Data science in sport for achieving optimal performance and flow state

Integrative approach:

data analytics + biomedical research and engineering + mental training + spirituality

(20 + 20 + 29 + 29 years of experience)

(Benefits for sportsmen: cooperation on the exploratory journey towards management of flow)

30.3. 2021, Michal Teplan

Data science is entering all industries including sports. What remained until now invisible, currently with data science there is a potential to drag out the patterns in the training and racing parameters. Collecting data is just the first step for improvement. Data science offers a promising approach for fine-tuning certain performance characteristics in sports.

On top of that, there is one additional challenge waiting: By the application of data science in sports, it should be possible to gain insights enabling improvements in flow state management. This is our vision and firm belief in the merge of modern technology and data approach with something more or less magical – deeper unknown realms of our psyche.

Sport data science pushes the front in several directions. Acquisition of new players can be optimized strictly based on statistical evaluation of different parameters and abilities of candidate players. Players can boost their training by feedback from monitoring their performance characteristics and metrics. The same principles hold for collective as well as for individual sports. For example, in football, new approaches are gradually built. The best academies form data science departments. One of the trend setter is danish club F.C. Midtjylland. They are forerunners with collecting lots of various data from their players. However, they’ve become aware of the fact, that not amount but quality obtained out of the data matters. They’ve got to the point where broader psychological aspects are important.

Here is what I’d identify as to where the trend could go in close future: 1. Individualized sessions of sport psychology/life coaching with structured psychological diaries to identify blocks preventing optimal performance. 2. Inclusion of mindfulness training into mental preparation. 3. Data science of flow state.

What is necessary, is expanding a pool of possibly useful physical and physiological parameters which to follow. Extension of psychological categories in athletes’ training diary with broader and possibly relevant vectors. The matter is not just a drill, but fine-tuning of broader lifestyle variables.

Currently, miniaturized wearable technology just have started allowing us to collect lots of data. Gradually, all coaches will have access to multidimensional data sets from their sportsmen. However, for a successful competitive advance, not the amount of the data but the quality of processing, analyzing, and interpreting matters. Optimization is a never-ending process. One can always work on the improvement of separate characteristics, whether being mechanical, dynamical, physiological, etc.

However, there is one ultimate goal: a state of flow. Nobody has got a universal recipe on how to attain it systematically, yet. You have to follow and combine all measured variables wholistically or even holistically. Combine physical and mental training. The bridge between them is psychophysiology. And still, the key is mental training. Moreover, matching recent advances in science and technology with ancient wisdom.

Search for flow correlates in electrophysiological measures is quite a new direction. Not many attempted to measure EEG, HRV, GSR, EMG, or other biomedical measures during flow, yet.

Based on my previous audits of various modern technological startups, psychophysiology measures are often overshooting and interpreted incorrectly. Proper understanding requires deeper interdisciplinary knowledge from more disciplines like biomedical research, data analysis, and psychology.

Questions to be asked are: Can we optimize performance up to the point of entering behind the zone of ordinary states of consciousness? Where does peak performance optimization can lead to? Can it go towards utilization of the flow state?

Actually, what is the flow state? It’s a state when a man is immersed in his performance and plays in the zone. According to my personal experiences, the goal is achieved effortlessly. It goes alone. Flow is a state where you don’t think about the time for the right moment, right direction, or force of the pass, it just happens. But not arbitrarily, seemingly in the best possible way for that situation. You don’t know how you have chosen the ideal trajectory you move or the place where you send your shot. It just happens. You know (to the contrary of the outside watchers), that it’s not “your” shot. You don’t remember much (unless you are not quite advanced in mindfulness), it just happens. But you can be (partially) trained to be aware of a sort of pushing an imaginative flow-starting button before such action takes place.

How do you feel during the state of flow? You don’t feel anyhow. Because you are losing yourself. Or, in between the flow actions you feel in equilibrium, without any suffering or pressures in your mind. You forget, who you are, where you are, what aims you are following. It’s a great relief. Everything goes effortlessly and somehow alone. You just fall into existence and flow there. Flow can be a passion of losing one’s self, entering the realm of transcendence. You may feel like being a part of the whole, or being connected with your team players without any barriers. As it exceeds our self, sometimes we might speak about the divine or transcendental experiences. Unification with the whole universe, or accordingly to your spiritual settings (which may play a strong role) maybe with God.

Your brain controls all your movement and overall performance. You can try to master it by yourself, or with the help of your coach. But it can never be as optimal as when you manage to enter into the state of flow. Then something else will direct you. Nobody knows the science behind it. But what we certainly know is, that it will lead you much more effectively than your forcing personal efforts together with the best available trainer coaching.

This state can’t be set. The only thing we can do about it is to set the frame – some of the necessary conditions so that it might eventually happen. Transition can be trained just to a certain degree. Deeper insights into the human mind and the way how it works can be helpful.

In the flow, you can utilize all your learned skills to the maximum. Of course, you are still limited by your physical limits and techniques. It means that when you shift yourself towards better parameters by drill training, in the next period it can be seen during your flow performance. However, the mental part seems to be with fewer limits.

If there is anything that troubles you in your head, it doesn’t allow you to be mentally relaxed, and probably prevents you or at least makes it harder to enter the flow state. It means that step by step you have to clean all of your life’s background. For this, you can apply, for example, regular practice of mindfulness, life coaching, or psychotherapy.

When you catch the wave of flow somewhere in the middle of the match, you can be aware of it, and as it’s pleasant, quickly adapt to it as it was normal. Our ego works in a way: these are my normal skills. But it’s a gift. I was observing my waves of flow, trying to count their duration and periods. Within my research, I’ve tried to find influencing factors of many kinds, including both inner and environmental variables.

When you manage to learn to switch on the “flow button”, or passing the entrance into the flow state, your deepest abilities, not used other times, are activated. Together with intuition, and possibly even with extrasensory perception. Then small miracles may happen during your match or race: You happen to appear at the right place, in the right moment and react otherwise most optimally. All is somehow orchestrated to achieve the goal. You may feel as if the scenario was written in advance. Nobody understands how it happened, but everybody starts to take it as normal.

In reality, most sportsmen fall into a state of flow occasionally. The practical efforts lead towards observance of this state together with the learning of how to set the proper conditions for the phenomenon to happen. Towards increasing occurrence or falling into the flow. Especially, during the most critical moments of the match or race.

Our proposition is the science of flow. We plan to focus on the research leading to the identification of flow events, characterization of the flow by different variables, predictions, and instrumental setting of the flow. We combine biomedical and psychological research, multi-dimensional data acquisition, together with data analysis and modelling with machine learning and artificial intelligence.

We seek collaboration in the research of flow and its practical applications. Our aim is to develop training procedures leading towards optimized performance with the utilization of the flow state.