Try and think back to a situation where you were given feedback for something you did. Whether the performance was good or bad, and any constructive tips. Chances are (if you are willing to learn and grow that is) you made adjustments based on that feedback, did the activity again and witnessed some improvement. Compare this to learning something new with no sense of direction of whether what you are doing is correct. No one to guide your golf swing, free kick, or work proposal. Most likely the result would not be the same, unless you are a rare breed of human that gets things down perfect the first time around.
Feedback is one of the crucial ingredients to experiencing flow states as outlined by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (pronounced Chick–sent–meehayee) decades of research. We’ve talked about some of the other elements of experiencing flow, such as risk, and having a clear objective in previous posts), but what the research shows is that there are 8 key elements to entering the zone (more on that here) with the main 4 prerequisites as follows:
Clear goals and objectives
Balance between challenge and skill level
Here I would like to expand on the concept of having immediate feedback, and how it is fundamental to not only individual flow but also an effective tool for creating team and group cohesion.
Feedback is the process of providing performers with frequent and accurate measures against a known standard of performance. In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. We need to know exactly how we're doing in order to have an accurate representation of our performance. Too often we go about our craft with no clear idea of what we are doing is correct or not. With feedback, we are better able to adjust, and course-correct our technique, work, performance, etc.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi made it clear that feedback has to be immediate. This means there needs to be a reduced time gap for feedback between our input (our performance) and output (the result of the what we put in). If feedback is not immediate, we start to look for things we’ve done in the past, or compare ourselves to others, both of which pull us out of the present moment which as we know, is a requirement for peak performance.
Of course, feedback can be tough to come by in a lot of cases. We cannot control how often our boss or coach gives us direction (or the correct direction for that matter) and so we are sometimes unable to reduce that input/output gap. The feedback we get from others is important as it holds a lot of weight but is unfortunately outside of our control since it is external to us. So we must find ways to keep ourselves in check in the absence of external feedback. We can do this by creating internal (micro) feedback systems. The difference between internal and external feedback is shown below:
External (macro) feedback
Varying time gap between input & output
Low degree of control
Eg. coach instruction, win/lose, ball goes in or not, video
Internal (micro) feedback
Low to moderate impact (initially)
High degree of control
Eg. the way you speak to yourself
As mentioned, external feedback tends to have a higher impact, but is less inside of our control. For example your coach giving you concrete, and specific direction on your tennis shot. It is not always immediate, but gives you good information and you don’t have to compare yourself to someone else hitting aces in the court beside you. The ball going inside the line is an example of immediate external feedback, as it either goes in or it doesn't, and provides you with a lot more accurate information on how you’re doing. But, of course where the ball goes once it leaves your racket is not 100% inside your control.
"Feedback is the process of providing performers with frequent and accurate measures against a known standard of performance"
Internal feedback however, is absolutely inside your control. The drawback being it initially does not have a drastic effect on your performance. The feedback you give yourself, aka the things you tell yourself can have a positive influence on the outcome over time. If you form a habit of positive, specific, and immediate direction after each play it will soon start to have a greater impact. So after each attempted shot, regardless of whether it went in or out, your feedback should be guiding your attention to the present and be enhancing your performance, not degrading it. You can say one statement two different ways, and both will affect how you see yourself. For example, saying “you didn’t follow through on your backhand!” can be applied in a harsh degrading tone, or can be said as more of a observation of fact. The latter of which provides you with information and helps improve rather than decrease performance. This is further explained below:
We can also apply the same locus of control with the external feedback we receive. We cannot control what is given to us, but we are able to choose our response to the given feedback. Having a more open, and receptive growth mindset will help you improve and your coach will be more willing to provide you with feedback more often.
Ultimately we want to bridge the gap between internal and external feedback systems. Creating a positive and meaningful dialogue between yourself is important to well-being and performance and is always within your control. Having more external feedback on the other hand is a good way to build self-awareness. Find ways to receive as much information about your performance as possible by asking coaches, teammates, friends, or family to evaluate you. Be sure to be open to their feedback, as even if it might seem negative it could be a doorway to improving. If you're a coach, try and create tighter feedback loops in your team with frequent methods of evaluation and space for open dialogue. Create a culture where feedback is sought after, and not something to be avoided and you will start to see everyone become clearer on the objective.
As always, feel the force, and don’t force the feel!
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Timothy Gallwey- The Inner Game of Tennis.