Flow in Sport: Beyond Caution and Conscious Thought?

In this post I explore some ideas around flow in sport performance. The post arises from a workshop I attended with Level 4 coaches in London earlier this month. The whole day workshop focused on group dynamics and explored some of the characteristics of successful groups. I wrote about the day and it was a part of the day that discussed William Bion’s work that sent me off on the thought process that have culminated in this post.
In essence this is a post that reflects on the kinds of learning environments coaches creature, nurture and aspire to develop. Flow is intoxicating when experienced and I think we can work to awaken athletes’ senses to flow in daily training environments so that its presence in competition is just another manifestation of it. This kind of approach prioritises energy and process.
I provide some information about flow here from the work of Rudolf Laban. His work has been overlooked in sport in recent decades. I think it holds some fascinating insights for 21st Century coaches. We ignore it at our peril! (see Take Home? at the end of this post.)
1. Introduction
Two weeks ago I attended a workshop for coaches. The theme for the workshop was group dynamics and momentum. Chris Grant facilitated the workshop. His ideas and approach led me to revisit the work of Rudolf Laban. I was interested in particular in how effort might enable flow to occur in sport performance. I believe that flow is an essential characteristic of momentum.
In this post I would like to pursue some of Laban’s ideas about ‘flow’ whilst recognising that the term has gained popular attention through the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. There are some very important synergies between Laban and Csikzenmihalyi and I am very interested in how both deal with risk and conscious action in their work.
2. Background
In this section I provide a background to Rudolf Laban’s work and its development by Cecily Dell. It includes the building blocks of an understanding of effort. There are sections on:

  • Effort and Rhythmic Movement
  • Economy of Effort, Efficiency, Selection and Instruction
  • Skill
  • Flow

Effort and Rhythmic Movement

Laban suggests that “human effort is variable in its manifestation, and a compound of several elements mixed together in an almost infinite number of combinations” (1947, page xii). He adds that an understanding of this effort requires the observation of rhythmic movement. Such observation indicates that “practically everyone has the natural gift to discern rhythm” (1947, page xiv). This rhythm “speaks to us independently of the task to which it is applied. We can gather the meaning of a movement and though it seems to be difficult to express it in exact words, rhythm conveys something by which we are influenced” (1947, page xiv).
Rhythms “may consist of strong, quick and direct movements” and people with these characteristics can be distinguished from those with “sensitive fine touch, sustained consideration and a flexible approach to decisions and actions” (1947, page xi).
Laban suggests that as observers we are readers of effort-expression and notes that “to be a good observer of other persons’ effort-expressions, one need not oneself have great bodily expressiveness” (1947, page xv).
Well-regulated rhythmic movement is “less fatiguing than those movements in which exertions and relaxations are distributed regardless of the repeated recovery of muscle tissue and nervous energy” (1947, page 6).
Economy of Effort, Efficiency, Selection and Instruction
Laban points out that:

  • “The two necessary measures to further a general economy of human effort are selection and instruction. Selection means the putting of the right man on the right job; instruction is the teaching of people how to use the bodily engine in the right way” (1947, page 1).
  • “Efficient selection and instruction demand both a thorough knowledge of the nature and display of human effort” (1947, page 1).
  • “The main practical problem is to assist (the person) to exert rightly controlled effort under all and even the worst exterior conditions” (1947, page 4).

Laban suggests that economy of effort involves “the right proportionality of Weight, Space, Time and the control of the Flow of movement” (1947, page 4). This proportionality is vital to “a perfect effort even in adverse situations”.
Cecily Dell discusses the ways in which the body concentrates its effort. Weight, space, time and flow are ‘Effort factors’ (1970, page 11). Each factor has two opposite qualities:

  • Weight can be light or strong
  • Space can be indirect or direct
  • Time can be sustained or sudden
  • Flow can be free or bound

She observes that “These qualities may also be thought of as ways of coping with or dealing with or controlling the Effort factors”. Importantly, she stresses that:

“attitude toward” or “control over’ or “coping with” are not meant as something necessarily conscious that the mover decides to do and does. (1970, page 12)


In his discussion of skill as the appropriate use of movement, Laban notes that:

Skill is acquired through the gradual refinement of the feel of the movement, and any training has indeed to promote this feel, which in its essence, is the awakening of the sense for the proportions of motion factors. (1947, page 4)

Laban believed that “the awakening of the understanding of the rules of the proportionality between motion factors” was the key to learning. This awakening is “intimately connected with the capacity for control” (1947, page 8).
Laban argues strongly that the capacity for control “increases with the awareness of the degrees of control representing the finer shades between the contrasts of fluent flow and bound flow in movement” (1947, page 8).

Movements performed with a high degree of bound flow reveal the readiness of the moving person to stop at any moment in order to readjust the effort if it proves to be wrong, or engenders success.
In movements done with fluent flow, the utmost lack of control or abandon becomes visible, in which the possibility to stop is considered to be unessential. (1947, page 8)

Laban developed a notation system to visualise the relationship of exertion and control in effort. He did this to overcome the absence of a terminology to verbalise the relations between exertion and control. Cecily Dell points out that this method “for systematic description of qualitative change in movement is a major product” of Laban’s work (1970, page 5).
Dell argues that “all movement requires tensing of muscles, and it is the relationship among the muscles tensed, rather than the presence of tension in the body, which determines the quality of the flow” (1970, page 14). She adds that “There are no good or bad movement qualities as such; there are appropriate and inappropriate uses of the qualities” (1970, page 15).
I think she makes a vital point in the context of this blog post:

Although the flow factor is sometimes viewed as the same “kind” of event on the same level with the factors of weight, space and time, it is more often seen in a different light from other Effort factors. Changes in the quality of flow seem to be the most frequent kind of changes in movement of all the Effort factors. They seem, in fact, to provide a kind of substrate in movement, out of which changes in qualities of weight, time and space can “crystallize”, as highlights among the continuing flow changes. (1970, page 15)

In her discussion of flow as continuous change, Dell draws upon the work of Judith Kestenberg. Kestenberg identified three attributes of flow:

  • Intensity (high, low, neutral)
  • Change (fluctuating, even)
  • Duration (abrupt, gradual)

These insights into flow add to Csikzenmihalyi’s work. Their combination provides rich material for coaches to use and explore.

Take Home?
Coaches create learning environments. I believe sensory rich guided discovery stimulates opportunities for flow in training and competition. As coaches we know flow when we see it. At our best we are open to non-verbal communication. Laban points out that movement is “a building process in which many and varying operations and actions are compounded” (North, 1972, page 9). As coaches we accept individual difference, refine behaviours, stimulate understanding and provide the space for athletes to flourish.
The flow I see in many sports is characterised by an acceptance of risk and an intuitive virtuosity that has effortless ease. These are moments for me beyond caution and beyond thought. This is where Laban meets Csikzenmihalyi!
Photo Credits
Music Visualizations
You almost feel like you could fly
Sailing Skills
Boat on the River
Dell, C. (1970). A Primer for Movement Description. New York: Dance Notation Bureau.
Laban, R. and Lawrence, F.C. (1947). Effort. London: Macdonald and Evans.
North, M. (1972). Personality Assessment Through Movement. London: Macdonald and Evans.



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