Flow x Fiero: A structural model of autotelic athletics for youth sports coaches
Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The autotelic athletic question
“What do you think of your team?” Amos Alonzo Stagg, longtime head football coach at the University of Chicago, was asked after winning the college football national championship. Unflinchingly, he replied, “I’ll let you know in 20 years” (1).
What could possibly be greater than winning at the highest level? What could matter twenty years down the road? Stagg focused on goals beyond winning, an archetypal autotelic coach, measuring success intrinsically, the journey over the inn and the people over the performance.
He exemplified the autotelic ideal within the Olympic Creed that, “the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well” (2).
The (extrinsic) weight of culture on sport
Times change. Culture’s extrinsic gluttony weighs a lot. Professional salaries have soared, with athletes raking in more than ever. Lebron James, for example, has made roughly $350 million in salaries so far in his basketball career and $650 million in endorsements, pushing him past the billion dollar mark (3). Brands are everywhere. The money and the fame sound great from afar. It would, if professional athletes were happy. Sadly, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver estimates a majority of NBA players are in fact unhappy (4).
While the causes could be vast and likely cumulative, such as the not-so-secret struggle to sleep optimally traveling across time zones amid a grueling schedule and demanding physical requirements, it is telling that the money, the fame, the lifestyle — even the sport itself — fails to overcome these “peripheral distractions” as longtime NBA coach turned executive Pat Riley said (5, 6). Even sadder is the trickle-down effect to the collegiate and high school ranks. Scholarships, sport specialization, and select teams along with private training and coaching, offer hope for every family and athlete to beat the odds and go pro.
Yet the extrinsic carrot comes at a cost: players on scholarship experience added pressure and decreased motivation; early sport specialization consistently comes with burnout and overuse injuries; and the soaring cost of sports in general, much less select teams lends itself to the sunk-cost fallacy (7–10). Saddest of all, days of backyard baseball, pickup games, and The Sandlot are long past as kids simply don’t play anymore, leading to negative effects such as a rise in anxiety, depression, and narcissism and a lack of ability to make decisions, regulate emotions, make friends, and experience joy (11).
The fact is that we forget that we forget. Wide is the road of extrinsic destruction, despite the evidence that experience trumps things, financial satisfaction shows diminishing returns, and overcoming challenges is more fun than fun itself (12–14).
The purpose of this paper is to explore the structures, style, and underlying principles of a lasting autotelic experience in order to answer Coach Stagg’s assertion and to create a framework of foresight so that coaches and athletes, schools and organizations can design experiences that do last twenty years and beyond.
To achieve this, an argument will be made for flow and fiero as foundational blocks to that end. But what starts the autotelic path is not winning and not enjoyment, but failure, and our relationship to it.
Failure is a fork in the road
Failure is fundamental
Failure is fundamental to expertise. Psychologist Friedrich Nietzsche got it right that struggle is necessary. All expertise is acquired through talent and effort, regardless of supposed innate talent. Improvement of a skill requires deliberate practice as popularized by Anders Ericson, practice that is purposeful, systematic, and extremely taxing (16). This type of effort and interest, over time, is rewarded and validated in multiple domains academically, athletically, and culturally (17). Furthermore, struggle is the first stage of the flow cycle as popularized in Herb Benson’s Breakout Principle. (18).
If we can regularly embrace discomfort and get through the struggle, we can later release and access flow. Jesper Juul highlights this “failure-improvement cycle” in four steps (19):
- New goal is introduced
- Failure presents the player as inadequate
- Player searches for failure cause and improves
- Inadequacy gone in player; player now has skills
Yet, failure feels terrible. Were the equation as simple as work hard and keep going, world-class performers would be a dime a dozen. Humans generally avoid discomfort, but we need it for the continued growth and competence we also fundamentally desire on the path to mastery (20). Our relationship to failure then is a proverbial fork in the road, one that we must take as New York Yankees great Yogi Berra once wryly said.
Failure can fracture
The fork depends on our ability to distance or not distance ourselves from the failure. Framing failure is the name of the game. Attribution theory, or how blame is assigned in this case, illuminates corresponding levels of effort and mindset (21). Loci is similar. The focus must be internal versus external, or within our control versus some outside circumstance (22).
A truth path divider is psychological distance, or the ability to separate from an outcome. Without it, the cause for failure falls on the individual, cascading into a cycle and habit of learned helplessness, fixed mindset, and self-suppressive activation, where effort becomes pointless, abilities lack, and self-esteem turns to shambles (23–25). Accepting responsibility is too painful when our identities are on the line, or as one athlete confessed that it felt they had “failed as a human being.” (26). It is no wonder that stakes such as these athletes choke and the very best performers such as chess great Bobby Fischer refuse to compete for fear of failing (27–28).
On the other hand, failure with distance gives space for learning and growth mindset, self-expansion, and effort (29–30). Children, when completing a task as a superhero for example, persisted longer than those not being a hero (31). While enclothed cognition of this sort certainly has merit, it is not the only strategy for fracturing failure. Exposing oneself to uncomfortable stimuli reduces perceived fear attached (32).
Assurance, from an adult, friend, or coach, relaxes and ensures that an unsuccessful attempt or effort won’t be ridiculed (33). Mindfulness meditation can train the brain to create space between stimulus and response, thoughts and actions, and even increase access to flow states in baseball players (34–35). Even our own parents and their attitudes towards failure — not ours — can affect our growth mindset years later (36).
Truly, these approaches are applicable. Even so, there is a biologically built-in framework that gets us through failure and into flow, and that structure is games. Before that, a look at flow, its benefits, and its underlying structure in connection and comparison to games.
Flow is a game (or structured like one)
The basics of flow
Flow, the phenomenon and state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, has been called the source code of intrinsic motivation (37–38). The knowns of flow are well-documented: in flow, we perform, produce, and create at exponential levels (39); those with the most flow in their lives rate highest in life satisfaction (40); flow is the “more” we seek to the estimated tune of four trillion dollars that is the Altered States Economy (41); and finally, flow is the driver behind peak experience athletically (42). Flow is, among other things, universal and ubiquitous (43). Anyone can access it — provided certain conditions are met.
Called “flow triggers”, flow has a distinct set of traits no matter the domain (44). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow and identified the phenomenological conditions underlying flow, which was later expanded upon for groups by Keith Sawyer in Group Genius and compiled neatly by Steven Kotler in Rise of Superman. Because of their trailblazing, meeting the requirements of flow can now be reverse engineered, intentionally crafted versus accidentally achieved.
Curiously, games draw uncanny parallels to flow and vice versa. “Games,” Csikszentmihalyi said, “are an obvious source of flow and play is the flow experience par excellence” (45). What is under the hood of games and how does it structure experience literally and emotionally?
The structure of games versus flow
The solution obvious to Csikszentmihalyi is to design our work, our athletics, like a game. Games follow a predictable pattern. Jane McGonigal, game researcher, suggests there are four defining traits of a game: a goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation (46). In a nutshell, “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” philosopher Bernard Suits noted (47). Now, compare Csikszentmihalyi’s characteristics of flow, Kotler’s psychological triggers, and McGonigal’s defining traits of a game (48–50):
- Complete concentration on a task
- Clarity of goals, reward, and immediate feedback
- Transformation of time
- Intrinsically rewarding experience
- Effortless and ease
- Balance between challenge and skills
- Action and awareness merge
- Feeling of control
- Clear goals
- Immediate feedback
- Intensely focused attention
- Challenge/skills ratio
- Feedback system
- Voluntary participation
By default, games offer a remarkably similar set of traits structurally to flow, but they also have distinct advantages psychologically and emotionally.
The benefits of a gameful mindset
The power of games as the penultimate example of the autotelic ideal cannot be understated. Games fracture the alleged paradox of failure in that (51):
- We generally avoid failure.
- We experience failure when playing games.
- We seek out games although we will experience something that we normally avoid.
Games frame failure unlike anything else because unlike real life. In a game, failure is okay and not at all distressing. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s “magic circle” of a game suggests that games have special rules, rules different outside a game where resistance and failure are expected, challenge is welcome, and if we fail, the game is stupid (“It’s just a game!”) — not us (52).
The roots go deep as play is central to humanity, a free activity that is ‘not serious’ and outside ‘ordinary’ life (53–54). Games allow us, as reversal theory posits, to move and “reverse” from external goals to intrinsic goals for their own sake (55).
The paradox remains.
Why else would one play a game like Tetris where you’re guaranteed to lose eventually?
Because as McGonigal says, “Games after all, are quintessential autotelic activity,” which gives us the four things we care about the most: satisfying work, the hope and experience of being successful, social connection, and meaning (56).
Not only do games give a foundation with which to craft a flow experience, but the key intrinsic drivers underpinning positive psychology: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (57).
Though the scope of game research and Jane’s own words in Reality is Broken and Superbetter on why games make us better and how to live gamefully is beyond the scope of this paper, a few highlights include:
- Framing exercise as fun (scenic walk versus exercise walk) allowed people to lose more weight and reward themselves with food less (58)
- The frame “Playing a math game” versus “taking a math test” caused the latter to procrastinate 60% longer than the participants preparing to play a game, who jumped right in to get better (58)
- One of the most important findings in video game history is that gamers spend nearly 80% of their time failing, but consider it “fun failure” because it makes them paradoxically excited, interested, and optimistic (59)
- Playing and training with friends and family in a game boosts enjoyment 53.6% (60)
- Games offer epic contexts, environments, and projects that contribute to a larger meaning and entity, so much so that the Halo 3 community set and met the 10 billion Covenant kills goal (61–62).
The point is that games allow us to fail, failure gets us into flow, and flow brings out the best in us — provided the challenge is right.
The structure and style of games and flow
Happiness research reveals, just as the previous paradox of failure insinuated, we are at our best not having fun or in leisure, but when our skills are challenged. “We have been conditioned to believe that the wrong things will make us lastingly happy,” Sonja Lyuomirsky, author of The How of Happiness says (63). Put another way, “We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not” (64) What does make us happy is balance — neither too hard or too easy — which puts us into flow. Players’ engagement is at its highest not when they could not complete the game or completed the game without losing lives, but when they completed the game and lost some lives (65–66). This distinction can be seen below (67):
Player rating of game as function of performance.
Called the challenge/skills ratio, zone of proximal development, or originally the Yerkes-Dodson effect, flow shows up within the channel of optimal challenge and skills (68–70). Does challenge and skills need to be maxed out to achieve maximum flow within the flow channel? Does it follow a smooth climb through challenge and skills? In fact, it does not. Noah Falstein, compared to Csiksentmihalyi, shows that variance and novelty, or the irregular oscillation between anxiety and boredom within the flow channel piques gamers’ engagement the most — too little, too much, and just right (71):
This dynamic game balancing is pivotal. Though advances in flow science do not recommend drawing one element of flow out in isolation, monitoring and adjusting this particular trigger within the structure could lead to greater and/or more reliable access to flow.
Deliberately varying the challenge and skills as Falstein’s model suggests can give coaches the freedom and space to find that 85% sweet spot without making the perfect drill at the perfect level of challenge (73).
The inability to hit upon flow initially and the irregular increase in difficulty captures engagement the most, and the ability to dial the challenge/skills ratio up and down is the ultimate key.
With flow structured like a game and challenge/skills varied and monitored, coaches have a potentially endless list of possibilities for games and drills, provided they add the style of the other flow triggers environmentally and socially, creatively and ferociously.
For flow to show up, at least six or seven of the identified pre-conditions must be present. (74) Thus, a structure and style emerge:
- Feedback System
- Voluntary participation (autonomy)
- Challenge/skills ratio
- Environmental (5)
- Social (10)
- Creative (1)
- Ferocity (4)
For the sake of the graph, the potential stylistic triggers listed include:
- Environmental: risk, novelty, complexity, unpredictability, deep embodiment
- Social: complete concentration, shared goals, shared risk, yes and…, close listening, autonomy/sense of control, blending egos, familiarity, equal participation, open communication
- Creative: pattern recognition/risk taking (with creation)
- Ferocity: passion, purpose, mastery, curiosity
Future research and training is needed to determine whether the application of this high performance toolkit has a significant impact on the athletic experience of an athlete.
Does engagement, intrinsic motivation, amount of flow, and skill development increase when coaches craft drills and practices, even games, in this way?
The principles of autotelic athletics, where experience is structured as a game and styled with the flow triggers, would appear to suggest so.
The variety of experiences in athletics is not an unemotional affair. Winning and losing, succeeding and failing generates a wide range of emotions. Contrastingly, flow is mostly stoic in its very nature characterized by its selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and (information) richness as the prefrontal cortex shuts down in transient hypofrontality (75).
But if “the road to attaining goals is beset by emotions” as Finnish game designer Aki Jarvinen claims, and games bring a wide range of emotional reactions, what is on the other side of flow (76)?
The second puzzle piece of an autotelic athletic experience is the realm of emotions, of milestones, of memory. It is all about fiero.
Fiero is the (emotional) stamp
Fiero is feral
Like flow, fiero is fundamental. The Italian word for “pride”, fiero is the unmistakable moment and release of emotions when one succeeds and throws their hands in the air (77). It is Tigers Woods’ fist pump, Tim Tebow’s kneel, and Brandi Chastain’s iconic post-shot moment during the US women’s soccer championship: shirt off, knees down, fists raised: perfect, picturesque, and primal.
Called the “caveman wiring”, fiero is both what drew our hunter-gatherer ancestors out of the caves and out into the world and the innate craving for challenge, for conquering (78).
The bigger the challenge, the greater the release of fiero, activating the mesocorticolimbic part of the brain which is responsible for our reward and addiction circuitry. A
long with this neurological signature, fiero has a physical signature — with massive individual and group benefits.
Generally, fiero is an expressive release of emotions such as happiness, joy, and pride after a positive event such as scoring a goal in soccer (79–82). Feeling, releasing, and expressing these facial and bodily expressions increases confidence, courage, self-esteem, dominance, and superiority (83–86). The smile seen behind many fieros is immediate and intense, with a .5 to 4-second average response (87). When arms are extended away from the body (below or above the head), fists made, and/or the chest is expanded during soccer penalty shootouts, players and teams are much more likely to win than those that don’t fiero (88).
The researchers from the same study indicated an anti-fiero trait associated with negative effects: players looking downward amidst shots. The numbers are impressive:
- 82% of players who expanded both their arms ended up on the winning team
- 79% of players who made fists with both their hands ended up on the winning team
- 77% of players who puffed out their chest after scoring ended up on the winning team
- 49% of players who celebrated looking downwards ended up on the losing team
Moments of pride also promote achievement that further signals positive emotion and produces flourishing. Broaden and build theory suggests building upon these moments versus seeing them as end states in and of themselves (89).
Simply: the more fiero you have, the more fiero you have, because with proper development or an emotional climate open to fiero.
Because fiero brings increased visual attention, reaction time, and ability to process tasks while simultaneously negating anxiety and fear. Therefore, it is not a stretch to suggest that fiero could be a potential flow trigger, one which is socially contagious.
Fiero is contagious
Fiero’s individual benefits are equal to its social benefits because of emotional contagion. The idea is this: we tend to mimic the body language, movements, and emotions of those around us, and that emotion can transfer to others (90).
In cricket, moments of fiero transferred to teammates produced better performance overall (91). Along with performance, unity, confidence, and cooperation are enhanced and conflict is reduced (92). Crazier still is that happiness and expressions of fiero are intimidating. Ronglan determined opponents on the other side of fiero signalled defeat after an opponent’s joy (93).
How detrimental can a single fiero be?
In the same soccer shootout study, opponents of a successful kick and signature fiero were 2.35 times more likely to miss the next kick. But the display of fiero affects outcomes before and after a single event — a lot longer.
Before a penalty kick, those without expressive body language were rushed in their preparation and avoided eye contact, leading to decreased performance (94–96). Alternately, a prolonged gaze towards goal keepers induced the intimidation mentioned earlier, shaking the goalies and impacting eventual outcomes (97).
The most famous pre-event ritual would be the haka of the New Zealand All Blacks, which demonstrates that the dominant and superiority signals, ritualistic power posing, can increase team bonding and identity (98). Consistent fiero after an event, over time, has equally staggering numbers. Kraus, Huang, and Kelter studied how often NBA players touched each other during the 2008–2009 season (99).
Prolonged fiero at the beginning of the year clearly and consistently predicted later-season cooperation and performance. Winning teams touch roughly 50% more than losing teams, improving trust and cooperation between teammates. Just as looking down is negatively correlated to fiero, Bornstein and Goldschmidt note that team-oriented behaviors — celebrating together — lead to better performance and wins versus self-oriented celebrations (100).
The adage to “act like you’ve been there before” is dead.
Instead, celebrate everything.
Act like you’ve never been there before: the more expressive, the more style, and the more physically team-focused, the better, because milestones and memories, especially over the long-term, deserve celebration.
The fiero of milestones
Fiero need not be reserved for those brief seconds after a successful shot or goal, nor the beginning or end of a game.
As Jesper Juuel ponders,
“It seems that the more time we invest into overcoming a challenge (be it completing a game, or simply overcoming a small subtask), the bigger the sense of loss when failing and the bigger the sense of triumph we feel when succeeding” (101).
Running with Juul’s notion, fiero can be any celebration, goal, or milestone achieved along the way, with a cumulatively-compounded emotional bank account as time is invested. Therefore reaching goals big and small have fiero moments too.
Like games previously, goal research is a massive topic. In brief, setting and reaching goals, or milestones, is essential to an autotelic experience (102). Goals instantly boost motivation, especially when they are public (103–104). Committed goal pursuit gives us (105–106):
- Purpose and control
- Self-esteem and confidence
- Structure and meaning
- Chance to set and meet big goals and small goals over time
- Ability to cope during a crisis
- Connection and engagement with others
The caveat is these goals must be of a positive nature: intrinsic, authentic, approachable, harmonious, and/or flexible and appropriate . Along the way, seeing progress increases positive emotion, generating an upward spiral that is not only consciously rewarding, but as fiero after fiero, milestone after milestone build up, future success becomes all the more likely (107).
Even more important is recognizing milestones of fiero big and small. “Full appreciation of work done” is one of the top two motivators across a 46-year study done by Carolyn Wiley (108).
Small progress on action goals boosts hope and optimism, self-efficacy, and good outcomes, allowing us to build skills over time (109–110). Nearly any domain can apply these principles. Both the Couch to 5K (C25K) and karate belt systems, for example, gradually reward athletes level by level, with intentional celebrations for each day or belt achieved respectively (111–112).
While designed for ecstatic practices, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler’s “hedonic calendar” in Stealing Fire provides a worthy structure for milestones in sport (113). As a player, team, or coach, what milestones are achieved each day, week, month, season, year?
No matter the structure, no matter the marks (met or unmet), athletic coaches have a unique opportunity to make a lasting impact in their athletes’ lives by simply setting and celebrating milestones.
“And yet,” Chip and Dan Heath lament in The Power of Moments, “we have not encountered a single coach who has had the instinct to mint this moment of pride for their players” (114).
Last but not least, accomplishment and mastery are pillars of positive psychology and motivation, and with a system of micro fiero, athletes can flourish (115–116).
Fiero’s cumulative pride with milestones can also be applied to memories, and the science of meaningful moments is clear: we remember the extraordinary.
The fiero of memories
The fiero of memories functions the same as Juul’s notion for milestones: the more energy and emotion in the system, the likelier we are to remember it.
According to the von Restorff effect, participants remember the one word that was very different from the others compared to the rest of the list (117).
What stands out then in our collective memories? Meik Wiking and the Happiness Research Institute conducted a global study of happy memories in 2018 with over 1,000 answers in the largest collection of happy memories assembled thus far (118).
They found eight notable patterns, each highlighted briefly. Memories collected were:
- Novel and extraordinary — 23% of memories were novel; firsts were especially potent as 73% of vivid memories were first-time experience, activating the “reminiscence effect” that highlights memories between the ages 15–30 proving novelty ensures durability
- Multisensory — deep embodiment matters and it’s a flow trigger too; 62% of memories were multisensory: taste follows the madeleine moment which triggers spontaneous and vivid memories, vision is a “brain rule” that trumps other senses and in studies where participants were shown pictures, visual memory holds remarkably well, smell connects to the memory and emotion of the limbic system, and hearing, especially music, transports us back to specific moments in time.
- Attention — full, peak engagement in the now, or flow, contributed to 100% of the memories submitted
- Meaningful — 37% of memories were the milestones achieved the underlying pride and celebration of them
- Emotional — 56% of the memories consisted of peak emotions — both “good” and “bad”
- Peak and struggle — 22% followed the “peak-end” rule of Daniel Kahneman where the most extreme point (peak or struggle) and the end stand out (pg166 AoMM & Moments); we love the peak because of the struggle and the climb, not in spite of it
- Storytelling- 36% of memories were stories and anecdotes, especially those of bad-turned-good redemption stories (p189)
- Outsourcing — 7% of submissions were memories captured in some fashion, particularly photos, which are the top thing people would save from a burning building
Clearly, memories are a dynamic mix of emotions.
Is there an emotion so vast and so big that stands out from the rest? A peak of peaks?
The research is young, but one of the most overwhelming self-transcendent experiences is that of awe. These moments are exemplified by vastness (literal or perceived) and a need for accommodation, or an adjustment of perspective or understanding of self or the world due to the experience (119).
In awe, we physiologically feel “goosebumps” and reduced inflammation, psychologically we see our sense of self diminish accompanied by an increased sense of time available, critical thinking, positive mood, and connectedness, and socially we become more generous and kind (120–124).
Though further research is needed, “flavors” and/or elicitors of awe include: threat-based awe, beauty/nature-based awe, ability-based awe, virtue-based awe, and supernatural causality/spiritual/religious-basd awe (125). Awe can be positive or negative, and negative memories, the bittersweet moments, stand out as well.
Fiero is an emotional mixed bag
Nostalgia, the returning (nostos) to the pain (algos), produces positive feelings, self-esteem, and feelings of love while reducing loneliness and meaninglessness (126).
Humans, like failure, flow, and fiero, have an innate desire for happy endings, to look back at the journey and not void discomfort and trial, but cherish it (127).
Poigancy’s mixture of happiness and sadness, particularly when highlighted at the end of an experience, elevates moments as small and insignificant as the “last chocolate” and as momentous as the last day of college (128–129).
The fiero of memories is the full range of experiences and emotions. Just like the archetypal character of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or “hero’s journey”, we paradoxically crave the challenge and the tragedy, the triumph and the change (130). An autotelic experience embraces innate emotions, positive and negative, to make memories.
Jakk Panksepp popularized and coined the term “affective neuroscience”, proposing seven primary emotional systems: Seeking, Care, Play, and Lust on the positive side and Fear, Sadness, and Anger on the negative side (131).
With flow and fiero, milestones and memories in mind, we need the bad to get to the good and for it to be good, it has to have been bad.
Philosopher Aaron Smuts paradox of painful art, similar to Juul’s paradox of failure, explains this mixture unbelievably well (132):
- People do not seek out situations that arouse painful emotions.
- People have painful emotions in response to some art.
- People seek out art that they know will arouse painful emotions.
Planning for, making, and capturing memories of fiero remains an untapped arena of study within athletics and how it relates to intrinsic experience. Even so, the principles presented offer a promising potential implementation to build upon.
An autotelic athletic experience unashamedly celebrates fiero, develops a system of milestones big and small, and makes memories throughout the hero’s journey within an athletic season.
This structural model of autotelic athletics suggests that the most intrinsically rewarding sport experience, in theory, is one that embraces failure, flow, and fiero.
Failure is essential to performance and can be fractured when framed as a game. Flow, in turn, shares remarkable similarities to the structure of a game which can be used as a toolkit from which to craft experience. Flow’s focus helps us feel and perform our best, producing moments of fiero, which can be celebrated through ever-increasing milestones and wide-ranging emotions through our memories both good and bad.
In the end, Coach Stagg was wrong — we don’t have to wait twenty years to know what we think of a team and an experience.
Flow helps us accomplish the impossible, and when we experience the fiero of impossible, it’s impossible to forget. Flow and fiero, that is autotelic athletics.
References can be accessed at the bottom of this document.
This magnum opus was the culmination of my studies in the Flow Research Collective’s Flow Trainer Accelerator. Learn more about the program here.