Tag Archives: Athletics

Thinking and Doing: Going with the Flow

Steven Volk, November 23, 2014

“Sometimes you just want them to do what you ask them to do and not question it.”

This was one of many comments that emerged from a conversation when nearly 30 coaches and faculty sat down last Friday to break bread (actually, pita) and talk about how we think about student learning on our different ends of the campus. I had never been in this kind of a discussion in nearly 30 years at Oberlin. And I don’t think that anyone else who was there had, either. The hour-long conversation was not only truly pleasurable; it opened a window on the benefits of bringing all parts of our residential, liberal arts campus together in dialogue while also helping me think differently about what we do as teachers.

Peasants breaking bread. ''Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio'', 14th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

Peasants breaking bread. ”Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio”, 14th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

The coach’s comment, which initially sounded so jarring to me, sunk in quickly among faculty who teach in performance areas of the curriculum: music and dance, as well as among the coaches. It soon opened two different conversational paths. One related to a challenge we face as instructors in liberal arts settings. Our bread and butter is helping our students question perceived wisdom, to “display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others,” as Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University recently put it. “For many students today,” he continued, “being smart means being critical,” always asking questions. But there are limitation to that, not just (as Roth pointed out) that our students in being too “critical” can become unwilling to engage with material they might otherwise ignore or find problematic.

To reference a seemingly mundane point, I have also found that moments arise when I just want students “to do and not question” further. I can, and do, tell my students how historians cite sources, why it’s different from the way that biologists cite their evidence and what the intellectual rationale is that helps explain our particular format. (For those interested, Anthony Grafton has written a marvelous book on the “curious history” of the footnote.) But, at a certain point, they need to stop questioning and just use the proper style. But I’ll leave that particular path for another posting.


I’d rather focus on a second aspect of the coach’s statement, the notion that when athletes are “doing” they will only succeed when they stop “asking questions,” stop second-guessing themselves. This moment of engagement is what is meant by being “in the zone,” it happens when you are fully present in the moment, when the little voices in your head stop telling you that you need to pick up the broccoli for dinner or that your book review is now six-weeks late.

Creative Commons public domain

Creative Commons public domain

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee, for those, like myself, who have stumbled over it for years), calls it “flow.” He describes “flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Csíkszentmihályi explored this concept in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (reissued in 2008 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics).

He became interested in the topic when he read of artists who would get lost in their work, so absorbed were they that they didn’t eat and barely slept. There is good evidence that Michelangelo, when working in the Sistine Chapel, would paint for days on end without stopping.

Csíkszentmihályi and his colleague, Jeanne Nakamura, identified six factors characteristic of flow:

  1. intense concentration on the moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. feeling that one has control over the situation or activity
  5. temporal distortion, an alteration of one’s experience of time
  6. feeling that the experience is intrinsically rewarding.

[Jeanne Nakamura and Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow Theory and Research,” in C. R. Snyder, Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez, eds., Handbook of Positive Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 195–206.]

My knees no longer allow me to run, but I still vividly remember those outings when I was in “flow.” I ran miles past my previous barrier and came back exhilarated, almost as if I had been…OK, we’re not going to go there.

So, when the coach said that he just wanted his players to “do” and not question, it made sense. Athletes and other performers are operating at a point when skills and training have become so engrained, and the challenge or opportunity so immediate, that they don’t think of how they will bring the ball down from chest to foot and then drive it into the net. They just do. When you listen to John Coltrane or McCoy Tyner so deeply absorbed in “A Love Supreme”, you will know what “flow” is.

Neff Connor, "Sunday Spins" - https://www.flickr.com/photos/nffcnnr/14163381924/

Neff Connor, “Sunday Spins” – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nffcnnr/14163381924/

Flow and Intellectual Work

Does flow only gush forth from the North or South ends of campus, only among our student athletes, conservatory, dance or theater performers? Even more, does flow mean that the brain is turned off while when one is removed from the question-asking mode? Scroll up to  the six indicators of flow. They point, above all, to moments of intense concentration, a merging of “action and awareness,” not to mindlessness but to mindfulness. You probably recognize similar feelings of flow when you are deeply engaged in your work, writing an article or working through a problem. It’s not the deadline that drives you, it’s the intrinsic engagement. (OK, so it’s also the deadline!) I tend to think that the absent-minded professor shtick originates with this perception of teachers who are so fully absorbed in their thinking that they walk right by you with nary a sign of recognition. Or we might just have a abundance of rude instructors.

In any case, the question is how can we bring our all our students, and not just those who perform before audiences, into “flow”? People who design video games, and certainly the best among them, know all about this. See here and here, for example. Game designers, if they’re on their game, are always trying to design flow into their products by avoiding boredom (too easy) and frustration (too hard). They, like many of us, are looking for Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” where engagement occurs, and engagement is a path into learning.

John Ingham serves the ball vs. Wittenberg University. Photo: Oberlin Review.

How do we move students into a “flow” state? We probably try to do the same things that our coaching/performance colleagues have been doing, whether in tennis or piano. Students have to have a high level of both knowledge and skills before they can reach flow. What that means concretely will be different in physics and history, but we are all working to structure our classes, homework, and assignments to provide students with the skill sets they need to succeed: knowledge, procedure and inquiry. Once there, what can we do to get them into flow, to move motivations from extrinsic (it’s all about the grade) to intrinsic (it’s all about the learning)?

Csíkszentmihályi argues that three conditions have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. The activity you design must have clear goals and allow students to see their own progress. The task must have direction and structure.
  2. There must be an opportunity for clear and immediate feedback, so students can negotiate changing demands and adjust their performance.
  3. And there must be a balance between what students see as the challenges of the task and how they understand their own skills. In other words, they need to be confident that they can complete the task. (This brings us back to “mindsets” and “mindfulness.”)

(Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, Sami Abuhamdeh, and Jeanne Nakamura, (2005), “Flow,” in A. Elliot, ed., Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: The Guilford Press, 2005), 598–698.)

Challenge vs. skills. Public domain.

Challenge vs. skills. Public domain.

As the graphic (left) suggests, flow can happen where skill levels and challenges are both high, which is why performance, with its test of acting before a “real” audience, can most often lead to flow. But some of our colleagues have also designed assignments that can bring students into “flow” types of engagement. Taylor Allen (Biology) and Liliana Milkova (academic curator at the Allen Memorial Art Museum), describe a set of activities in Allen’s first-year seminar (The Body in Health and Disease) and upper-level physiology class (Animal Physiology) which focus on understanding the biology of love. A central part of learning in the class involved bringing students to the AMAM where they explored a set of prints and paintings (and created their own mini-exhibitions) in order to decide 1) whether portrayals of love in art align with the growing understanding of the biology of love and 2) whether the bodily experience of love was universal or culturally influenced.

(Liliana Milkova, Colette Crossman, Stephanie Wiles, and Taylor Allen. “Engagement and Skill Development in Biology Students through Analysis of Art.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 12 (2013): 687-700.)

When students evaluated the assignment in a well-designed end-of-semester survey, the words they used to describe their experiences (engaging, stimulating, original, welcome, refreshing, fun, enjoyable, longing for more) were “reminiscent of those associated with the experience of flow in a creative endeavor” (p. 697). Flow in the art museum and biology.

Do you think about how to calibrate skills and challenges to bring students into “flow-like” contexts? Are there other ways that we can consider how to adapt approaches to learning in one part of campus to strengthen student learning in other parts?

Athletics & Academics: Building a Co-Curricular Future

Steven Volk, November 16, 2014

Division I Athletics have experienced a particularly thorough (and well deserved, in my opinion) thrashing of late. From bogus courses for athletes at the University of North Carolina, to the involvement of high profile athletes in (unpenalized) sexual assaults, to the NCAA’s recent granting of de facto autonomy to sports teams in the “Super Five” conferences, athletics as practiced in the most powerful Division I conferences continue to raise questions about why they are housed in institutions of (one hopes) higher education. If I don’t get upset by these revelations (and often I do), it’s only because I find it nearly impossible to draw comparisons between, say, the Ohio State football players just two hours down I-71 and the students in my classes. No criticism intended of particular Ohio State players, but we don’t seem to inhabit the same world of undergraduate education. And yet, of course, we do. So, what’s different about athletics and student athletes at Oberlin and other Division III, liberal arts colleges? And, more importantly, are we taking advantage of the differences?

Oberlin College Football Team, 1892 (Oberlin College Archives)

Oberlin College Football Team, 1892 (Oberlin College Archives)

Two books published by Princeton University Press in the early 2000’s brought the subject of athletics and academics at selective colleges and universities into wider discussion. The first was William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001), and the second Bowen and Sarah A. Levin’s Reclaiming the Game (2003). Both considered the role and place of intercollegiate athletics, the latter’s relationship to liberal arts colleges’ educational mission, and the importance of evaluating athletes’ overall educational experience and contributions on our campuses. To be sure, these studies received their share of criticism. But what I see as the basic question raised by Reclaiming the Game, in particular, is whether we are showcasing athletics (and our student athletes) as one of the best examples of the kind of cross-domain, expansive learning that can happen at residential liberal arts colleges? (And here I’ll consider only the question of organized sports, both varsity and club, not necessarily the much larger question of wellness.)

I revisited that question when I came across an article by Craig Owens (“Bringing the Locker Room into the Classroom”), published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 7, 2014 which, in turn, led me to a September 9, 2014 interview on Iowa Public Radio with Owens and Sandy Hatfield Clubb. Clubb is the Athletics Director at Drake University and Owens a Professor of English there. It’s well worth the 20-minute listen.

John Henry Wise, Oberlin College 1892, the first Hawaiian to play college football in the United States

John Henry Wise, Oberlin College 1892, the first Hawaiian to play college football in the United States (Oberlin College Archives).

Quite briefly, Clubb considers the importance of creating an environment in which student athletes are getting more out of their sports than (only) an athletic experience, coaches are teaching to the whole person, not just the skill set needed in the sport or activity, and faculty are taking advantage of the skills and dispositions learned on the playing fields within their own classrooms.

Let me develop this last point a bit more. Intrigued by the question of how coaches approach teaching (an issue, by the way, developed brilliantly by Atul Gawande in a 2011 New Yorker article, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?”), Owens began to sit in on locker-room sessions and to talk with coaches and student athletes, something I’ve also tried, to great benefit. I think I understood more about my own learning in a one-hour coaching session with Constantine Ananiadis, our women’s tennis coach, than in reading countless books on the topic.

But, back to Owens. What he saw in the locker room were students who took responsibility for developing strategy and for determining how the game would be played. They were vocal and active learners, listening closely to critiques from their teammates and willing to share their comments in ways they felt could be heard most productively by other students. He found that the student athletes were taking the lead in directing themselves and one another. In particular, he came to the conclusion that student athletes were extremely skilled at dealing with critiques because they got a lot of them and, at least for a majority, they had learned how to build productively from the critiques. (The same skills are undoubtedly deeply engrained in the creative arts on campus: performance in music and theater, studio art, media production, and creative writing, and are also present in those areas such as game design in computer science which are “tested” in real time via the internet.) In short, what he found were the kinds of approaches and dispositions that he was looking to develop in all his students, approaches that were developed in these high-impact learning situations.

Creative Commons. Francisco Osorio:  http://blog.calicospanish.com/2013/08/20/target-language-from-day-1-how-to-keep-high-levels-of-tl-in-your-classroom.html

Creative Commons. Francisco Osorio: http://blog.calicospanish.com/2013/08/20/target-language-from-day-1-how-to-keep-high-levels-of-tl-in-your-classroom.html

For her part, Clubb addressed the importance of coaches who were able to integrate leadership learning into their sports in an intentional and intensive way. She spoke of how sports teams that travel abroad to compete in “friendlies” used their leadership skills while abroad, and outside of the competitions, and how they could be transferred back to campus.

The word that came up the most in these interviews was intentionality, which I’ve used many times myself. At the end of the day, while our world of learning and athletics occupies a different universe from Division I, “Super Five” campuses, we can hardly claim a high ground if we don’t act in intentional ways to build a co-curricular approach to all aspects of learning on campus. Our students are continually integrating lessons from the various domains that they traverse on campus, from the classroom to the residential halls to the athletic fields. We need to provide the structures and conversations that can allow this to become more intentional and visible.