Finding Flow A Book Review

Finding Flow: A Book Review

“It is the full involvement in flow, rather than happiness that makes for excellence in life.”–Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi

The other day I was in a brainstorming meeting with several people, including a client, when the concept of “flow” came up. The client leaned over to me and said, “You know, being in the zone”.

The conversation proceeded from there.

But, it left me thinking what really does it mean to be in the zone or to find flow?

We all have an image in our minds whether it’s Top Gun, or a sweat drenched athlete ecstatic in victory, or the musician lost in his craft, but what it is really and how do we get there?

Finding Flow

Professor Bop via Compfight

So, I pulled Finding Flow off my shelf to re-read.

Finding Flow is written by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyia the University of Chicago scholar who introduced the concept in his seminal book Flow twenty or so years ago.

The book Flow is dense, full of research and nuance.

My memory of Finding Flow was that it was lighter and had applications beyond sport and coaching.

I was right on both counts.

It is still a wonderful read filled with insights about happiness and the power of intention in our lives. Rather than focus on the emotion of happiness he suggests we focus on purpose, which drives our actions.

As he says,

“In other words, the excellence of daily life finally depends not on what we do, but on how we do it.”

So, what is flow exactly?

Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an environment in which the challenge is significant, but we have the skills to match so that we are caught neither in boredom nor anxiety.

We lose ourselves in the task at hand.

Self-consciousness evaporates, problems and physical ailments are mitigated. Our focus is wholly on the task or event taking place.

Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted; hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does is worth doing for its own sake;living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own.”

Sounds pretty good.

How do we get there?

He lists several factors essential to reach flow:

1. A clear set of goals which creates clarity

2. Immediate feedback

3. Skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenging goal

The result is attention that is ordered and fully invested.

One does not find herself caught in boredom because the task is too easy, nor in anxiety because the challenge is beyond his skill set. Instead she is on that edge where he is challenged, reaching and engaged.

What are the implications for coaches?

Games provide a clear set of goals, immediate feedback and a challenging environment.

The bigger issue for a coach is to create a developmental environment that facilitates flow on a more regular basis. This might be difficult in a team sport with a wide range of abilities.  Or for a team who dominates their league, or is always under-matched.  The coach must find different ways to challenge the team or keep them engaged.

Keeping an eye on these three criteria can be very valuable in optimizing the experience and performance of the team.

Finding Flow

This concept also contains powerful implications for the coach herself.

Coaching is a career designed to give an individual many opportunities for the flow experience.  All of the necessary ingredients are often a part of our daily lives: clear objectives, immediate feedback and a challenging environment.

We have to be constantly learning and evolving to keep up with the demands of the game, the changes in the athletes we teach and the rapid development of our competitors.

A coach cannot stand still and succeed; growth is endemic to a successful career.

Here’s what the author says about the intrinsic rewards of some jobs. I think you can add coaching to the list:

“Highly productive and creative artists, entrepreneurs, statesmen and scientists tend to experience their jobs like our hunting ancestors did theirs–as completely integrated with the rest of their lives. One of the most common tropes in the  nearly hundred interviews I conducted with such persons as Nobel Prize-winners and other creative leaders in different fields was “You could say that I worked every minute of my life, or you could say with equal justice that I never worked a day.”…For such individuals, flow is a constant part of their professional activity. Even though operating at the edges of knowledge must necessarily include much hardship and inner turmoil, the joy of extending the mind’s reach into new territories is the most obvious feature of their lives, even past the age when most people are content to retire.


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“Next Play”

next play nealoneal via Compfight

Coaches can provide a powerful example for leaders in other disciplines.  “Next play” is a great example of this.

Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, interviewed in the New York Times by Adam Bryant, highlights the important lesson he gleaned that one should not get stuck in any error or linger too long in celebration:

Q. Are there certain expressions that you find yourself repeating at work?

A. Sure. The first one has essentially become the unofficial mantra of LinkedIn, and it’s not something I came up with. It’s something I read and loved and decided to use. And it’s two words: “next play.”

The person I borrowed it from is Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] of the Duke Blue Devils. Every time the basketball team goes up and down the court and they complete a sequence, offense or defense, Coach K yells out the exact same thing, every time. He yells out “next play,” because he doesn’t want the team lingering too long on what just took place. He doesn’t want them celebrating that incredible alley-oop dunk, and he doesn’t want them lamenting the fact that the opposing team just stole the ball and had a fast break that led to an easy layup. You can take a moment to reflect on what just happened, and you probably should, but you shouldn’t linger too long on it, and then move on to the next play.

Saturday’s Links to Leadership (2)

Wally Bock at “Three Star Leadership” answers a question from a reader about how much business managers can learn from sports coaches. Overall he thinks a business leader can learn from a myriad of people, but he cautions about sports:

“I think you have to be careful with this because sports present an artificial environment. Sports teams practice more than they play. For businesses, it’s game day every day.”

This answer surprised me a bit. People in sports also have to put their ability and results out on display on a regular basis to be judged and measured. Training sessions are typically not just a space to practice or train, but instead a competitive endeavor in which playing time is earned and roles are established.

He does find some areas for sports expertise : organization, rules and development. You can read it here.

Barry Lenard via Compfight

Kansas City Chief’s Head Coach Romeo Crennel handed off the duties of defensive play calling to a subordinate last week. Crennel had been a very respected Defensive Coordinator for the Chiefs  last season before being promoted to Head Coach this year.  The Chiefs are currently 1-7.

Dan McCarthy at the “Great Leadership” website uses Crennel’s decision to weigh in on the failure of head coaches and executives to redefine their duties when promoted.  A new head coach or executive often forgets that it’s his job is to elevate the performance of the position coaches and front line managers.  McCarthy references the book The Leadership Pipeline by Ram Charan, Steve Drotter and Jim Noel to provide recommendations regarding hiring, retaining, evaluating and developing managers. You can read his post and recommendations here.

The “Women On Leadership” site has an interesting article up about Motivating Team Members for Success by Grace Belvedere Young. The post brings forth some of the most salient points from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us which include the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Are leaders born or made? George Ambler weighs in. Favorite quote: “Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.” – Harold Geneen

Finally, it’s hard to ignore the news about General Patreus. He resigned yesterday from his job as Director of the CIA due to an extramarital affair with the journalist and author Paula Broadwell who had written extensively about him recently, including a Daily Beast article on his leadership and a 2011 biography. The story will play out over the next few weeks, but he has been lauded so regularly for leadership excellence in his various positions that it certainly seems a hard fall and a great loss.



Building A Coaching Culture

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin

I went to dinner the other night with a few friends who happen to be high school coaches and teachers. They have all been working in these professions for decades. The conversation was lively and free wheeling. Lots of story telling and a little kvetching. Inevitably the conversation turned to how much kids and parents have changed since we were younger. There was a little of the usual hyperbole regarding how much tougher we were, how much less attentive our parents were, how our character was formed, etc.

building a coaching culture Rebecca Chai via Compfight

We laughed a bit at ourselves, but then  someone mentioned that coaches have really changed as well. My friends felt it used to be that most high school coaches considered themselves educators who had a role in shaping the person as well as the athlete. They held tryouts and the kids at the school showed up and the coach worked with who was there, the good, the bad and the average.

But now it seemed that the high school coaches were out recruiting and focused primarily on winning.

Another friend acknowledged this might be true but noted that the culture of high school sports had changed.  She pointed out that nobody was teaching young coaches any differently any more. There is growing pressure from parents as well as the need to establish reputations and careers.

Building a Coaching Culture

I have thought about this a lot since that night and the implications for the coaching profession.

When I was just starting as a coach my father used to call my house after many of my games and leave me a message, “I hope you won today, but if you didn’t remember about half the people in your profession failed today.”  He was trying to be funny so that he could deliver a bigger message and help me keep things in perspective. When I was offered a college soccer job he was most impressed by the SAT scores of the football team (they were high) even though at that point they hadn’t won very often. He thought it was a school with the right priorities. And, he was right.

But I can also say that it was easier to build a soccer program there after the football team started winning. Winning impacted recruiting and the culture of the entire athletic department without detracting from the quality academics of the school. It certainly made recruiting easier.

So, there is a balance to these things.

The real question is how does a leader establish the culture at her school or his program that she or he wants, while maintaining the proper balance between winning and development?

Believe in something

Develop a clear philosophy that informs all decisions. Articulate it to the staff and coaches that work at the high school.  It brings clarity to your decisions and the role of people around you. A young coach working for a leader with a vision has an easier time expanding his or her own to be bigger than just winning the next game or tournament.

Live your word

People will judge you more by what you do then what you say. If you state you believe in player and personal development, but every choice you make is about winning and losing then you will start to lose credibility. A good example is Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach at UNC whom I have written about before and whom I admire very much. When I was a young fan watching the UNC men’s basketball team play it used to drive me nuts how much he substituted throughout a game, but especially in critical moments.

I wanted him to keep his best players in the game; I wanted him to be sure the team won. But, he was playing the long game, preparing a full roster for later in the season when he would need everybody.  He was demonstrating trust in his players and building confidence.

Clearly he knew what he was doing and could withstand some criticism from some fans.

Emphasize Coach Education

Create a coaching education program or provide access to one. Everybody wants to get better at what he does. Corporations devote quite a bit of resources to training in order to maximize the productivity of each employee. Even the best, in fact especially the best want to learn, but it does not happen by accident.

Every time I go to  hear a coach teach a course or run a session I notice some of the very best in my profession watching, looking for something, even just a phrase or a tidbit that will be useful.  Or, consider the questions great coaches ask others about their methods and processes. Think about the amount they read or seek from other disciplines and then integrate in to their own coaching.

Be a mentor

Coach education does not have to be formal.  Take the opportunities as they arise to teach young coaches through words and actions about game and training decisions, but also about character and the decisions necessary to lead a team or department. Introduce them to people who can help their careers and point them in the right direction.

Mentoring is crucial to development and is also useful for retention when active mentoring takes place within a department. Foster a culture in which best practices are shared and informal mentoring is the norm.

Provide Feedback

I am not talking right now simply about the annual review. I am not even sure how valuable an annual review is to an employee unless an administrator is present and observing his training and games fairly regularly. But, if the A.D. is watching her work why wait to give feedback? Especially if there is an opportunity to acknowledge something positive.

Everybody wants feedback. Athletes are constantly seeking it from the coach. They want to know where they stand and they want useful actionable information.

Why would a coach be any different? My only caveat is to keep it constructive and positive, but more on that at another time.

Stand firm behind a coach

Many coaches have a story of the time their boss didn’t have their back; the time the parent called or the student complained. But, great bosses know how to listen to complaints from students and parents without undermining their coaches. How can a leader ask the coach to buy into her philosophy if she won’t stand firm beside the coach when he is challenged?

When the boss stands firm trust is built.  There is then room to challenge a coach in a constructive manner when she makes a mistake. The administrator  will have more room to actually lead and more people following behind as he does.

Those are a few of my thoughts. Any other suggestions on how to build a coaching culture?



Pause, Listen, Respond

Nicole Lindsay has an interesting article on Lifehacker with some really good advice on how to take constructive feedback. Her recommendations begin with suggestion that one should pause before responding, which requires tremendous maturity, but is a skill worth practicing.  The advice reminds me of the Victor Frankl quote from the stellar Man’s Search for Meaning  “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” If we pause, we can choose how we respond.

The rest of the list and her advice is all good. Here’s one more of her suggestions which stood out for me:

As the person shares feedback with you, listen closely. Allow the person to share his or her complete thoughts, without interruption. When he or she is done, repeat back what you heard. For example, “I hear you saying that you want me to provide more detailed weekly reports, is that right?” At this point, avoid analyzing or questioning the person’s assessment; instead, just focus on understanding his or her comments and perspective. And give the benefit of the doubt here—hey, it’s difficult to give feedback to another person. Recognize that the person giving you feedback may be nervous or may not express his or her ideas perfectly.”

The entire article is filled with good advice for navigating what can be a difficult experience.

Saturday Links to Leadership

Friendship / Amistad Víctor Nuño via Compfight

*On LinkedIn today I discovered a fantastic list from Sally Krawcheck on how to lead through a disaster. The whole list is good, but here is my favorite:

“Let them see you sweat, but don’t let them see you tremble. In times of stress, the team wants to see you working hard and making personal sacrifices to pull the organization through it.  But they will watch you carefully for signs that you are nervous or scared.  Gritty, realistic confidence goes a long way.”

*Rachel Held Evans is launching a new book tour and found herself in NYC on Monday. Her heartfelt piece about the experience is a good reminder for all of us about what really matters in our lives.

*The wonderful site has a lovely explanation about Keats’s concept of “Negative Capability” which is too often forgotten in leadership as we search for certainty in all situations. I’ll let her words speak for themselves here, though you can go to her site and read Keats’ words as well:

“Negative Capability” — the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Triggered by Keats’s disagreement with English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

Brain Pickings also does a weekly newsletter with highlights that is a great resource and wonderful weekend read.

*I enjoyed this Seth Godin bit, A bias for Trust.  His main point is that relationships entered into with trust and mutual benefit thrive compared to a more world-wary approach. Seems like very good advice for a coach trying to build team culture and create buy-in.