Enjoying Flow

One of those basketball moments where all my teammates were like “whoa what a move” and the opposition guy I scored on was like “whoa nice move” and I have no memory of what I did

Last week I fell over

I posted the above on social media a few days ago, and I’m still thinking about it. That version is obviously tuned for self-deprecating comedy, but there are a few more layers. Like:

I love playing basketball right now. I am not the player I was, unsurprisingly now I’m in my late 40s, but in some crucial ways I am as good a player as I’ve ever been. Raw athleticism was never exactly a strength for me! Solid old-man basics work well.

This particular game did not start with fortune smiling upon it. I was caught in a traffic jam, presumably an accident somewhere in the dense network of Wellington, that saw me arrive when the first quarter was well underway. I hate arriving late, and it has been years since the last time I did so! Apart from letting the team down (at least we weren’t short that night) it means I miss the warm-up period, getting some movement into my body, taking some shots, moving the ball around. Anyway, I do some stretches as the quarter winds down and take the court for the start of the second, pleased to be there, pleased to see everyone. It’s a good team, a friendly and supportive team, and I truly enjoy getting out and playing with them every week, even the games that don’t turn out so hot for me. Like last week! I fell over, all right, lost my balance as I sprinted up the court for a long fast break pass, lost my balance as I lost any sense of where the ball was going so it bounced off me as I tumbled to the floor. Far from my finest basketball moment!

I was on the court for less than a minute before I set up at the top of the key and the ball was passed in my direction, and in perfect rhythm I caught and shot a lovely mid-range jumper that I knew was going in before the pass had even reached my hands.


Overall it was my best game in a good long time, a year probably. I made passes that turned into easy baskets, I hit shots when I had them, I defended well. I was feeling good about it all when in the last quarter I took a position on down low with my back to the basket, another spot in which I’m comfortable, and their biggest and best defender locked his body against mine as the ball arrived in my hands, and

and then I was under the hoop and the ball had gone in and the defender told me that was a nice move.

Dropping the left foot past the defender, shifting weight, quickly pivoting to the basket, all while controlling the ball so it isn’t a walking violation; there’re just enough moving parts you have to line up just right that it’s hard to think yourself through it. I remember being 16 and in the St Bernard’s College gymnasium with Coach Tony Brown and doing the drop step over and over again (and trying to finish with a little jump hook shooting motion that I never really got on with). I remember thinking it: move my foot… plant it… and now turn…

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described a concept called flow in his work in the 1990s: a state of perfect engagement in a challenging task, where both time and reflective thought disappear. (Recently it has acquired a lot of prominence in research around video games.) It’s the absence of deliberative/conscious thought that strikes me as interesting about a flow state. There can be quite sophisticated navigation of knowledge and decision-making processes, but it happens so smoothly and easily, there’s no sense of working at it, of choosing. Linking back to my conception of free will (i.e. our cognitive system manages difficult processing tasks by bouncing them through an experiential/reflective system that is consciousness, our conscious experience functioning as a control and mediation device, what we experience as conscious choice is the unconscious sum of these conscious experiences), the connections are pretty straightforward: flow is highly active processing that doesn’t need to pass through the consciousness. And it feels good.

Basketball is a reliable highlight of my week because it gets me to this place. Even better for me, it gets there in a small group context; experiencing harmony with others is profoundly satisfying (in the psyc literature it’s called synchronythis Nature article has an overview).

In the role-playing games I create and play, flow is also achievable, but trickier to find. The level of abstract manipulation required in these games is a block. Compare improvisors who perform imaginative tasks together without the underlying reference structure that RPGs usually impose, and who can hit a flow state more easily. But it happens often enough, when the wind blows the right way, where game and players hit the right rhythm together.

I’m not really going anywhere with this post, just tapping down a series of thoughts, but maybe I’ve arrived at a personal call to action. If flow is important to me, and it clearly is, maybe I need to make that more of a priority in the games I play. I’ve been doing so much gameplay as work for years now – constantly testing this or that new game system, layering cognitive work into the experience – perhaps I need to put flow on the table a bit more prominently, and try and create those conditions a little more purposefully. Sounds like a good aim. Okay then.

(While I’m thinking about basketball and flow: the deliberately ungrammatical title of my novel about four teenage boys renegotiating their friendship, in move, is an allusion to this kind of unconscious action – their various connected friendships shift into a new configuration with the the same kind of instinctive flow and adjustment their basketball coach is trying to introduce to their teamwork. I put in move into creative commons some years ago, read it online or download it as a free ebook for your kindle or iphone or whatever)

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