How to Help Participants Find Flow
Use tested techniques to get your classes “in the zone.”
For a moment, think about your own workouts. Tap into that feeling of being completely absorbed in your favorite fitness routine. Everything else fades away, and your entire focus is on the present moment. You feel confident in your body’s abilities, you’re challenging yourself, and you find great meaning in what’s happening now. You’re in the zone. Before you know it, your workout is over, and you can’t wait to do it again.
This undeniably wonderful feeling is called a flow state, complete absorption in the present moment (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi 2009). This definition has also been used to characterize a good life (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi in press). Although flow research began with musicians, artists and other creative professionals, it’s now being studied and used among elite athletes and the military to inspire peak performance. Experiencing flow reinforces the urge to continue or return to an activity (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi 2009). Within the group fitness context, the flow state inspires participants to come back to the fun they’re having, which can lead to better adherence.
How can you help your students find flow?
Zero in on the Zone
Exercise is about much more than its physical aspect; it also helps to create an optimal growth experience. The best way to foster this is by offering flow opportunities. Supplement your instruction with these actions, designed to make it more likely that your participants will find flow.
Entering a flow state involves striking a healthy balance between challenge and skill level (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi 2009). Participants range in background and abilities, but—through your instruction–everyone should be able to find that balance. One way to help with this is by offering choices and modifications: pushups on the knees instead of from a standard plank position, for example.
David Mesirow, an instructor at In-Shape Health Clubs in Cathedral City, California, notes that many factors can affect skill level, not just physical ability or injuries. Perhaps a client has social anxiety, for instance, and it took a lot of courage just to show up. Be aware of your clientele and their limitations so that you can provide appropriate options. Announce at the beginning of class that you’re available if people want to talk about their unique needs.
In addition to offering modifications, tell participants to keep listening to their bodies and to choose the options that best challenge their skill level. Lead by example by performing a basic move instead of the advanced version so attendees understand that they don’t need to overexert themselves, especially if they feel hesitant. Research shows that when people challenge themselves past their skill level, it can lead to mental anxiety or physical injury. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t work hard enough might experience boredom (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi in press).
As you teach, scan the room and figure out how to best motivate participants to either ease up or go a little harder. You don’t always have to push people to their limit. Sometimes it’s best to motivate them to simply work within a proper intensity range. When you provide options and encourage people to challenge themselves at the right level for them (on that day), you set them up to experience flow. They can then incorporate this balance between challenge and skill level into their goal-setting.
Encourage Clear Goals
Speaking of goals, take time at the beginning of class to allow participants to set goals for themselves. These can be short- or long-term goals. When asked how instructors can set exercisers up for goal-setting success, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD—who coined the term “flow”—suggested that the key is for exercisers to know their abilities and challenge themselves, but not to make the challenge so hard that it will overwhelm their skills. Attendees become more ambitious and set new goals when old goals are achieved.
With this in mind, be alert to whether your cues are supporting or hindering participants from getting the feedback they need in order to feel they’re reaching their goals in the moment. Explain to people where and how to focus their attention. For example, clearly state not only how to do a move but also which muscles are involved and how the movement should feel.
Generate Focus and Use Silence Intentionally
A flow state heavily depends on where attention is focused and whether it supports an individual’s goals (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi in press). Develop the skill of crafting class attention. When cuing, for example, coach participants through the movements, avoiding phrases that could unintentionally divert focus. (Note: Saying “Forget about what’s happening outside the room” might actually draw people’s attention to what’s happening outside the room, defeating the purpose.) Mesirow recommends that, instead of having external motivators, such as dropping a dress size or looking good at a wedding, you bring attention to how exercisers feel in the moment.
Mesirow’s cuing strategy includes telling participants where they should be feeling an action, noticing which muscles are being engaged, and breaking down the movement for optimal performance. Bringing attention to what participants are feeling allows them to receive immediate feedback. When, for example, you direct attention to the back of the upper arms during a triceps extension and explain that participants should feel the work there, they can check themselves and get an immediate reward when doing it correctly. Students get to feel change occurring in their bodies—change that may lead directly to a larger goal—without being overwhelmed by long-term milestones.
When you consistently direct participants’ attention to how a movement feels, you also strengthen their understanding of what the exercise should look and feel like, which helps with form, making attendees stronger and setting them up for future rewards. This is where intentional silence comes into play. Once participants have a solid base and know where to focus attention without your continual instruction, you can insert periods of silence so students can practice awareness and find flow independently.
When I first started teaching, I was terrified of silence, but I gradually learned that it could be the greatest period of growth for students, allowing them to experience an exercise on their own. Any move that involves repetitive motions, such as sun salutation or an indoor cycling drill, offers a great opportunity to inject intentional silence. For example, when you’re approaching an extended work period where the goal will be to keep the same pace, build up to the moment by telling participants to focus on something—such as where they are feeling the movement—and then allow them to experience it without your input. This lets them receive immediate feedback that contributes to their overarching goal. If used properly, extended periods of silence can lead to remarkably rewarding flow experiences.
Guiding participants into a state of flow can be a challenge, and keeping them there requires a little extra effort. Remind students that they have options for finding that healthy balance between challenge and skill, and emphasize that each person’s workout experience is unique.
Also, remember that regardless of your efforts as an instructor, some participants might not enter a flow state right away. It may take people a few classes to feel even a little comfortable and confident. By following the steps outlined in this article, you won’t necessarily ensure that everyone finds flow every time, but you will arm participants with the latest strategies, not only for getting fit, but also for creating a healthy exercise habit.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Massimini, F. 1985. On the psychological selection of bio-cultural information. New Ideas in Psychology, 3 (2) 115-38.
Shernoff, D.J., et al. 2003. Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18 (2), 158-76.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2003. The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In C.L.M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.) Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp. 83-104). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2009. Flow theory and research. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 195-206). New York: Oxford University.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (in press). The experience of flow: Theory and research. In S.J. Lopez, L.M. Edwards, & S.C. Marques (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.