourage you to hop onto Google and dig in. As it pertains to athletic endeavors, and specifically disc golf, I’ll focus on just one: You must be at the balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your own perceived skills.

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The first chart in this post may make it seem like you need to be at the far end of both the challenge and skill side of the equation in order to experience flow, but this is not the case. The two simply need to be in balance. Other charts illustrating flow reference the term flow channel, and indicate that we merely needs to be redirecting ourselves into this ideal mix of challenge and skill. It’s not the only condition needed to achieve flow, but it’s seemingly the most important one.

In disc golf terms, this presents different directives depending on who you are and where you’re at with your game.

Less experienced and less skilled players can usually move toward the flow channel by simply being realistic about their capabilities and acting accordingly. When presented with a hole that “requires” a drive you don’t have – whether in terms of distance or shot shape – don’t take the bait. Figure out an alternative you CAN execute that gets you closer to the hole, even if it is unconventional. Remember, it’s all about finding that equal ratio of skill and challenge so you can stay balanced on the line between boredom and anxiety.

If you’re a skilled player wanting to get into the flow more, ask yourself if you’re at least on some subconscious level experiencing boredom. Maybe you’ve already determined what you can and can’t do on the course and have stuck to your comfort zone for too long. According to Csikszentmihalyi, you can’t remain in both the comfort zone and the flow channel for very long.

For example, even the most backhand-dominant players admit that certain upshots call for a forehand. If you’re in such a situation, consider upping the challenge part of the equation. It’ll probably cause you to veer quickly from boredom to anxiety – as the curvy line on the diagram indicates – but it’ll keep you moving toward your maximum mix of challenge and skill, Stay mindful of this mix and you’ll stay in or near the flow state most of the time. Any hey, that’s what practice is for, right? Working on skills in a less pressurized environment.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, you can’t remain in both the comfort zone and the flow channel for very long.

I started writing today to pay tribute to the man who explained being “in the zone” in scientific terms. When I returned home after that horrible USDGC performance in 2009 and discovered the transformative experience of truly focusing on abstract execution for its own sake, I knew I couldn’t have been the first to put it into words.

While I still think that in the highly-charged atmosphere of competitive sports the “focus on what you’re trying to do, not what you’re hoping to achieve” maxim is the key, MC Flow gave us much more. He gifted us with an excellent blueprint for using psychological tools to maximize our potential.