One key concept to define before going into detail about the importance of goal setting for peak performance is the concept of “Flow.” Flow is that state of optimal performance where time seems to slow down, that the task at hand seems easy and there is no experience of doubt, where you are completely “in the zone” without really thinking about it. This state is what we are chasing and even though we cannot achieve it every time, there are some elements that can help us attain it.
“I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in tunnel.” – Ayrton Senna, Brazilian Formula 1 World Champion.
The concept of Flow was popularized by psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and he pointed out some key elements to achieve it. One of the most relevant elements is the balance between challenge and skill. Low challenge and low skill leads to apathy and withdrawal. High challenge but low skill creates anxiety. High skill but low challenge generates boredom and complacency, but high levels of perceived skill and a difficult challenge bring out the best in us.
Another element is to have clear goals but specially goals that are lead by intrinsic motivation and not by external rewards or consequences, where we perform the task for its own sake and our efforts to control outcomes are non-existent. That brings a state of complete absorption in the activity, an autopilot type of experience, where performers cannot often explain what they did, how they did it, or how long it took, but they are aware of enjoying the experience.
In summary, Flow is a mental state that every athlete strives to achieve, where we are completely immersed in the activity performing at our best. But to attain it the perception of our skill level has to match the challenge of the task and we have to be motivated by the task itself and not by external stimuli. Taking these elements into consideration, the importance of setting our competitive goals and the nature of our goals becomes crucial. For next week, we will describe those different types of goals and their effects on performance.