According to Wikipedia, “flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”
If you’ve experienced ‘flow’, or being ‘in the zone’, you know that it is a heightened state of consciousness. It’s almost a meditational or spiritual experience. While in the zone, you execute at an amazingly high level, doing things you didn’t think you were capable of.
I’ve played many sports over the years, and in my experience, the sport that is the most direct conduit for achieving flow is ping pong. I would argue that ping pong provides the most optimal combination of certain factors that help you get in the zone: frequency of reps, size of the playing space, and number of participants.
Frequency of reps
I’ll define a ‘rep’ as the main action that a participant takes in a particular sport. For example, in golf a rep would be the act of striking the ball with your club (not a practice swing). In basketball it would be taking a shot at the basket. In tennis it would be hitting the ball with your racquet. Reps help you get in a rhythm, so the higher the frequency of reps, the easier it is to get in a rhythm. Admittedly, the beauty of certain sports is that there is so much going on outside of a main ‘rep’, that flow can be achieved by doing other things. Soccer and baseball come to mind here. However, I would argue that it is much harder to achieve flow doing non-rep activities.
At the moment, I cannot think of a sport with a higher frequency of reps per participant than ping pong.
Size of the playing space
Ping pong and tennis are very similar, but the smaller playing space of ping pong makes it easier to get in the zone. The smaller space means more reps and less room for variables to come into play. In tennis, your opponent could hit the ball 10 feet to your right or lob it over your head, making it difficult to get into the type of rhythm that you could quickly get into with ping pong, which has more limited shot variation. Golf has a much bigger playing space than tennis and brings in additional variables that make it difficult to get into a rhythm. Along with having to walk (or drive) 200 yards to get to your next shot, you have to deal with wind, water hazards, and difficult lies.
Number of participants
The one-on-one nature of (singles) ping pong obviously adds to your frequency of reps, since the reps are not shared among teammates. But the reason that I’m not grouping this section under the ‘frequency of reps’ section is that the one-on-one aspect of ping pong has an additional contributor to flow: understanding your opponent better. Since you are playing against one person in ping pong, you get a quicker feel for anticipating their next shot. When you can visualize your opponents next shot, this has a compounding effect for building on your rhythm.
A big part of achieving flow is the ability to get into a rhythm, and ping pong has a great combination of characteristics to allow its participants to get into a rhythm and eventually get in the zone quickly. When my company has a space that can fit one, I will definitely invest in an office ping pong table. Giving employees easy opportunities to get in the zone (by playing ping pong) goes a long way for productivity and happiness in the workplace.