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What do Csikszentmihalyi, learning and football all have in common?

  • Posted By Aga and Dale
  • On 11th July 2018

What do Csikszentmihalyi, learning and football all have in common?

Do you remember when you were stressed last? Was it positive or negative stress? Was it stress that came on suddenly, like thunder? Or perhaps, it resulted from a number of stressful everyday worries that started creeping upon you, lingering in every corner of the day?
Some people, including me, would not even consider that stress could be ‘positive’ nor take much notice of the nature of their stress or anxiety.
Recently we noticed that there has been an increasing interest in stress and anxiety that are slowly decaying the quality of our lives.
As a result, I did some research into stress and anxiety in learning, trying to find out a bit more about their impact on the learner and the process. What surprised me the most is that it’s these small ‘creepers’ that we should be most aware of and avoid at all cost.
Why? Because they encourage the production of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’ that appears in our system, as soon as our body recognises ‘something ‘as a threat (even the smallest ones). It’s alright if our body has a reason to do this, i.e. in an event of a real danger. But, what happens to our body, if the real danger doesn’t come, and our body keeps expecting it day after day? Well, the overproduced cortisol cannot deal properly with the situation that does not manifest now or in the future; because our worries constantly create the illusion of danger. As a result, the overproduced cortisol will take its toll on our own bodies, fighting ‘US’ instead of the ‘DANGER’.
A weakened immune system can wreak havoc, but if you think about teaching or learning, it contributes to a lack of concentration, or the ability to think. In addition, when we are stressed, the top part of our brain, the ‘Neocortex’, responsible for rational thinking, becomes dominated and deactivated by the lowest and oldest part of our brain, the  ‘Reptilian ‘part, responsible for our ‘instinctive actions’, including reactions to danger, primarily concerned with our survival rather than logical thinking.
So what is the solution? The easiest to propose but the most difficult to do; just don’t get stressed and upset! Otherwise, keep relaxing! How? You need to find the best way for yourself. Holiday season is upon us, the weather is already gorgeous, so use it to your benefit!
In the classroom, we can create something that Cain and Cain (1991) call ‘relaxed alertness’. In order to do it, we create an atmosphere that makes our learners confident and positive, almost relaxed. Then, we generate challenges for our learners. These need to correspond with learners’ skills and abilities. During the whole process, it’s essential to support our learners without answering the questions or solving problems for them. We need to develop and cherish positive communication, not only between learners and teachers but amongst learners. They must solve problems together and come up with mutually agreed solutions. We shall listen to their needs and appreciate the smallest contributions from each learner. We strive to make them feel valued and let them value each other.
Some people might think, its lots of empty talk, the reality around me is different. I do not deny that some solutions won’t work in some situations, but it is worth a try. Recently, we have been following the successes of the English football team, even though ‘football’ is not everyone’s cup of tea. The way that the English team is managed reminded us of Cain and Cain (1991) ‘relaxed alertness’ as well as Csikszentmihalyi and his ‘flow-experience’. Team collaboration and team relaxation techniques certainly have contributed to the TEAM (not individual) successes, and we are holding our thumbs and hope that the TEAM carry on with their ‘good practice’!

So, what do Csikszentmihalyi, learning and football all have in common? They all manage cortisol positively.

1.    Bergland, C. (2013) Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No.1. Available online:
2.    Caine, R.N. & Caine, G. (1991) Making Connections. Teaching and the Human Brain. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
3.    Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills. 3rd edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
4.    Flowskills (n.d.) The 8 Elements of Flow. Available online:
5.    Oxford University Press (2018) English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Available online:

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