Month: March 2015

Finding your “Flow” in Weightlifting

What is flow?

It’s always easiest to start with something that someone else said, rather than give my own horrible description that would only serve to confuse people.

In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields, though has existed for thousands of years in other guises, notably in some eastern religions (1).

Remembering this definition, what are the requirements of flow and how they relate to Weightlifting?

A Clear Goal. The objectives are clear and not confusing.

This easily relates to Weightlifting. When you give yourself an adequate but not impossible challenge you have the obvious short term goal of lifting the weight. You also have the longer term absolute goals of hitting a certain total or qualifying for a particular challenge.

Immediate feedback. Almost any kind of feedback can be enjoyable if related to your goal. You know whether or not what you are doing is getting you closer to your goal, you can change your course if something unexpected happens. 

The obvious feedback of the miss or make of any given lift, but you also have the feedback of your coach or training partners. The only difference between feedback and criticism is the way that you hear it. Often people have an emotional attachment to a method and have a hard time letting go. That’s why it is often important to ask the person “How does that feel?” “why is that?” instead of “do this, do that”.

Challenges of the activity match the skills of the person. When is a game enjoyable? When your opponent is the same level of the other person. A task beyond your skill level leads to stress and one below your skill level makes you bored and you get distracted. Almost any new skill is hard to learn. But over time it becomes addictive. 

This is where experience and smart programming takes over, you often hear max every day and go hard or go home when it comes to work in the gym. This may work for some personality types. For others it will lead them to getting frustrated and venting at the bar/random chair people around them.  If you smartly and correctly choose the weights, you should feel that momentum when you approach that bar. Anyone who has been involved in high level performance (in any field) will tell you that momentum is a key component.

If a person is struggling with a particular weight or activity, it can help to avoid it for a period of time and focus on what they have a knack for. This may lead to an increased confidence in future sessions. Coaches can switch squats to the end of a particular tricky session so when the person leaves they have that recent memory of doing good work rather than the potential memory of having a rough time with a particular new skill.

A feeling of focus and concentration in what you are doing. Usually your attention is split throughout the day. In flow the split attention is focused into a single beam of attention. That is why you can achieve so much more. 

Once you have some degree of mastery of the sport (or anything else) it becomes quite easy to focus completely on the task at hand. The other factors have to be in place but it is an important aspect of performance. You should be thinking of nothing else. You often find beginners thinking about the lift whilst it is in progress and technique very quickly seems to break down and other errors occur. Weightlifting is a feed-forward motion once you start the lift, it should be an automatic process. The feedback comes later. For coaches this is useful on lighter weights as the lifter can be reminded about various technical cues, but in competition you want to focus them on the moment, not the possibilities that may occur. You will see people in the warm up room looking at X/Y and calculating. The only outcome you can affect is your own.

Consider watching:

to grab an insight in the sheer will and focus required for some sports. I can’t recommend this video enough.

Loss of background noise. You cannot worry about what is going on at home when you in flow. It is a great feeling to be in the present, you have total focus on that moment. Flow is a form of escape from reality.

This aspect of flow is somewhat similar to the previous. When you are on form, the distractions that surround you seem to fade away. A fun example of this being the oft quoted “Invisible gorilla” selective attention task(2):

This is important in all performance sports, if that noise gets to you it will break your focus. From a Weightlifting point of view. A clear example of this focused individual is Ilya Illyin, if you ever get the chance watch:

His mental game is on point. “By the time I step on stage I have already lifted the weight”. This is the attitude that you need when you step up to the bar. You have to be the baddest dude around.

Sense of Control: The most addictive part of the flow is experience is the sense of control or the illusion of control that you have when you precisely and correctly control the difficulty level of the activity.

This ties in with section 3, with smart programming you will have that feeling of control that is so addictive, there are so many forces in life that are beyond your ability to influence. But for that moment on the bar you have control over the outcome if you execute correctly. On the other hand if you are constantly trying to max out and missing you will very rarely have that positive feeling from a session and will kill your momentum.

Loss of Self-Consciousness: Thinking about yourself and what others think about you are a great source of psychic drain. In flow you are so involved that you are no longer aware of peoples’ opinions of you. When you reflect upon your experience you often enriched by it. 

You would have noticed that mid –session, no one cares how you look or what a person is wearing. To be honest most people simply aren’t interested. If they are, odds are they are there for the wrong reasons. 

Personal example: playing in front of a large crowd, the energy flowing around, you are disconnected from it. The beginning of the game I was terrified I would drop the ball or make some sort of mistake and get a rise from the crowd. About 30 seconds into the game that all melts away and you don’t notice anything other than your performance. 

Transformation of Time: In flow hours get condensed into minutes. Or a second gets stretched out for so long – dancer spinning – lasts an instant but often they feel the experience for a long time. 

I think this experience is quite common with people when they work for a purpose they believe in. You look at the watch and all of sudden it is time to pack up and head home. From a personal standpoint I know that when I am lifting and really enjoying a session, it is easy for me to burn through a couple of hours. The same thing applies to coaching lifters and when they are responding well you have that same experience.

How can this help me?

In terms of your own lifting, you can start to see why smart programming is an important factor in the training of the Weightlifter.  Missing weights that you should not be attempting tends form poor motor patterns. The lifts usually are being missed for a specific reason. Identifying that should be your priority, rather than attempting the same weight repeatedly. A recent example of this is the brilliant Tatiana Kashirina (Current +75kg World champion, holds all 3 world records). Quoted as saying:

“Tatiana and her coach could not remember the last time she missed a lift in training.” can you say the same about your training?

Consider reading: for the full article.

If you train correctly you should be making weights every session, reviewing what could be improved either on your own or with the help of you coach. Then seeing how this fits in with your current goals for Weightlifting. This process would greatly enhance your experience in the sport. Max out errday may serve your ego occasionally but you will have a difficult time sustaining that momentum. If you miss, consider asking yourself how it felt during the lift, then ask how could this be improved? – If you don’t know that’s where the coach should be.

It is important to develop a routine for setting up so you can achieve the correct arousal state for your best performance. This will allow you to ignore what is occurring around you and focus on performance.

Flow can also loosely be applied to aspects of training that you do not enjoy. Throughout the book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly” he gives examples of people going through what others may see as mundane tasks. The have a vision of how this can help them and what this task contributes to their current goals. So in the future when you skip out on stretching or assistance work try to see it as part of a process and how it contributes to your goal.

Hopefully you can take something away from this article, more a smattering of thoughts on my part. The “Flow” experience is critical to performance in my opinion.

Some further reading on this subject:

  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
  • Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  • Start with Why – Simon Sinek
  • Legacy – James Kerr
  • Mind Gym: Wake up your Mind
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Sunryu Suzuki


(1) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

(2) Christopher Chabris (2011). The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us