Facilitating flow: How the foundations interact during task performance

As 'lockdown' begins to ease and we get back to sports and coaching I thought I would write a short blog and share some ideas that I have been working on in relation to facilitating flow.


As an instructor or coach how do you go about creating a 'setting' for your learners whereby their chances of entering a flow state are increased? The answer lies in making sure the foundations are in place and understanding how they interact with each other. For more information on what flow is and how it works with skill acquisition have a read of some of my previous blogs;


Learning zones - part 1: From preparation to flow

Learning zones - part 2: Mapping learning zones onto the Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition

Developing flow for ski instructors and their guests


The flow foundations I am referring to here are not just relevant to finding flow but are vital for any coaching session where skill development is the aim. They are; clear task-goals, unambiguous feedback and challenge-skills balance.


Task goals: Having clear task-goals provides a clarity of intention, directs action and helps with focusing your attention. What I am talking about here is very short-term task related goals during a practice session or performance. Having such goals allows you to remain clear about what you are trying to achieve.


Unambiguous feedback: This type of feedback is on-going and immediate and from you the performer. This involves kinaesthetic awareness (the feelings and sensations of your body), proprioception (your body's ability to know where it is in space) and visual and auditory cues (gained from the immediate environment).


Challenge-skills balance: This is all about your subjective perception of the level of challenge that a task provides matched against your available skills. Too little challenge can lead to boredom while too great a challenge can result in anxiety and fear. Therefore it is of vital importance to find the correct balance where your available skills are stretched just enough to provide a challenge.


Interaction of the foundations

The three aforementioned foundations are not completely separate from each other as they work together and impact each other as can be seen from the model below.


The foundation of 'unambiguous feedback' is central for making the three work effectively together. As you receive feedback, in real time, you have the opportunity to adjust or change the task goals and/or increase or decrease the difficulty of the task or environment thus adjusting the challenge skills balance.


Using my own sport of skiing as an example the task could be to ski moguls (bumps) with the goals being to make continuously linked, rhythmic turns and to maintain good ski snow contact throughout. Based on the feedback received should the environment prove too difficult, because the bumps are too big, then the environment could be changed by choosing an easier line where the bumps are less rutted thereby reducing the level of challenge. Should the skills of using the legs like shock absorbers in order to maintain snow contact prove too difficult, then the goal could be adjusted by reducing the speed of descent and using more leg rotation and skidding to control speed thereby making the task easier and the level of challenge more achievable. Equally if the task proved to be too easy then it could be made more challenging by taking a more direct line and increasing the overall speed of descent.


In an ideal world the performer (in the example above) would be able to make such adjustments during the descent e.g. by changing line or speed based on the feedback being received and measuring that against the task-goals. But the less experienced performer could make these changes/adjustments from one descent to the next with their own intrinsic feedback being augmented by a coach.


Dan Gillespie skiing bumps at Grands Montets. Photo © Derek Tate

This is just one example of the interplay between these three foundations and I am sure that you will be able to apply this to your own sport. The crucial element, however, is learning to use unambiguous feedback effectively and this in itself is a skill that takes time to develop but emphasises just how important it is for coaches to spend time with their learners developing their intrinsic channels of feedback.


By embracing these three foundations as part of the skill-development process you not only increase the likelihood of making progress and becoming more proficient but you also increase the chances of experiencing flow.



Stay tuned to this blog over the coming months as I build up to publishing my new book which is all about the positive psychology, learning, performance and well-being.

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