Sports Psychology: 9 scopes of ‘flow’ and how they relate to mindfulness

sports psychology

Sports psychology – What is Psychology in Sport?

The field of Sport Psychology has been growing rapidly over recent years with an increasing number of people taking up this career path as it offers many benefits to both individuals and society at large. The main benefit for those who choose to enter into this profession is that they can help others achieve their goals by providing them with psychological support during training or competition.

Mental Health and Athletes – What is exercise psychology and sports psychology?

How Sports Psychology helps athletes:

The term “sports psychologist” was first used in the 1920s to describe someone who counseled athletes, but today sports psychologists are more likely to work with teams or individuals than they were before. They can help people improve their physical health and fitness by working on things like dieting, weight loss, strength training, endurance, flexibility, injury prevention, stress management, mental preparation for competition, recovery from injuries, and many other areas.

What are some of the aspects that Sport or Exercise Psychologists deal with for sports performance?

Visualization and Goal-Setting

Another important topic sports psychology deals with is visualization and goal setting. Athletes often use these tools to set goals and visualize success. Visualizing success helps them feel more confident about achieving it. It also gives them something concrete to strive toward.

Athletes who have trouble visualizing may benefit from using imagery or guided meditation to get into the right frame of mind before they start working towards a particular goal this ultimately leads to optimal performance.


Motivation and self-determination theory are two key concepts within motivational psychology. SDT states that there are three basic needs that drive human behavior; autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to feel free to make choices without being controlled by external factors such as parents, coaches, teachers, etc.

Competence means having skills needed to succeed, while Relatedness involves feelings of belonging and acceptance. These three categories form the basis of what motivates us to act.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivators

Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it feels good. For example, if someone enjoys playing tennis, then this would be considered intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards, such as money or praise. Someone who plays tennis purely for financial gain wouldn’t have much intrinsic motivation.

Athletes often need some form of encouragement to keep them motivated. Coaches may provide positive reinforcement by praising players when they do well.


Athletes often experience anxiety during competitions. Anxiety can cause problems ranging from feeling nervous about competing to having panic attacks. These issues can make it hard for athletes to perform optimally.

There are many ways to deal with anxiety. One strategy is to try to identify your triggers so that you know when you’re likely to get anxious. You may want to avoid situations where you tend to have trouble relaxing. Meditation is used as a successful tool to overcome general anxiety or performance anxiety.

‘Athletes are not perfect, flawless gods’

“Five years ago, mental health among elite athletes was not a very often-discussed topic,” says Dr. Claudia Reardon, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. If there was any focus on athletes’ mental health, it centered around performance and ways to optimize results on the field.

‘Our vulnerability as athletes is going to make us stronger

There are many Olympic athletes that have recently come out and spoken up about their mental health and their personal struggles in the world of high-performance sport. Four-time Olympian swimmer, Allison Schmidt started the conversation around mental health for athletes when many others didn’t – admitting that sharing her struggles with depression was the first step to dealing with it as she realized many of her fellow teammates went through similar struggles. 

The most recent case would be Simone Biles that stood up for her own mental health and wellbeing by pulling out of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for Gymnastics. This paved the way for many other athletes to also come forward and open up the conversation towards athletes and their mental wellbeing. 

Athletes of this caliber, as well as on all levels, deal with a lot of internal and external expectations and pressures throughout their careers, and even after retiring. From competing and the disappointment of not winning or making the team, to anxiety surrounding post-retirement, body dysmorphia, or dealing with injuries

“Hearing from teammates or other elite athletes is critical to building a new culture around mental health in high-level sports.”

Added on to this, the recent pandemic that has hit the world has lead many athletes and people alike down a mental health slide and a huge increase in mental health challenges has been witnessed.

When the pandemic lockdown disrupted gymnast Mikulak’s regular training schedule, he finally confronted something that he had been pushing aside in recent years: what he would do once he stopped competing. “It was scary to think what was going to happen after I retire when I don’t have my gymnastic goals anymore that I was constantly pushing for and seeking,” he says. “All of that was going to be gone.

The more I looked into my future, the more fear I felt. I just really freaked out.” He started working for the first time with a sports psychologist to address his anxiety and his broader struggle with his sense of identity outside that of being a gymnast. Together they confronted why, at critical moments when Mikulak had been just a performance away from achieving his dream of winning an Olympic medal, he made costly mistakes.

“I was trying to be the most scientifically perfect specimen of gymnastics,” he says of his three previous Olympic experiences. “I felt if it doesn’t happen here, it will never happen anywhere else. So when the pressure I felt was at its greatest, at the 2016 Games, and I had a couple of chances for a medal, I fell short. I was focusing 100% on my physical ability and I did nothing for my mental fitness.”

That changed thanks to his work with his therapist, so preparing for the Tokyo Games, he says, was very different. “I could tell, as we were getting closer to Tokyo, that I was starting to feel the same pressure. But this time, my expectations for them is to have no expectations,” he says. “I’m going out there with the intention of doing nothing more than I can do at that moment, and be proud of that, and happy with that. I’m going to go out there on my own terms, and not on anyone else’s.” 

Speaking about mental health, especially as someone that is a role model for many is very important in order to break the silence and stigma towards it. It is ok not to be ok and in order to move through our struggles, we have to open up and speak about them. 

Many athletes and or people involved in high-performance activities such as professional dancing type A personalities and perfectionists. They are not only hyper-aware of their bodies but also hyper-aware+ of what other people think – interesting enough many do not give the same attention to their minds as they do to their bodies.

The notion of ‘pushing through pain or physical struggles’ runs deeps as many believe that this is the only way to build strength and resilience in order to improve and succeed. Showing vulnerability and pain is therefore equated to being weak. This relates to mental health and how pain and discomfort are perceived. Instead of dealing with it, whether mental or physical, it is easier to deny it and push through and we already know what we resist …persists.

In order to push through disassociation from feelings are very common and therefore the realities for the athlete change as a way for the brain to cope with the added stress. Although they might seemingly be in tune with their bodies they are vastly out of tune with their inner landscape of feelings and mental patterns.

Additionally, the belief that if you do not give your all, all of the time you will be replaced by the next best thing also comes into play. If you are not sacrificing yourself to your discipline then you slip into becoming irrelevant. This situation is exacerbated by the idea that coaches instill into their athletes of never being enough and always striving for the next best thing. The chase of success is equated to how much work and effort is put in therefore rest is deemed as being lazy…

These seemingly innocent ideas and thought patterns can relate to more serious mental health conditions and the high pressured environment would emphasize the struggles. As we know the mind and body work in unison and an unhealthy mental state can manifest into an unhealthy physical state (which increases the chances of injuries) and therefore hinders the performance of the athlete further. 

The power of speaking up about our struggles, especially when we have some sort of influence, is vastly important. ‘The perfect athlete’ (or person) does not exist and everyone endures some sort of struggle. Exposing the struggle and showing vulnerability allows you and others to know they are not alone in all of it and there is not inherently something wrong with it. Conversation and changing the narrative are what fight the stigma.

A National Survey by The Center for Disease Control found that approximately one-third of all athletes have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, including depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse or dependence, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, personality disorders, and other conditions or mental health struggles.

How is Mindfulness Training Different from Sports Psychology Skills Training?

Mindful awareness and acceptance of thoughts/feelings without judgment allow us to see them clearly and accept them rather than trying to control them. It helps us understand ourselves better so that we can make changes accordingly.

Although sports psychologists are mental health professionals, in sports psychology skills training, most often the focus is on improving concentration, decision making, and problem-solving ability which are vital components of athletic performance. These areas, however, require no conscious thinking process and therefore these types of training are less effective at helping someone who has been struggling with emotions, behaviors, or mental health concerns for years.

Mindfulness training focuses on self-awareness and understanding oneself better. When done correctly, mindfulness practice leads to greater emotional stability and reduced negative affectivity. Emotional instability is linked to poor sports performance. For example, research shows that athletes scoring higher on measures of trait anger were significantly slower during sprint running compared to those scoring lower on the measure.

Additionally, athletes scoring higher on measures related to hostility had poorer shooting accuracy, while those scoring higher on measures related to aggression exhibited worse throwing velocity. Mindfulness therefore also helps athletes to regulate and deal with their emotions when it comes to performance and competition.

Mindfulness for Athletes: How It Can Lead to Better Performance – How is Meditation beneficial for athletes?

Let’s talk about the zone first

The Zone is a state of mind that you can enter into when your body feels completely relaxed and focused on what you are doing at any given moment. It’s also known as “flow” or being fully engaged with whatever it is that you are doing. The Zone has been studied by many researchers over the years because it seems like something we all experience from time to time during our athletic endeavors. Why do we call it the ‘flow’?

When we’re in the zone, we’re so focused on whatever we’re doing that we’re almost in our own worlds, removed from the real world around us.

How can mindfulness meditation reduce sports anxiety and increase our likelihood to experience flow?

Flow is defined as “the state of operation when a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Flow can also refer to the psychological condition characterized by this state. In other words, flow refers to how you feel when you are engaged in something meaningful and challenging. It is when you are entirely present. It’s similar to the way athletes describe getting into the zone. Being entirely present… sound familiar?

You become totally absorbed in what you’re doing. It feels effortless. Your mind becomes clear and focused. There’s little distraction. This feeling of flow comes from having total control over your actions in a conscious state of awareness of these actions.

Flow is defined as a psychological phenomenon characterized by one’s subjective feeling of energized engagement in an activity, accompanied by loss of self-consciousness and sense of time. It involves total involvement in an activity, merging action and awareness into a singular whole. This type of experience occurs naturally in sports such as running, swimming, skiing, dancing, playing music, painting, sculpting, etc., but also in nonphysical pursuits such as cooking, gardening, reading, learning new languages, solving puzzles.

It’s also known as eudaimonic well-being, which means living a meaningful life through one’s actions.

This state of flow or ‘the zone’ is what we achieve through meditation or other mindfulness practices. Athletes therefore naturally know what it feels like to be completely aware and intentional in what they do as they use this state of flow all the time through being in the zone. Their actual sport can therefore act as a meditation when done with awareness.

Practicing additional meditation outside of their sport can help them access this state of flow or zone easier and therefore excel them further in their sporting efforts.

The 9 scopes of flow and how they relate to sport psychology:

1. Challenge-skill balance

Sports provide athletes with the opportunity to continue challenging themselves through a flow state which requires a balance between skill and challenge level

2. Action-awareness merging

If you want to improve your ability to perform under pressure, then getting into the zone may help. If you want to become more efficient at something, such as playing guitar, learning how to play tennis, or practicing yoga poses, then focusing intently on one thing will likely lead to better results than if you try to multitask. 

Flow state often produces a feeling of unity between action and awareness. That is, during flow, we might describe feeling at one with whatever task we’re doing. Our mind is completely present in the activity, undistracted by other life events or challenges that might cause us pain or anxiety in our daily lives. During flow, all consciousness of the world outside of the activity simple fades away, and we feel at one with the task. (

Athletes act almost automatically when performing well-learned skills, using their muscle memory. This will allow them to focus on the more complex aspects of their sport. Tennis players with advanced skills don’t need to think about how to hit the ball. They may think about where to hit the ball in order to win the game. Simple things in a sport come naturally to advanced athletes. Tennis players feel connected to their rackets. This allows them to think more complexly and strategically.

3. Clear goals

If you want to improve your ability to perform well under pressure, then you need to learn how to enter into the zone with clear goals in mind to motivate your performance. Having clear goals also directs your focus to something specific to make your performance more nuanced and direct. 

4. Unambiguous feedback

Feedback can either be positive or negative. Unambiguous feedback about how we’re performing is another key element of flow. Positive feedback feeds flow… negative feedback depletes it. The feedback can either come from our own expectations and internal criticisms or from external coaches.

The state of flow can improve our biofeedback loop as it trains the athlete’s brain in a way to react accordingly during the sport performed.

For athletes, feedback comes from a range of factors, often at the same time. Athletes receive feedback from their own kinesthetic awareness of how their bodies are moving through space. When a diver perfects a dive or a gymnast perfects a flip, they don’t need the judges’ scores to feel that they’ve done a good job.

However, most of the time, athletes do receive additional feedback from judges, fans, coaches, or simply meeting their goals. The feedback athletes receive as they perform facilitates flow. (

5. Total concentration on the task at hand

If you want to improve your ability to perform well under pressure, then learning how to enter into the zone will help you achieve peak levels of concentration and focus. If you want to become more efficient at something you love, then entering into the zone could make you more effective than ever before. And if you want to find greater fulfillment in your daily life, then getting into the zone may provide you with new insights into who you really are and why you exist.

Concentration and complete focus eliminate anxiety and stress around the task you are performing. Your attention is drawn to the present moment in order to complete the task with the most skill and efficiency.

This relates differently depending on the specific sport. Sports such as gymnastics require complete physical control and concentration with enhanced proprioception whereas football requires a lot of brainpower in order to strategize and play as a team. Martial Art is a great example of being in flow as it hits a balance between mind and body working together to perform a skill.

6. Sense of Control

This does not mean complete control. When our skills fall below the challenge level we experience a loss of control and self-doubt starts to set in – this immediately removes us from the present moment. When we achieve a sense of control we can easily advance to the next level in our skills as we are completely aware of our progress.

Sports provide the perfect environment to experience a sense of control without complete control. As soon as athletes start to lean toward experiencing complete control, they tend to push themselves to accept new challenges to advance in the sport. As a diver perfects 1.5 somersaults in the tuck position, they might try for a slightly more difficult dive.

When a soccer team starts to win almost all of their games, they move up to a higher division. When a climber starts to feel comfortable on a certain type of cliff, they might look for a slightly steeper or higher cliff. When athletes push themselves to accept new challenges without pushing themselves too far, they maintain a sense of control. This balance establishes flow. (

7. Loss of self-consciousness

This relates to letting go of judgments, from internal and external factors. Self-consciousness or living in a state of constant judgment distracts us from the task we have to perform. This can be a huge element for athletes to overcome as the environment they work in is full of scrutiny and judgments. This ties into the idea of performance anxiety. When the cycle of self-judgment is broken so is the cycle of self-consciousness and this is where the state of flow can be accessed.

8. Transformation of time

In the state of the zone, ‘time’ has little importance as this is not where the focus lies. It is less about how long it takes to achieve the goal but more about the process of getting there. As athletes, this can be difficult to grasp as time plays a huge role in a professional career. Time is easily seen as wasted or lost if progress or wins aren’t made. Even more so as the length of majority of athletes’ careers are very limited.

This dimension of flow can be quite difficult for athletes to experience because for many sports, wins or losses are determined based on a specific period of time. As a result, players are very conscious of winning time or wasting time. Other sports, like tennis, are played until a certain outcome is reached. The importance of time in a sport can influence an athlete’s ability to experience the transformation of time. Otherwise, whether or not an athlete experiences this dimension of flow highly depends of their personality. (

9. Autolytic experience

This explains an experience that is rewarding with an intrinsic nature. We perform an activity because the activity itself gives us a sense of fulfillment. Sport, in its nature, was invented for enjoyment purposes unfortunately due to the high pressures for many athletes this enjoyment has fallen to the wayside. Finding the joy in it once again allows us to access flow easier. This might require taking some time off or forming a new skill that is complementary to the sport that the athlete follows professionally. Many times taking a step back gives us a fresh perspective and allows us to reenter with a fresh approach. 

Try this app – MindSport!

MindSport quiets your mind and improves your athletic performance. Now used by over 27,000 athletes in 80 plus countries all around the world you will become a better more balanced athlete mentally, physically, and emotionally. Through our guided meditation sessions, sport-specific Yoga, and skill work within your sport, we will make you a balanced, healthier, and more mindful athlete. With sessions designed by current and former professional athletes that have played at the highest possible level, and additional content from skill instructors that train world champions, we know here at MindSport you will be a better athlete with the use of our app. (

About author: bianca

Yoga and meditation instructor, holistic personal trainer, nutritional advisor, website and content designer, blog writer, professional dancer, performing artist, voice-over actor, and choreographer.