Flow is the state in which we feel in effortless control of what we do. It is the psychological state of peak performance and the key to surfing at the best of our ability. When in flow, our brain’s electrical and chemical patterns change, driving a shift in how we process information.
In the 1970s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi led a massive research project into how and why some people performed at a higher level and felt happier than other people doing exactly the same task. He discovered that the secret sauce was achieving a certain state of consciousness. It does not matter whether you are racing down the line at J-Bay, shaping a board or peeling potatoes — when you are in a flow you experience a shift in consciousness which allows you to unleash your full potential.
The foundation for flow is a laser focused awareness on the present moment. The sort of focus associated with meditation. But also the sort of focus your consciousness slips into when engaged in a complex activity like surfing. Flow states can be defined by certain shifts in awareness. See which of these is familiar to your experiences in the surf:
The Feeling of Control
Have you ever had those sessions where you feel like your board is glued to your feet, your turns are crisp and precise, your judgement so flawless that every wave you catch you would score yourself a 9? You were in flow.
Remember that session you fought the rip, paddled for hours, duck dived a thousand waves and still felt like you could keep on going? Flow is about “effortless effort.” There may be exertion required to pull off that turn or make that section, but in flow it feels effortless. There is no strain, only the glide of spontaneous action.
That barrel you remember as being 30 seconds long was actually three. I’m sorry to break it to you, but your brain was in slo-mo mode. When you are in the tube, you are almost certainly in flow, and perceptions of time are controlled by parts of the brain that temporarily shut down in flow. Time can speed up or slow down, depending on the activity.
Loss of Self-Consciousness
The same part of the brain that controls time also creates the self or the ego. Therefore when in flow, there is no ego and therefore no self-consciousness. This allows for total absorption and the merging of action and your awareness. You become one with what you are doing. When your ego and thoughts get out the way, the magic happens.
From the Greek “autos” for self and “telos” for goal. An autotelic activity is one that we do for its own sake, for no other reason than the joy of doing it. I think we can agree that most of us surf because we love surfing. The surfing itself is what rewards us, not any particular goal or outcome. And the more we flow, the more we love surfing.
When we understand what flow does, it is easy to understand how it drives peak performance. We feel effortless control, time slow down allowing us to make critical adjustments, our ego is silent so we can just become absorbed in our activity without any inner critic or distraction. Steven Kotler, the author of Rise of Superman and Director of the Flow Genome Project in the US, says that “researchers now believe flow sits as the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins scientific breakthroughs, and accounts for significant progress in the arts… From a quality-of-life perspective, psychologists have found that people who have flow in their lives are the happiest people on earth.”
So now we understand what flow is, lets look at how we can find more of it.
There are three main psychological triggers to achieve a state of flow. You have the ability to train in a way that maximises them all, to make you a better surfer.
Clarity of goals and immediate feedback.
When we surf, we intuitively understand that the goal is to achieve that elusive mix of style, speed and power. That is the overall goal of all surfers. The feedback is also the same for us all. We fall, we get smashed by a lip, we hit the reef. We know when we have not achieved the overall goal. To maximise flow, its important to create mini-goals and feedback loops within this over-arching goal of being a rapid, stylish, powerhouse. Depending on your personal ability level, set yourself goals each time you surf. It could be anything from smooth pop-ups to backside 360s. Focus on this goal the entire surf.
A high level of concentration on a limited field.
The reason why surfing is such a powerful route to flow is because it requires laser focus. We don’t even need to think about this one. When we start paddling for the wave we want, eye up the section we want to hit, set a line to get some tube time, we are in a state of intense concentration. We ride moving walls, liquid energy on little foam sticks with fins in them. It is bloody hard. Therefore we focus, and through focus we flow. However, we don’t always focus. When you are chatting about the footie with a mate or day-dreaming about the hot chick across the street, you are not going to be in flow. That’s when you find yourself in the wrong spot, while the guy in focus gets a wave on every set. Total 100% focus is the key to optimal performance. And the best way to train your focus is meditation.
Balance between skills and challenge.
One of the awesome things about flow is that once you get to a certain skill level, it does not really matter how good you are. The amount you flow is dependent on how much you push yourself beyond your own personal comfort zone. The skill here is to proactively tweak the challenge level: The outside edge of the comfort zone is the sweet spot for flow. You can flow more than JJ Florence if you work on these 3 triggers enough. To tweak the challenge level surf new spots, go deeper, go bigger, try a single fin. If you are stuck in kiddie corner, you’ll quickly get bored. But if your skills are not ready and you buy yourself a ticket to the North Shore of Hawaii, you will quickly become frustrated.
The amazing thing about flow is that you can achieve this state in every aspect of your life. You can be in flow at work, while studying, in conversation with friends, while driving, running, swimming, cooking, writing. Flow can become a part of your everyday life, and if you walk this path, you will find yourself performing at a higher level, being more present and more happy.
And the best part of all? Surfing hits nearly all of the triggers for flow, meaning that we experience flow more than most people. As surfers we are at the forefront of flow state discovery. We are flow state pioneers. This puts us in a unique position to learn about it so we can add flow to all areas of our life.
For more from Jiro Taylor, head on over to The Flowstate Collective.