By Jessica Pinchbeck
The snowy peaks of Sochi have provided a dramatic backdrop to the remarkable achievements of many athletes striving to achieve their finest performances at the games. With Team GB equalling their best performance at the Winter Olympics and the Paralympic Games about to begin we take a look at peak performance and how it can be achieved.
What is peak performance?
Peak performance is defined as ‘the performance at the top of the individual’s range of possible performances’ (Kauss, 1980) and the Olympics and Paralympics is certainly the time when athletes want to be at the top of their game. Studies investigating peak performance show there are a range of common physical and mental factors that relate to peak performance. These include physical and mental relaxation, confidence, a present-centred focus, being highly energised, extraordinary awareness, and feeling in control. These factors are closely linked to a concept known as ‘flow’, often referred to in sport as ‘being in the zone’.
The concept of flow
Flow is a positive psychological state and arises from wider research on human happiness by a psychologist called Csikszentmihalyi. This optimal psychological state is conducive to attaining peak performances and is therefore a desirable experience for athletes. Common dimensions of the flow experience emerged from original studies and have since been further supported by research in sport.
Challenge-skill balance is possibly the most important factor enabling flow to occur. For example, if an athlete considers a task to be too challenging they may experience anxiety, or conversely if a task is seen as too easy the athlete may become bored, both of which can hinder performance. When challenge and skill are positioned at the correct levels for the athlete flow is more likely to occur. Interestingly it is the athlete’s perceptions of their capabilities relative to the challenge and not necessarily their true abilities that are important. Jenny Jones, GB Olympic bronze medallist, discusses how she relished the challenge of Sochi 2014:
‘When they announced that slopestyle was going to be in the Olympics I was amazed that it was going to be brought in and quite excited that I had a new challenge.’
To accomplish a challenge an athlete will set clear goals and receive feedback, which forms a crucial process within the flow experience. Athletes also report a merging of action and awareness which is often described as ‘feeling at one with the activity’, experiencing automaticity and unity with the environment and where performing the action feels effortless. GB Olympic gold medallist Lizzy Yarnold explains:
‘It’s more about having a real good connection with the sled and the mental game …There are so many other aspects apart from the physical side in skeleton.’
Total concentration is linked to optimal performance, with athletes often reporting a sense of control during flow. Athletes also describe feeling completely confident with no fear of failure. During flow an individual’s self-consciousness diminishes and they have little concern or anxiety regarding the perceptions of others (Jackson and Kimiecik, 2008). Transformation of time is the one factor which lacks consistency across studies as for some athletes time speeds up during flow and for others time slows down. In addition if an activity is autotelic and performed for its own sake, its own rewards and enjoyment then flow is more likely to occur. This intrinsic enjoyment of the activity is shown by GB slopestyle skier James Woods who when asked what would improve his enjoyment of skiing replied:
‘I don’t think anything could. I appreciate so much the incredible opportunities that I get, every second of riding is something special.’
In elite sport the impact of external rewards as well as the competitive nature and the lack of control athletes have over the sporting environment may lead to elite athletes experiencing more difficulty in achieving flow than non-elite athletes. However this is a relatively unexplored area of research to date.
As you can see there are similarities between flow and peak performance although they are not identical. Peak performance is a high level of functioning whereas flow is a type of experience. An athlete can be in flow without producing peak performance, although many athletes (up to 75% in one study) do experience flow when in peak performance. Therefore flow is a valued experience for sports performers as it can, and often does, result in peak performance. But how can this be achieved?
Research suggests that the body and mind can be trained to reach the flow state using psychological skills training such as imagery, goal-setting, thought control strategies, and arousal management techniques, many of which we are sure to see put into practice in the Winter Paralympics. So with 15 athletes representing Paralympic GB in Sochi and some serious medal contenders, such as alpine skiers Jade Etherington and Kelly Gallagher, it will be fantastic to see the flow of peak performances continue, particularly from our home grown athletes.
BBC (2014) ‘Winter Olympics 2014: Jenny Jones excited by slopestyle debut’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/winter-olympics/25586746
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975) ‘Beyond boredom and anxiety’. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.
GB Ski Club (2009) ‘The Questionnaire: James Woods’ [online] Available from: http://www.skiclub.co.uk/skiclub/news/story.aspx?storyID=6447#.UxWlWuVFDIU (Accessed 2 March 2014)
Gibson, O. (2014) ‘Lizzy Yarnold already making plans to defend skeleton title in 2018’ [online] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/feb/15/lizzy-yarnold-skeleton-winter-olympics-defence (Accessed 2 March 2014)
Jackson, S. and Kimiecik, J. (2008) ‘The Flow Perspective of Optimal Experience in Sport and Physical Activity’ in T. Horn (ed) ‘Advances in Sport Psychology’ (3rd Edition). Leeds, Human Kinetics.
Jackson, S. (2000) Joy, Fun, and Flow State in Sport. In: Hanin, Y. (ed). Emotions in Sport. Leeds. Human Kinetics.
Jackson, S. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999) ‘Flow in Sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances.’ Leeds. Human Kinetics.