Your Inner Athlete column: Find your ‘flow’ |

Your Inner Athlete column: Find your ‘flow’

Haley Perlus
Your Inner Athlete

You’ve most likely heard people talk about the runner’s high or being in the zone. Sport psychologists call it “flow,” but it all means the same thing: It’s the moment in time when you both feel and perform your absolute best.

On average, people can easily access about 65 percent of their absolute strength. With flow, five neurotransmitters are released into your body, creating the opportunity to push your strength to its absolute threshold. In this state, you’ll jump higher, lift more, reach farther and persist longer — all while loving every minute of it!


What are these five neurotransmitters and their individual roles in this peak experience? Each one can resemble a muppet character. Dopamine would most closely resemble Elmo. Enthusiastic, engaged and always wanting to experience new things, Elmo continues to seek adventure and creativity. Even when he doesn’t have all the skills necessary to do what he wants, he focuses and gets physically energized to perform the best he can.


Norepinephrine can be compared to the muppet character Animal — the wild drummer who is full of high energy and keeps himself locked on select targets (e.g. food and drums) holding all other distractions at bay.


Endorphins most closely resemble Fozzie Bear, the Muppet Show’s resident comedian who wants nothing more than to relieve everyone’s pain and produce pleasure through his joke telling and “wocka wocka wocka!” laugh.


Anandamide is the Great Gonzo — the odd-looking daredevil who takes pride in everything that he does. Gonzo doesn’t often let fear get in his way of experimenting with new acts. In fact, his blissful state prepares his body for even the most painful and ill-advised performances.


Lastly, serotonin is the one and only Kermit the Frog. Kermit is the muppet everyone calls upon to help them cope with adversity. Kermit is also the muppet that gives us the warm and fuzzy feelings long after the show has finished.


In flow, all five of these neurotransmitters act as powerful painkillers and allow you to physically and mentally reach new heights. So, how can you get into flow and enjoy these neurotransmitters in the first place? Here are three things you can do today to give yourself the best shot at experiencing flow in your sport:

1. Find clear process goals. For flow, it’s not about having clear outcome goals such as finishing the snowshoe hike or placing top 10 in your race. It’s about using clear goals to help you stay in the present moment. Clear process goal, such as maintaining your tempo on a ski trail, centers your mind, narrows your focus, frees you from distractions and creates self-confidence — all required to experience flow.

Aim for immediate feedback. The more you know how you’re doing and the faster you can course correct, the greater your chances of finding flow. While performing in your sport, quickly assess your technique, tactics and effort. Ask yourself if there is anything you should correct or any more effort you have to give. When you can quickly and immediately assess your performance, you can also quickly and immediately figure out if anything needs to be improved. With this tight feedback loop, you continue to stay in the present moment, feel in control and energized, and believe in your ability to push your limits.

Seek a challenge just above your skill level. It’s important to understand that your attention will be most engaged when you choose a task that is just above your current level of ability. Tasks that are too challenging elicit fear and self-doubt. Tasks that are too easy make room for distractions. For the ultimate flow experience, choosing to push yourself just past your current level of ability is what is necessary.

Taken together, clear process goals, immediate feedback and challenging yourself just above your current skill level will not only get you results but will help place you in a state that releases the five flow neurotransmitters and gives you the ultimate peak experience.

With a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology, Haley Perlus is an expert at empowering athletes to achieve peak results. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, an international speaker, a former alpine ski racer, appointed industry leader for and author. For more information and free chapters of her soon-to-be-released books, visit her website,

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