The word itself brings forth images of seemingly effortless motion: gliding and weaving as both the sense of time and perceived obstacles fall away in the face of focused energy. We’ve all felt it sometime in our lives, and we recall those vivid experiences with a sense of awe and ultimate fulfillment.

Not surprisingly, we want more of it, and where better to find heart-pounding action and eye-popping exhibitions of skill than in action sports.

The Action in Action Sports

Within this context, flow IS the “action” in action sports.

Made popular by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the term “flow” is an outstanding example of one of those “aha” moments of clarity: an elegant explanation having an almost unlimited application. Simply stated, flow occurs when a challenge (the level of potential achievement) is met by the skill (the performer’s ability) needed to overcome it (See Figure 1). Although flow is more typically viewed from an individual’s self-perspective, this fundamental concept actually is essential to meeting the expectations of participants, spectators and the organization alike.

Flow may happen in nearly any situation, but it must happen when it’s showtime in the arena. If some of the attractions or stunts are too familiar, everyone is bored or disinterested. If the tricks are too difficult, the performers become anxious or frustrated, or worse yet, concerned for their own safety or for the spectators’ well-being. A manager’s duty, then, is to create an environment that brings together in close proximity the props needed by the performers to make their magic, and wow the crowd.

Motivation, Attention & Situation

Three of the most important factors to consider are motivation, attention and situation (See Figure 2). When addressing the first of these, a manager should insure that everyone feels welcomed and appreciated by the staff, that communication has been clear and remains so, that promotion and publicity have created an infectious “buzz,” and that contractual matters are handled with generosity and equity. People who feel appreciated are motivated to respond in kind. And while we’re at it, shouldn’t you satisfy these conditions for your own staff as well?

Attention involves taking care of the details and incidentals so that all senses are focused on the action itself. Distractions such as logistics and adhering to timelines and scripts are kept to a minimum if not eliminated altogether by proper planning and design, and by empowering the staff to be alert and proactive.

When both motivation and attention are well in hand, the situation is primed for flow to occur. Now, has the facility been appropriately modified to accommodate the action? Has the best equipment been marshaled and properly assembled? Are the appropriate type and number of supplies in stock? Have safety and security been assessed by the risk management team? Are concessionaires and comfort facilities prepared to handle the anticipated attendance?

Flow, Baby!

When that hot skateboard champion nails a 780 on the half-pipe--and the crowd erupts in a celebratory roar--the sport’s “challenges” have been successfully matched by the skills of the organization and those of the performer. At that moment, we achieve the desired balance among motivation, attention and situation; we witness flow in action-and the high of a successful special event, program or tournament.

Kim Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at kuhlik@casa.sjsu.edu.

Work cited in this article:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1990