Do you ever have that moment where you are completely focused and involved in an activity? Where your whole world at that moment is focused on what you are doing and nothing else? Well, typically, these are descriptions of our optimal mental state of functioning – otherwise known as flow. Founder Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi defines flow as that moment of complete immersion in an activity.
Learning about flow can be difficult. The concept itself is puzzling as it can elicit multiple descriptions. It can be inferred as a thought or a feeling but essentially flow is a state of mind.
I am recently learning about flow and as I learn I find that I am constantly able to relate it to multiple areas of my life and believe that others would be able to do the same.
Flow seems to show up in sport, education or in the workplace. In sport, athletes associate flow with some of their greatest performances. Within education individuals may experience flow as they learn and extend themselves beyond their perceived ability. Within the workplace employees often become so immersed in their tasks that it can create the feeling that that the act is no longer work, but it is play. Leading people to think that if they can reproduce this feeling, that they love, they will never have to work another day in their lives. Ultimately, anyone can experience flow in their desired field, its more their mind set in that field that determines whether they induce flow or not.
Flow is that optimal state of consciousness where you feel and perform your best. Your concentration can be somewhat tunnel vision, focusing on the task and letting everything else fall away. Individuals who experience the flow state often report that time can either slow down or speed up, heightening the performance focus.
As I continue to learn about Flow, I release that it is something I once had for the sport of rowing. I used to be a highly competitive rower in school. I knew that I loved the sport, waking up every morning to train in the rain and cold. Although after 4 years of rowing it wasn’t just a love for the sport any more, it had turned into, what I now know as the foundation for a flow mindset. In short, I trained to learn and enjoyed each moment because I loved what I did. During rowing, I had that feeling of complete immersion and focus on what I was about to do. Each stroke wasn’t a chore, they just came effortlessly, one after another. As the boat used to glide along the water and the coxswain yelled to the crew, I would find myself zoning out from everything, just focusing on hanging onto this strange but exhilarating feeling that I never wanted to end. After 4 years, I had gone from feeling the pain in each race, the feeling of my blisters rubbing against the ore and my body screaming to stop, to suddenly never wanting to stop. Every day I longed to get back on the water and dreaded the time when rowing would finish. Since finding those sweet moments of flow in my training, that moment of no longer thinking, but just doing, all the boring sessions and mental battles that would ensue during the early years of rowing became worth it. All the long hours of sweat and heartache had become a justifiable means to a rewarding end – flow.
2 years later, whilst I still love rowing and training, I no longer perceive the state of flow when I’m out there on the water. Many things have changed since the days when I was able to achieve the flow state readily. Nowadays, I no longer row at such a competitive level, I no longer have a strong desired goal, and I am not as committed to the club or people I row with compared to when I was representing my school with my best friends. I realise now, that through a combination of all these factors, I lost my flow. As a result of losing my flow I’m less motivated to go to training, to committing to the workload and therefore my performance has decreased. It is easy to become complacent, once achieving flow believing it will always be there, but flow is much rather a state of mind, it isn’t something that you achieve once and have forever from that moment. Multiple factors come into play in the development and maintenance of flow.
Having this experience of finding flow and then losing it, has allowed me better to understand the concept and further understand many athletes. Flow occurs when an individual has a clear set of goals, focused attention on the task, a feeling of serenity and timelessness, a feeling of personal control over the situation, and a lack of awareness of the physical needs that accompany the task. In retrospect, I had lost a lot of these descriptions. Many high-profile athletes can also loose the state of flow, impacting their performance and often causing their decline, although few gain the ability to understand and find their flow again, improving their performance better than it once was.
Now that I am on a journey to find my flow again, it has been important to me to note that flow occurs in the moment of the task at hand, therefore when attempting to achieve the state of flow being mindful of my thoughts in the moment and managing my feelings of stress and anxiety has been crucial – they can all effect one’s flow. When I’m anxious or overly aroused I can now use relaxation techniques prior to the activity. Relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing help to increase my concentration of the task at hand and focus on what’s relevant, rather than allowing my mind to wonder. This allows me to be more engaged in the task prior to it beginning.
I’m learning now, that no matter the area in which we experience flow, these experiences of flow can not only improve our skill development but also offer significant benefits to our performance. Finding flow not only improved my motivation to continue to get better, but because I was more willing to learn, I ultimately found the sport more enjoyable. As a result, I trained harder, faster and my performances improved.
The flow state relates to the term, ‘in the zone’, whereby we find an ego-less state of complete concentration and absorption. This state allows the us to be 100% positive, focused on the process committed to the execution. We take ownership for our responsibilities in the task, which ultimately improves our performance.
There is so much to flow, I’m learning everyday. But for now, I’m enriched by the knowledge that flow is a state of mind that it is not limited to any individual. It’s not dependent on one’s intelligence, ability, or status. Rather it is achieved when individual’s apply themselves to a task (no matter what it is) in a certain manor.
Learning about flow has given me hope, guidance and a level of confidence that those special moments that used to treasure so much are just around the corner.
We are delighted to announce some great results on a recent study with rock climbers receiving flow training. The climbers received 4 different types of training over a 3 month period and the results far exceeded our expectations.
Below is Camille’s account of what happened. Camille is a budding adventure enthusiast who competes in a multitude of sports and a true inspiration. She runs a great blog for those wanting to see how she quit her job to focus on a life worth living: http://www.farandhigh.co.uk/
Over to Camille and her a piece, she wrote to go on her blog.
I was delighted when Cameron, the training coach from the Flow Centre, offered me to be part of the group of elite climbers selected for a case study on flow training.
Initially, I didn’t know what the flow mindset was and it is thanks to the study that I learnt more about it.
“Flow is the optimal mental state that produces performance, creativity, decision-making and innovation.”
Flow is a psychological state we experience during our peak experiences and is behind many of the greatest athletic performances. It is the state when we perform at our best and feel our best.
As part of the study, the climbers were asked to complete the same indoor climbing route twice a week, time ourselves and then complete a questionnaire straight after each climb including questions on our performance and our flow state. We were also asked to rate our overall climb. As weeks progressed, we were provided with training and individual coaching sessions on flow.
Throughout this experience, I’ve learnt some great tips on how to train your mind to get into the flow state and how to maintain that state. I thought I’d share the most valuable ones to me.
Motivation to perform
For me, motivation to perform is the biggest contributor to get me into a flow state, i.e. the desire to get to the top of the route. When the motivation is missing, my performance suffers. When the motivation is at its best and I truly want to reach the top, I’m enjoying the moment and I give it me all.
Secondly, finding focus is key to get me in the right state of mind. I need to completely shut down the outside world around me. For example, I need to ignore other climbers watching or shouting tips during a training session (sorry, I know you’re only trying to help J). This is especially true during a climbing competition when I find the audience very unnerving and it makes me anxious. So I need to completely zone out my surroundings and forget about my ego, so I can totally concentrate on the task at hand.
Be in the Present
To reach and maintain flow, I need to be completely focused on the present moment. I can’t be thinking about anything else other than each move as it unfolds. If I’m already thinking about reaching the top whilst I’m only half way up, my mind is not in the present.
The climb has to be challenging enough for me to get into the flow state. If it is during the warm-up or an easy climb, it’s not motivating enough for me to really be in the flow.
Physical Readiness & Self belief
I’ve found that my perception of my physical fitness and readiness to climb a route has an impact on my ability to reach and maintain the flow state. If I feel physically ready and capable, then I feel in control and there are no limits!
Fear of falling
When I have reached the flow state, I am so focused on each move that there is no holding back and I forget about the fear of falling (even in the dreaded overhangs!).
With the help of our coach Cameron, I have come up with my climbing mantra which I now repeat to myself at the start of each climb, and sometimes in the middle:
Repeating the mantra in my mind has been very effective to help me get into the flow when everything seems to come together and I perform to my highest standard.
To conclude, my personal results from the route I climbed during the study are:
Route: 14m 6C+ route
1st attempt completed in 9min23s.
After having received the training and coaching on flows, I completed the climbing route on my 15thattempt in 2min10s.
Of course, once I knew my results, my first question was related to the fact that even without the coaching, my performance would have improved naturally just by the experience gained by every attempt and the increased memorization of the moves. However, this was minimised by having us only start the training and coaching on flows once our performances had plateaued and we weren’t climbing faster at each attempt.
Finally, being part of the study and learning about applying flows for sporting performance was definitely eye opening and a great opportunity for me in the pursuit of following my passion for the sport and performing the best I can.
These techniques can, of course, be applied to any experiences in life. I’m also currently working on applying these techniques to my running and learning to find the flow state during a run J So I’ve now created a mantra for running as well …
Ben has an amazing story. In only a few years he went from a pub bet to being one of the most recently elite runners in the UK. Our interview can be heard below, but just as interesting is Ben’s take on the ‘Runners High’ Vs ‘Flow’ debate. Check out the article below, we think you will like it!
Flow and Running
Running is hard. That’s what I think almost every time I start on my 10 mile morning jaunt down the Basingstoke Canal. God, I’m unfit. Man, my right leg hurts. What are all these people doing out at this time? Pain, always pain. Why don’t I just go back to bed?
Then something funny happens. It takes a mile or two, normally when I pass the tramp with the yellow raincoat, before my running starts to feel normal. I begin to relax and think about how far I plan to go, how slow the first two miles were and how much I can now push to improve.
Then something really funny happens. I feel delighted. Running on this muddy path, alone, the morning clearing off the river, the sun coming up, feet splashing through puddles – seems like the best thing in the world. What else would I rather be doing right now? I run on, smiling to myself, thinking about what I’ll cook dinner, what good things I’ll do today, what great adventures I’ll plan for the weeks ahead. From a depressive lump I am transformed into a positive being. The world is there for me to run around.
Welcome to runners high. It is a feeling that can come at almost any level of exercise – from a brisk jog to full effort race. It doesn’t stay for the whole time – running is a journey of emotions – but it always appears, stays for a good few miles and then comes back at the end, lasting for about an hour – during breakfast and the trip to work. As the saying goes – you always feel better after a run – and it’s true. You’re high as a kite. That’s the reason most people do it.
A similar sensation, but one much harder to experience, is a sense of running ‘flow.’ This is something that I think only exists at the higher level of the sport – in competitive races – when the body is being pushed to its absolute limits. It comes at a time in the race when motivation is low and there are many miles still to go – blood has left the brain, fatigue is overwhelming and the only thoughts are work, work; toil, toil; suffer, suffer, suffer. You feel like you cannot go on any longer. There is nothing else to tell you to keep going. You just want to stop. Please stop.
But you don’t stop. You keep going and for some reason you start running even better than before. The voice in your head stops saying bad things and your mind and body relax. Flow takes over and running doesn’t seem hard anymore. You feel like you are floating over the road and that you can keep running forever.
Flow isn’t a high, it is more a feeling of levity. I’ve only had it about six times in my career – but every time it has been in the best performances I have ever run. I don’t know exactly what it is. It’s as if I have accessed an energy source away from mind or my body – a spiritual plain or a deep, internal soul – that has transported myself to a place where I am no longer trapped in the limits of physical and mental endurance.
Runners high is great and is the reason you see so many people running nowadays – it makes us happy, it makes us feel good – however for those wanting to take things more seriously, runners’ flow is the real motivator. There’s something in the experience that makes us feel different, above ourselves. For a few minutes we feel a light inside, telling us that there is something wonderful, something beyond the grind of day-to-day, something true and pure – something that makes us special, and that if we keep trying we can experience this any time, for the rest of our lives.
It isn’t true. The moment you start thinking you are in flow, the moment it disappears, but for a while you really believe.
I want to keep believing. I will keep on running towards that light.
Want to hear more? Listen to this podcast and interview with Ben Evans:
The Flow Centre would like to take this opportunity to thank Ben for his time and energy.
Meet Hazel Findlay. Hazel has won multiple National Championships (UK) and is considered one of, if not the, best female climber worldwide. Hazel became the first woman to climb a British E9 (hard and scary!) with her ascent of Once Upon A Time In The Southwest, near Devon, UK. She has been recovering from injuries this past year but will no doubt be taking the climbing scene by storm when she returns.
Hazel is a great friend of The Flow Centre and continues to inspire us month-on-month. In one of our sessions with Hazel we got to ask her about here flow experinces
Cameron: What was one of your biggest flow experiences?
Hazel: It was actually on one of the smaller cliffs, but right up in the corner where it formed a right angle. I find that sort of climb really interesting because instead of using your hands and feet to find and grip holds, you basically have to push against each side of the opposing walls. Your hands are just flat against the rock, with no reaches to aim for, you basically have to only listen to your body position; you can’t really let the rock guide you too much. There’s no “Oh, I’ll reach that hold and I’ll reach for this hole kind of thing”, you just have to get it exactly right for that next bit of upward movement. So Yeah, this particular moment at the top was just a classic flow experience, where it’s just like, I was in this! You know the descriptions!![laughter] It was really intense and it was just complete focus on every little movement. I remember the breathing being in time because the climb was really physical as well. I just remember the breathing intensified with each movement, using my whole core to stay in this corner of the rock. It’s funny, when I was in flow, it was like I’ll finish that little piece of rock and then I can’t remember anything about what I did. Then when you get down, the other climbers will say “How did you do that?” and when I’m in those flow moments I’m like “Oh, I’m really sorry, but I just don’t know what I did, I just did something”.
Cameron: So what was it like in the experience? How did you approach the rock?
Hazel: During the climb, it was like every time I put a foot on the rock I could see all the little features, my foot was exactly where it was supposed to go kind of thing. I think time almost slowed down, if anything. I’ve got vivid memories of my foot in slow motion, because there was so much detail in the moment, you know what I mean? I was just in a little pocket of time and space, me and that little of piece of rock like the only thing that’s there. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say I was an extension of the rock. But one thing I think happens when climbing is the movements are kind of binary. Like it’s “right foot, right hand, left foot, left hand”, very specific movements that are all separate. It’s also binary in the sense that you either do it or you don’t! But in a flow state, it feels like the movements aren’t divided into separate moves anymore. You know what I mean? It’s not like you’re moving from one movement to the next movement; it’s all just one complete movement in flow.
So, in that corner it was like I was moving up, and it wasn’t this awkward “right-left” kind of thing, it was all just one fluid motion of the rock kind of thing. Am I an extension of the rock? I think it’s more like what I was saying. The rock doesn’t provide the sort of black and white challenge, like “I did that move or I didn’t”, or “I did that piece”. I suppose it’s very much linked to the idea of success-failure, goal and everything. I’ve always found that when I’m in that flow I totally let go of that desire to succeed and to do the route. I’m just so focused on the next move and the next bit of climbing. You know, when I start a route I’m like “Okay, come on! You can do it!” – You know, all that positive thinking is running through your head. Or if you’re having a negative day it might be like “Oh, I feel like sh** – just give it your best shot anyway”. Whereas when you’re in flow, all of those ideas about yourself versus the rock kind of thing just fall away. So usually if I’m in that flow, even if I fall off and I fail, I usually don’t care because I know that I was climbing my absolute best because I was in that state. So it just doesn’t bother me that I failed, because what more could I have wanted from that experience? Nothing, because I was doing my best. So, that’s why I love it so much!!
I always feel like it’s the rock that forces me to be in flow. I never really feel like it’s me, but maybe I should take some more ownership of it. There never seems to be a correlation between my thoughts and feeling and how I access flow. I’ve accessed flow on really bad days, when my thoughts have been totally negative and I’m really unconfident. But then just something about the climb I’m doing forces me into it. I can have good days and just access it for some reason, I don’t know! I just feel like it’s the rock! I totally agree with this “skill meets challenge” idea, because I really think it has to be quite hard for me to access flow. Sometimes I can access flow on easier grounds, but it’s a bit like when you’re driving a car. Often there’ll be other thoughts going through your head, so it’s not as intense and experience of flow. But it’s the sort of thing where I’m just moving up the rock and I might get to the top and not really remember anything about the climb. I was thinking about something completely different; that’s when the challenge is way below my skill set. I’m not as good at harnessing flow during those climbs. I see other people climb much better than me on easier ground, but I tend to let my internal dialogue stop me from reaching flow on easy terrain. That’s something I want to work on.
Cameron: When do you most experience flow?
It’s being on the hard routes, on hard rock climbs. That’s the thing about climbing on natural rock; no-one made it, no-one designed it. So really it’s just chance whether that meets your skill set or not. So there might be a particular route where I might be in flow, but then I get to a section where I just can’t reach the holds, I’m not tall enough or strong enough or whatever, then I’ll just fail. I’ll snap out of flow; the challenge became too hard for me. So really, I feel like it’s the rock that forces me into flow, because it just so happens that the rock, the way the holds are, the way my body moves, it just fits the rock. I think it’s strange; climbing is maybe quite different to other conventional sports. What often happens when you climb is that you get to a point where you can rest and you can think. So you look at the rock ahead and problem solve your way through it even before you do it. I think one of the keys to climbing well is to, in that restful position, consciously have a plan and problem solve, but then as soon as you start climbing try and switch into that unconscious state that we’re talking about. Really let your body take control and use your subconscious mind. But you have to remember what your conscious mind was telling you to do. That’s what makes climbing different.
The Flow Centre would like to take this opportunity to thank Martina for her time and energy.
Jon Turk has ja heart like a cauliflower, and a zest for flow like no other. Jon was an adventurer finalist for Canadian “National Magazine Awards” (2015 – Frozen Iceman), voted top 10 adventure athletes in 2012 by National Geographic, and canoe and kayak: expedition of the year in 2012.
Jon has practiced performance FLOW for decades, and reminds us that there are a multitude of factors that go in to a flow experience, none more so being on the same wavelength as your group.
I am a back-country skier, and I routinely ski exposed avalanche terrain in the mountains of southern British Columbia. A few weeks ago, four of us were shredding fresh powder on familiar terrain. The riding was excellent, friendships warm, and spirits were high. All day, the snow had been stable, meaning that we experienced no avalanches or even indication of danger. On the last run, as the short winter day was waning, two of our party led us toward a higher, steeper, more exposed ridge line. As we climbed into this alpine zone, we reached an elevation where the mountain wind had compacted the surface of the snow into hard, rigid, consolidated, potentially deadly chunks.
This was no subtle change. As experienced alpinists, we all saw it, felt it, and knew the consequences of a bad decision. So why didn’t we turn back?
The ultimate, overriding, goal of back-country skiing is to come home safe. All too frequently, we tend to forget this goal and create other imaginary goals such as to climb higher, faster, longer, and to ski the steepest line. But compared to safety, these supposed goals are merely dangerous distractions generated by our think-too-much-know-it-all brains. The primary driver of a FLOW experience is to concentrate completely and utterly on the real and ultimate goal and to avoid sidetracks, distractions, ego, and “I wants”. Yet, within a group, distractions can easily arise, fester, and quickly multiply.
One person climbed into the dangerous wind-slab, eager to be the leader that brought the group onward toward the best line of the day. We all like to “ski the goods”, so that is always a distraction from the overriding goal of safety. But now, there was social pressure not to be the wimp, the cold blanket who said, “Hey, guys. I think we should turn back.” Two distractions steering us away from FLOW – internal and external. And the distractions fed on one another. I thought, “We don’t need to do this,” but then I threw attention and awareness out the window, and allowed myself to concentrate on what mattered least (A few extra turns. Not to be criticized by the group.) And not what mattered most (Our lives). So against all reason, I followed the leader toward a dangerous situation. I felt hassled and grumpy. I questioned my own judgment, the judgment of others. “Why can’t we just ski from here?” I mumbled, quietly, almost to myself.
Suddenly, my wife, Nina, stopped. I was in line behind her.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I’m not going up there,” she replied.
At first, I was internally annoyed at her. Those guys were going to ski the coolest line, and I wanted to be up there with them. But the physical pause initiated a mental pause which solidified a physical pause. Reason prevailed. We held back.
The lead skier started an avalanche and went catapulting down the mountainside in a moving white river. Amazingly, he didn’t get hurt. We were lucky.
There are always more distractions than FLOW paths. Entropy works like that. A near infinity of ways to do something wrong and only a limited number of ways to do something right. Group dynamics, within a family, at work, or during play are powerful. All the more reason to understand and practice FLOW.
The Flow Centre would like to take this opportunity to thank Jon for her time and energy.
Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California have discovered that our minds are lying to us. There is a limit to how fast our brain can digest information. To make things easier on itself, it predicts what will happen next.
Think of a plane flying overhead, it’s not going to suddenly start flying backwards, so our brains predict the path of the plane and that’s how we are able to see what is going on in the present. But what happens when something does change in an instant? That’s where the flash lag effect comes in (to test this out try a simple Google search). The research in this area has revealed a delay of, on average, 80 milliseconds between something happening and the mind being able to process it. Meaning that we spend our life living in what has actually just happened, not what is actually happening. Let’s take a second or two to pause – we are never actually present in real time! Really?!
Thinking of planes again, this time at night when the lights on it are flashing, the flash of light often appears to be behind the plane. That’s because your mind has predicted, correctly, where the plane will be, but the sudden flash of light was an unknown. The 80 millisecond delay in processing means that you see the light flashing behind the plane, where it was 80 milliseconds ago.
The intriguing thing for us, as flow seekers, is what if we can reduce that 80 millisecond delay? This article from Salk specifically says that the time delay is an average and it’s likely that someone like a fighter pilot has a shorter delay – and so lives less ‘in the past’ and more ‘in the now’. This comes as no surprise that a fighter pilot is likely to be in a state of flow most of the time when pulling off incredible manoeuvers, whilst flying at mach 3. However, how can we reduce this delay in our everyday experiences and performances?
Our visual awareness seems to change in flow, as we become highly aware of all the small detail that gives us the much needed feedback we require for perfect decision making. We know that we get a feeling of time standing still during flow, does this state actually reduce the lag of our experience? In our interview with Nick Troutman(Kayaker), he talks about a run where he starts turning the wrong way down a waterfall and had to correct himself mid-air. If he made this adjustment any later than he did, or not at all, the result could have been catastrophic for him. Nick is able to make these important changes with millisecond precision as a result of being in flow – by his own admission.
Although we don’t know exactly what the millisecond delay may be during flow, we know that the experience is a lot closer to a 0 millisecond delay than our everyday experiences. In flow we become aware of everything instantly, process information instantly and are able to react to what happens immediately – is this living in the present?
“Elementary dear Watson, elementary!”
For years people have called a flow state ‘being in the zone’, although this is not entirely accurate (I sense a different article coming), would a more accurate term be ‘being in the now’?
When we went in search of the ultimate base jumper and skydiver, we expected to find someone extraordinary – someone who was used to pushing the limits and had the ability to freeze time. When we finally hooked up with Douggs he was everything we had been looking for and more. Douggs’ wealth of experience is nothing short of outstanding.
Douggs has felt flow frequently, in multiple arenas, and when he is not pretending to be Superman he is a motivational speaker, TV presenter, commentator, author, film maker, and stunt man. Douggs is one of the world’s most experienced BASE jumpers, respected both inside and outside the sport. He is a World Champion, World Record holder, and completed well over 3200 BASE jumps and 7000 skydives across more than 42 countries.
His list of achievements and highlights include: 2014 World Wingsuit League, China – 2013 World Record for most base jumpers jumping indoors – 2013 First ever BASE jumps in Kuwait from Al Hamra Tower – 2013 1st place in World Extreme Base Championships, Spain – 2013 1st place in Accuracy Competitions in both Turkey & China -2012 World first night human slingshot, Dubai – 2011 World BASE Championships, 2nd place -2008 UK ProBase ‘British Open’: Overall Champion – 2003/04 BASE jumping World Champion: 1st place Aerobatics, 1st place Team, 1st place overall – Many expeditions throughout remote parts of the world including, Baffin Island, China, Norway, New Zealand & 37 other countries -1998 – 2003, 6 time Australian National Skydiving Champion in 4 way and 8 way RW – 2001 – 2003 Australian team member for World Championships – 2002 World Record: 300 way skydive – 12 Gold medals in various state events – and much more.
As you can imagine, our interview with Douggs was very insightful.
Chris: In skydiving and base jumping it’s (flow) called the zone, but I’ve never heard the actual technical term for it before.
Cameron: Yeah, yeah. It’s called different things. Jazz musicians call it ‘being in the pocket’. Different people have different names for it, but everyone knows it when you talk about it. You know, it’s that moment where we’re completely engulfed and everything’s just at one, we’re highly connected and time seems to pause, but then you come out of it and then time forwards winds, and you’re like “Oh my God, what just happened?”
Chris: I’ve written a number of articles it. There’s no past, no future, there’s just this present. I call it the now.
It’s an incredible feeling. And once you submit to it, that’s… Like, when you’re shaking on the edge or whatever, and then you commit and submit and take those three deep breaths then everything goes still and quiet, and then that beautiful silence that first second is just incredible…and then off we go, and then that’s when you hit it.
——————————– Chris on starting out ————————————-
Chris: Base jumping has been the best thing ever for me because it’s allowed me to take everything I’ve learnt in jumping and take it to ordinary life, which has just given me endless possibilities; there’s no negatives, only positives. There’s only… You know, the cup’s always half full now. I think that’s the right one. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? Like, I was lucky I got into base jumping super early and found it, and it just blew me away. I mean, on my first skydive I still blacked out for over five seconds, you know, so my brain wasn’t able to process that information at all.
But then I was intrigued by that, went straight back up and did another one. I’ve never been able to get that sensation again, except for—the closest I ever got was when we did a human slingshot a couple of years ago in Dubai, and long story—there’s a video online about it, but we were shooting out so fast that I think we were doing zero to 200 in about a second, about 6-7 Gs, I was able to process the information, but I was almost on my limit of processing it, it was interesting. It’s the only time I got that sensation (complete shut off) back since my first skydive.
I think it’s called sensory overload. It’s where your brain is just receiving too much information and it shuts down. But yeah, you never get it back really, so it’s interesting. I’ve always been intrigued from day one about it all.
——————————– Chris on his flow experiences ————————————-
Chris: Just when you see I’m in a really good state of flow I generally smile [laughs] because it’s just…I’m actually really relaxed. So, that jump (where I was smiling)… It took us five jumps that day to get to that point.
(When in flow) You can just see more, so I see things off in the distance, the cameraman sitting there, and I saw 15 seconds flying past at about 200 Ks/hour, and I smiled at him as I went past super casually. So, that’s… everything’s sort of… Almost happy. [laughs] Like, in this calm trance-like state, but like The Matrix, you know, like “Sh**, it’s actually moving fast” but you’ve just made it all stand still. That’s when I really enjoy it, because everyone’s like “Oh wow, you must get this big adrenaline rush when you do this!” and I’m like “I don’t actually.” [laughs] I get really, really calm and really tranquil.
I was just doing some stuff out of my comfort zone this last week, and sh**’s moving fast still, but when we get comfortable then everything just slows down and it’s just poetic almost; it’s beautiful.
You almost ~not~ feel invincible, that’s a good word for it. You’re just… you’re on another level to everyone and everything around you. I mean, that’s animal instinct, that’s what animals get. They’re always in flow [laughs].
Another way to explain it is, when we jump off a waterfall ~and~ jump in snow, you ~hit~ that microsecond of a point where everything stops, and if you’re in flow, which I generally am, you’d stop for a lot longer than a microsecond. You’re falling at the same speed as the water droplets, or the same speed as the snow, and whilst it’s only a microsecond you can make it last for seconds, and then it speeds up really quick! It’s exactly like the movies basically.
I mean, that’s what The Matrix did, The Matrix put flow into cinema, in my opinion. I always use The Matrix as my way to try and explain it best to the layman, because it shows it clearly on cinema how it all works.
——————————– Chris on his flow limits ————————————-
Chris: In traffic (driving)…I can ~miss~, I can can ~swirve~ and miss and do whatever, I just process that information really, really f**king quickly. And then — one that really stands out, my cousin’s a very good motorbike rider, and we did this trail riding – super fast, super thin – and I couldn’t (find flow) —it was the first time when I was like “Mother f**ker! I can’t keep up with my cousin!”
When he’s riding a bike he’s in flow for sure, but I couldn’t get there – I’m not good enough on a bike. That was the first time I really understood that I wasn’t… not invincible, and I can’t always find flow. Do you know what I mean? Because you walk around just feeling… not better than everyone else, just… like, you f**king own it all the time, you know, and that’s what makes a champion as well; you’ve got to be able to own it. Confidence and arrogance is a fine line, but you’ve got to walk that line all the time, you know.
More arrogant when you’re younger, more confident when you’re older. [laughs]
——————————– Chris on his preparation for flow ————————————-
Cameron: What prep helps you get into flow?
Chris: For me, training and visualisation for sure.
I mean, I jump all the time, and I’m doing extreme sports all the time. When I’m speed flying, I’m absolutely in flow when I’m speed flying as well, but not while I’m on skis, because I’m a sh** skier; as soon as I take off I can do anything. But training for sure. And I think over time being in mountainous environment and an ocean environment so much… you adapt.… Do you know a guy called Dean Potter?
Chris: Very ~advanced~ climber. He’s a good friend of mine now, and watching him in the mountains is just… He is a mountain man, you know, because he can adapt, he’s done so much time in the mountains that it’s second nature for him. He doesn’t use ropes pretty much ever. He can just climb mountains because he’s put himself in that situation. Same as the watermen, your Laird Hamiltons and stuff like that. If I put myself in a situation long enough then the more… And also, I do seminars on aerobatics in base, and what I learnt from doing hardcore aerobatics… You know, like from 450 feet doing four or five flips or whatever… Starting from single flips, learning and then pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, getting to a point where… Like, for us it’s that we have to, I have to accept my own limitations way earlier than I would like – because I don’t want to die, you know – so I don’t run at 100% ever really.
But, what I’ve learnt was that coming back from say doing four-five flips on a jump to doing one flip on a jump opens the world up way more. So, you sort of need to push yourself that harder and see with blinkers on, to then pull back and be able to see the world with open eyes. That’s really interesting, and it’s very hard to tell a 20-year old kid to do that because they just want to go crazy. But after coming full circle I don’t generally do all the big flips anymore, I just do the slow rotating ones. I’d be upside down, waving at people in a restaurant off a building or something, because I’m in the flow. But being able to do heaps of flips first has helped me reach that perspective. So, now my brain expects me to do all that stuff, and then when I ~lay it back~ a bit then the brain’s like “Oh yeah, this is much cooler!” [laughs] So, I teach people to not fly with blinkers on with everything they doing, to work themselves up to it and not rush into it. Work themselves up to it, and then when you pull back you’re good. But on the other spectrum of that, the guys—I mean, we’ve just lost a friend last year. They were pushing, pushing, pushing; their 100% performance became a normal percent. My normal performance is 30-50 percent now, just because I’ve lost so many friends and I’m having such a great life. But these guys are pushing so hard, their normal becomes 100%. And you almost need 100% sometimes, because we’re not perfect humans, so when these guys need an extra spike they didn’t have it and died from it.
So, I try and teach that a lot as well, because… Yeah, running at 100% all the time… that’s not good for our sport. It’s not surfing where you can sort of get away with it, or skating where you’ll break your ankle or something – we generally die. So, our sport… Whilst our sport is actually one of the safest extreme sports out there, when it goes wrong we die – it’s very simple. It’s not a broken ankle or things like that, so it’s a real tricky one for helping others with that.
Cameron: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s ~powerful~ what makes the skydiving such an amazing sport for flow, in terms of flow, when you think about it. You know, the consequences are so high when you’re pushing it that you’re almost forced into a state of flow. Your senses engage, the mind has to shut off because it just… it can’t compute everything that’s going on and make those decisions that you need to make, and you’re forced into it. What do you do just before you jump off? You mentioned earlier, you said you take a couple of deep breaths and you kind of sit there.
Chris: Yeah. Like, off a cliff—planes are different because it’s so noisy and you’ve got to go at the same time, but from a cliff I’ll gear up. These days I’ll just—well, obviously I’ve got a lot of jumps, so it definitely has evolved, but I’m always scared, that’s one key; I’m always making sure I stay scared. That’s one of the key aspects to getting into flow I reckon as well, don’t be overconfident with everything. And then… Yeah, so I’ll gear up and I’ll prep myself on everything. So, the weather, my skill level, my gut feeling that day, the object that I’m jumping off. You know, because sometimes I’ll walk away as well, and sometimes I won’t jump stuff that my students jump. You know, I have my own little… my own path.
But then once I’m geared up I’ll double-check, triple-check everything, make sure I’m cool, and then that way when I go to the edge the only thing I’m scared of is being scared. That’s a key for me as well, because then your mind doesn’t have to think about anything else, it can channel in and focus. And then when it’s time to go… Yeah, generally I’ll be freaking out, but that’s… You’ve got to turn that negative fear into a positive fear. That’s when I’ll take three (deep breaths)—because you’re going to do it anyway [laughs], so you might as well do it correctly. You know, if it gets too much I’d walk away and stuff, but I understand my body and my consciousness.
So yeah, when it is time to go I’ll take… basically calm down, take three deep breaths, and on the third breath or fourth breath or whatever I’ll generally just head off. And that way just before you go you’re completely calm, very tranquil, and about to throw yourself into the unknown. But, I mean, if it’s the unknown unknown then that’s another ball game… Like, I do know the outcome could be bad, but it’s a calculated risk, so it’s a very small chance as such, but it could definitely still happen any jump – I’m no more special than anyone else. But once you put yourself in that position and you go then it’s on, and then you’re just hyperaware of everything.
I’ll always put myself in uncomfortable positions. Like, just recently I was doing this seminar in front of 120 legends of the sport, and then putting myself up to do a song actually at the ~talent night~ in front of the same people.
And I was—they saw me physically shaking with the lyrics, you know, and I still put myself there even though it was f**king terrifying.
But, you know, I like doing that. The song was a good one because I was so nervous and my voice was so sh**ful, and then by the end I’ve got the whole crowd clapping and singing with me because I’d entered flow basically in a different environment and just went into rockstar mode sort of thing, without the talent by the way.
And by the end I was good, and then afterwards I’m like f**king ~freaking~ out again, but I’d hit that for about a minute of that song, I hit the flow basically. And same with the talks as well, you start out nervous. Dean Potter actually helped me, trying to—I try to do as much motivational speaking as I can now to overcome one of my biggest fears, and he said “Just learn the first two sentences.” [laughs] “Just memorise the first two sentences. You’ve got to start ~say~, and the rest will just pick up in your state of flow basically.”
——————————– Chris on his preparation for flow ————————————-
We would like to thank Douggs for his time and insight. We look forwards to following and helping Douggs in his future expeditions.
Dropping down 70ft waterfalls whilst pinned into a kayak is not for the fainthearted. However, for Nick Troutman, this is what he lives for. Most people would hit the panic alarm, but Nick is so used to getting into flow, he even does emergency adjustments as he is dropping vertically.
Nick Troutman is a world champion and five-time national champion kayaker, filmmaker, and philanthropist. He is highly respected in the river-sport community, and in addition to his competitive achievements has established several first descents while on expeditions in Mexico, Newfoundland, Ottawa, Zambia, Quebec, and the Niagara Gorge. His commitment to the river and exceptional kayaking skills are what drove us to track him down and ask him to join The Flow Centre.
To share some of his key insights we have created this blog so you can get to understand this unbelievable athlete.
Nick: We are driving around, checking out a whole bunch of different rivers and stuff.
Cameron: Nice! How long are you there for?
Nick: We’re on the road probably for the next 8 to 10 months, I guess probably 8 months – until like October, November. So, driving around in different states and countries and stuff like that.
Cameron: Yeah – tough life! (laughs)
Nick: Then back to Tennessee. Yeah, it’s not too bad. (chuckle)
——————————– Cut to more juicy parts ————————————-
When asked about whether he has experienced flow Nick’s response was:
Nick: Yeah, definitely – you’ve studied it a lot and are very knowledgeable on the whole thing, but what you’re describing… I definitely have experienced that, and it’s like “Oh yeah.”
Then there’s the times where…it seems like… like an out-of-body experience, or that like you’re no longer in control; where you’re like “Whoa, how did that happen?!”
I guess the cool part would be to figure out how to get into it more often, being that whenever I’m in the flow state I feel like I’m just way better.
——————————– Nick explaining his top flow moments ————————————-
Nick: I guess one of them… It happened several times, but one of them that’s has been very memorable for me was… Actually, it’s in the video I think, the highlight reel, where I’m running a waterfall, I’m in the green kayak and I slow it down in the video. Running that waterfall, we were there with a photographer and we kind of had to wait at the ~lip~ for like a couple of hours for him to get set up. And so the whole time of trying to just sit there calmly and be like “Okay, I’m not even going to think about the waterfall. I scouted it, I know the line and I’m going to nail the line.” type of thing, but then I had to really focus on, like zoning out and thinking about something totally different for the next couple of hours… Because the longer I scout the waterfall and look at the waterfall, the more I… what I call getting demons in my head, but the more I think of different possible outcomes, and then maybe after thinking of all the different possible outcomes a bad outcome comes into my mind, and I’m like “Well, if I’m already imagining bad outcomes then I don’t want to run the waterfall anymore.” so I try to only think of the good outcomes.
But anyway, it was kind of this weird experience to zone out at the ~lip of this~ waterfall and just think of other stuff. And then when I did run the waterfall, it’s almost like… hard for me to recall, because it’s like I paddled in, and then I knew the line that I wanted to do – like, get close to the left – but then my boat spun a little bit and I had to do this correction stroke and pull it back while I was dropping down vertical – like, a lot of different boat control happening all at once. And I don’t necessarily remember doing any of it, I just did it. There was never like an “Oh, sh**! I’m not where I want to be, I need to correct this.” or “Oh, it would be better if I did this.“ It was just like… I wasn’t thinking, I just did it all and it was perfect.
Then afterwards I remember being like “Oh, what just happened? How did I do that?” Like, I did a lot of things in a very short period of time and I don’t remember trying to do any of them, I just did it all. It was just one of those experiences that I guess I felt like I wasn’t thinking, I was just reacting, but reacting so quickly.
That was one of the ones that was super memorable for me, but that happens quite often to a certain extent, where you just kind of react I guess and you’re not necessarily… not thinking necessarily like “Oh, I’m going to put here and pull myself that way, or I’m going to do this and that.” – you just kind of do it. I don’t know if that has to do with ~just several~ years of paddling, or if it’s some other thing in the brain, it’s kind of like just… I don’t know. There’s a lot of things that happen that always made me wonder, like “Oh, I wonder how you do that?” or “I wonder ~what’s actually happening?” Because sometimes it feels like my brain just shuts off and I’m better when it does.
It was a very unique experience where just everything felt all connected and I could do whatever I wanted, it was almost like if I imagined it would work. Everything was happening quicker and better and easier, and… I don’t know….a unique experience for sure. That’s probably the strongest time that I can really remember, but it happens quite often doing anything that’s—like, what I consider technical whitewater, where I’m nervous about a drop or a rapid or something like that, I frequently find that I kind of… I don’t know, I just… I guess you can call it like you’re in the zone, or you’re just more in-tuned maybe because of… Whether it’s fear or any of that that kicks in, or adrenaline, but sometimes the harder the whitewater the more I zone out and just react a little bit.
I keep saying reacting, and I don’t know if that’s the right term or not, but I guess it’s just the word that I use because I’m not necessarily thinking like “Oh, I want to drive my boat farther this way or that way, or boof the hole or whatever.” I kind of just do it all, almost as if I’m on autopilot and a much better paddler is paddling my boat.
Cameron: So what about your freestyle experiences?
Nick: Yeah, I was going to say that in freestyle it’s a bit different… I don’t know if it’s a different experience or what, or maybe just a different level of the same kind of experience, but there’s definitely times where… a couple in particular that I can think of where I just had the best rides I could possibly have. I don’t know if it’s—like obviously I was training hard for those events and practicing a lot and was in good physical shape and all that stuff, but at the same time it’s a little different because you drop into the wave – and you’ve got 60 seconds or 45 seconds, depending on the competition – and it was just like bam-bam-bam, like I would just do one move right after another, right after another.
I wasn’t wasting time, I wasn’t doing anything, but I was very aware of where I was on the wave exactly, just super in-tune with my boat, my edge control, the current, the flows of the wave itself, and it just felt like I was almost invincible, the same kind of thing where whatever I wanted to do I could do and I did it. Being that you’re under a time limit for the competition, the more tricks you do and the harder the tricks the more points you get, so… Yeah, I was able to do essentially everything that I wanted to do.
Cameron: So what routines or preparation did you have prior to the comp that helped you get into flow?
Going into the competition I had a set routine that I wanted to do, but I hadn’t necessarily ever completed it in the time frame before or even in practice. But it was just like I could just drop in and do whatever I wanted, and if I was in the wrong spot of the wave or something like that then I could just re-manoeuvre myself and I could get back into the right spot and continue going way quicker than normal. I guess a lot of it is just you’re not wasting time thinking, you’re just doing, which is pretty cool.
Both of them I was doing a lot of mental practice, just essentially doing the routine in my head. But a lot of it as well was just really trying to stay positive. In both situations there was a lot of pressure and a lot of people… You’re sitting in agony with all the rest of the people that are in finals, and there’s just this severe amount of stress in the air, you can just feel that everybody is stressed. For me, at the time it was like… I had this bubble around me, and I would just be so happy and try to calm everybody else down. I’d be like “Hey guys, no need to stress! This is so much fun!” and just really being super positive about the whole experience, and I think that same positivity then, when I would drop into the ~feature~, there was no stress about flushing or missing a trick or anything like that, and just… I don’t know, I just had this feeling like I know I’m going to do it (Win World Championships).
Maybe that’s why I was also so positive at the time, or maybe that feeling came because of the positive outlook beforehand. But yeah, that’s… It’s a very unique experience for sure. It’s a little bit like feeling invincible.
——————————– Nick explaining the disparity between flow and winning ————————————-
Nick: The first World Championships I ever did, I had a lot of really good rounds where I was winning the whole time, and then in the finals the wave changed for the very last ride, and I had… At the time I was undefeated through the whole round, and I had this routine in my head that I was trying to do and I had never completed it, and then in my final ride of the event I completed it and I was just thinking like “Oh, I’m untouchable – nobody could touch that!” But, because the wave changed and it was a little foamier, some of the judges didn’t like some of the tricks, and so I ended up in third. I guess it’s a different thing (flow) to your results… Like, sometimes your results don’t show, but the flow state still is there, if that makes any sense. Like, I could still tap into that same mindset, even though the results weren’t the exact same.
——————————– Nick explaining why he endures such high risks and continues to love the sport ————————————-
Nick: It almost forces you to go into these fight, flight, freeze, or flow situations where… Like, I was explaining before, once you peel out of an eddy and you’re essentially approaching a rapid… There is no turning back, you’re in the lion den, you have to come out victorious, or something horrible is going to go wrong. I’ve always explained when people ask why I love kayaking, I would explain that it’s either the love of nature, which is definitely a part of it, but a big part of it is the forced decision-making. You’re forced into these situations to make extremely quick decisions. Like, river’s very different than a half-pipe, a half-pipe you’ve got something solid where you’re going to go down and you’re going to come back up.
You can run the same rapid 100 times, and because water, the way it flows through a river and stuff like that, it’s never constant – the only constant is that it’s constantly changing. So, even though you can pick a line and you’re like “Okay, this is the line I’m going to take.” the current might push you a different way, or something might just happen, and definitely… A huge part of why I love kayaking is because of that forced quick decision-making, and it’s almost like the way you were explaining just the four… What I’m going to call the four Fs, the fight, flight, freeze, or flow situations. It’s like you’re forcing yourself into these situations to be put into, to choose one of the four I guess.
——————————– End of interview ————————————-
We would like to thank Nick for his time and insight. We look forwards to following and helping Nick win Gold in the next championships.
This year’s World Surf League Margaret River Drug Aware Pro 2015 was a truly special event. Not only did I get to spend some time in the Competitors VIP Tent talking with the current best surfers in the world, but I also got to see some insane surfing in some of the best conditions this leg of the tour has seen in years. Some highlights of the event can be seen here.
I met up with Tom Carroll at the event to chat about flow and understand how it has been instrumental to his life and surfing. For those that don’t know Tom Carroll he has been voted as one of the top 10 greatest surfers of all time and been crowned World Champion twice. Even today, at the age of 53, he continues to push limits, searching the globe to ride the world’s biggest swells for his TV series ‘Storm Surfers’. In fact, when I met up with him, he had just taken a huge beating, injuring his hip, at the intimidating Boat Ramps surf break – a break not for the feint hearted, especially on a day like today with massive swell.
After speaking to Nat Young and Josh Kerr about flow, whose responses echoed the sentiment ‘flow – I’m always in flow, it’s what a I live for’, the legend himself talked about how he sees flow and how he plugs-in.
Cameron: Where’s the mic on this… down here. Maybe you hold it.
Tom: “Okay, yeah.”
Cameron: How did you feel when you’re in it (Flow) and what was your top experiences like?
Tom: “Well, I had my first really clear flow movement experience when I was 13 years of age. Obviously I’ve done a lot of surfing, to that point, I’ve been already surfing since seven years of age. I was on a board that I absolutely loved, that really fitted into my body at that time. I was surfing a right-hand point-break which I hadn’t experienced before, but it was a very comfortable place to surf, or something that—I loved surfing a long wave where I got to do a lot of maneuvres on the wave. It was probably for the first time I’d actually ridden a wave where I could do that many maneuvres on, so I was pretty excited. You know, just excited to be out there, loved the board, so I was in a very nice environment. And then, towards the end of the session… I never forget, taking a wave a little bit longer and further down the beach and getting drifted down the beach to a whole new wave.”
“There was no one surfing on it, I was by myself so I got into the flow moment, which I recognised as a moment in time where nothing could go wrong. All my timing was absolutely perfectly in harmony with the wave, perfectly in harmony with my body movements and my timing and my understanding of what was happening at that time. I couldn’t get, I could not fall off the board even if I tried. That was a really clear moment, and I can feel it now, I can sense it in my body at this point – I’m 53 now so it’s a long time ago! So yeah, you’re looking at 40 years ago I can sort of get that real clear emotional response in my body to that.”
“It was a really lovely feeling, and I just wanted to stay out there and keep in that space, but obviously you’ve got to come in – you know, it’s getting dark.”
“It could’ve lasted—I can’t remember exactly the length of that time, but because of the nature of surfing… You know, I’m paddling out, looking for waves, feeling what’s the best wave to take, feeling the drop, feeling the move on the wave, and feeling totally in sync with how the wave was moving, and the board and how I was moving on the wave. It probably lasted up to… You know, I probably came in and out of the experience through that hour or two, but it was long, elongated, suspended… a suspended feeling of flow.”
Cameron: Yeah. Describe when you were actually in it and on the wave, ~sort of~ the highest points.
Tom: “Yeah, yeah. The highest points was on the wave…
“I’d noticed clearly that I couldn’t fall off, that I was totally in sync. I could move wherever I wanted to, I knew with a sixth sense that I was able to push it, I was able to push my board to its limit and I could push myself to my limit at that time. There was no separation between me, the board and the wave, it was all connected and it was all kind of one thing, not separated at all; I was linked up”
“The future, drawing way off into the future for my second really clear… and in competition feeling the flow moment was at the Pipe Masters in 1991, I had two day of getting into the flow moment during competition. I’d had a big year of competitive experience that year, I was ~fine-tuned~ emotionally, physically, and you’d have to say spiritually at the same time. My wife was having our first child and she was full of little Jenna. She’s 23 now by the way and also a ballerina, so she’s felt the flow.”
“In that time at the Pipe Masters I had several moments where I was just doing and not being, or I guess I was being and not doing; I don’t know how to separate that. I was in the flow in the moments where my body, the wave, the board… nothing was in the way. Everything was in sync, everything was in clear focus and I wasn’t thinking things through, I was just doing it and being it. There was a move that was recorded – you know, they call it the snap ~heard~ around the world, there was that move that was done in the preliminary round, in the first day of competition, and then I ended up going on to win that event the next day. In the final I scored a 10-point ride, I got a very, very late drop where I couldn’t think about it – I was just doing it – and I was able to sort myself, sort my body movement, sort everything out without having to think about it.”
“It was all second nature, it was all sixth sense, and most definitely for me… That day I was probably at the top of my game. So, yeah. That was two really clear examples of where I’ve been, but there’s probably been… hundreds of moments where I’ve been felt the flow, and even to the point where I felt it the other day [laughs] here at Margaret River just practicing surfing, just for fun. Yeah.”
Cameron: Obviously the critical elements of surfing, the big wave and the consequences of it hurting when it goes wrong help us to kind of push into that pocket and out of our brain and into that moment where we find flow. Is there anything else that you feel is a big help to kind of plugging into that? Is there anything that you do, maybe not consciously, or maybe preparation that leads up to it the morning of, or just before you’re about to paddle, or when you’re looking at the waves before you head out?
Tom: “I think connecting with the breath is probably the biggest thing for me. Connecting with my breath at the deepest level, like right down into the hip, into the hips and push my breath. Being aware of my breath and doing a number of breaths very, very consciously brings me further into my body, and that’s where I need to be. Quite often my scattered and very short attention span takes me out of my body, so coming back into my body… One particular exercise I used to do whilst competing was a chant, that’s where I used to say the four Ps which was power, precision, performance, perfect. Power, precision, performance, perfect – it’s like a chant.”
Cameron: A mantra.
Tom: “A mantra yeah – whilst I was paddling, so each paddle I’d say “power”—as I was paddling out “power, precision, performance, perfect” so my mind would remain focused on what was coming up next for me on the wave. On the wave everything sorted out because I’ve got to respond, I can’t think, the wave’s always sort of drawing me to the present, I can’t… I don’t have time because mother nature aint’ going to wait for me. [laughs] She’s not going to wait, so what I’ve got to do is respond to her so that everything’s sorted out for me once I’m stood up on the wave, as long as I’m out of the way. So, getting myself out of the way by creating—and I’d learnt that working with a mantra helped a lot in bringing myself to the moment and keeping myself focused and not attending—you know, drifting off on to what the other competitor’s doing, what the scores were… I mean, I need to know what the scores were, but that’s secondary to my performance really.”
“I’m the only one on the wave, I’m the only one on my board, and I need to be connected to that. I don’t sort of seek constantly and consciously to always be in the flow, I wouldn’t say that’s my main aim, I wouldn’t say that’s… I do look for it for competitive excellence, but not… it’s not something that I always, always go for. I do allow myself space to be… you know, just to be… allowing my brain to move and be elastic so to speak. Because I think that’s absolutely crucial for flow.”
Cameron: How do you think flow can help other people?
Tom: “I think it helps anyone just to be present in what they’re doing, and this is what… this is pretty much another kind of meditative state that we get to where our body and mind and attention is really placed upon the most important thing, and that is right now. So, we get to attend to be a lot more present in our basic everyday task, whether it’d be doing the washing-up [laughs], whether it’d be opening the car door, whether it’d be… Yeah, just being more present in our relationships, being more present in our life in general. I think ~it’ll~ help us become more able to make clearer decisions and actually help ourselves and others at the same time. It has such a multiple sort of faceted kind of plus to our lives when we get more present. This has been my experience and it’s helped me a lot.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Tom Carroll for his time and words on flow and look forward to hearing his experiences and wisdom on flow in the future.
Andrew is a performance coach currently working in New Zealand at the U21 Football World Cup. He kindly agreed to an interview with The Flow Centre so we could pick his brains about how he helps top athletes to plug into flow and peak performance.
Andrew starts by quickly reminding us that: “Flow is a skill itself”. It is a state that we can train for and experience in our everyday lives. When we think about flow as a unique mental state that is not combined with notions of luck or some illusive magic space that finds us at random, we can then empower ourselves to find flow frequently in our lives.
“If you want to find flow in your performance, practise it in training…we need to practice under pressure.” His words echo one of The Flow Centre’s core messages – if we want to experience flow, then we need to train for it.
Andrew has formed a company called Brain Builder, which is built around the philosophy: “Living above the line everyday, day in and day out”. He says this phrase means that we need to adopt a ruthless mindset to succeed and leave nothing to the “too hard basket”. It is a phrase that we can use to instantly assess how we are doing in any given situation – are we above the line?
He states we must replicate the performance environment in our training and life as a whole. “Performing at a high level is not a magic switch that we turn on and off…..preparation is key…..you have to guarantee you are doing the best you can in everything you do”. Andrew reminds athletes that we have to be above the line on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, not just on game day.
One of the primary issues he says athletes face is performing under pressure. Sound familiar? He says: “Pressure is a concept and different for everyone…..when you put your whole self into the performance….and approach pressure with our competitive fire – never give up attitude – the pressure reduces.”
“Its very hard to make it as a professional…so if we are not willing to make our bed in the morning how can we expect to make it in professional sport.”
When asked about the availability of flow for the average Joe, he replied: “If you put yourself above the line you will be amazed how many flow opportunities come available.” He goes on to say: “It is absurd to think flow is reserved for the elite few…..I see students enter flow everyday.” Later in the interview he sums it up concisely: “Flow is not a magic tablet…it takes practice…but we can experience it multiple times a day.”
Andrew describes the flow state as a split screen experience of the event. He explains that sometimes we have a ‘helicopter’ view and see things from a distance, as if we are looking down on ourselves. Sometimes we are the ‘ant’, looking at the minute detail that only an ant digging in the dirt can see.
How can we practically experience flow more frequently in our lives?
“Control our breathing. If we can take a moment to invest…ten seconds…to control our breathing and really focus on that…we can control our thoughts a lot better.”
He continued to say the second piece of advice he offers is to detach from the situation. Understand whether the pressure is situational pressure or pressure from within. Once we understand the situation better we can gain clarity and control.
What is the difference between good/best performers and great performers?
“In a one word answer: mindset. For me, this means an unshakeable self-belief…..No matter how the odds are stacked up against us the greats have a never give up attitude…..The greats always find a way…they have an inner core and unshakeable self-belief.”
“Willingness to put yourself out of the comfort zone and not be afraid of failure builds layers of self-belief.”
We would like to thank Andrew for his time and thoughts on flow and peak performance. If you would like to find out more about Andrew, then please get in contact and we will connect the dots, or you can find him on Twitter: @mcbride_andy
The beauty of learning a new skill exists in bringing it all together. There is an almost tangible threshold after which you can suddenly feel your mind expanding and integrating your new skill in a profound way. This is part of the path to mastery and a definite access point to flow.
The process described here is known as ‘chunking’. Without being too tangential or abstract about this concept, let me give you an example: To learn a new skill you start with the basic motor patterns. You slowly execute and rehearse these patterns of behaviour day by day until you get proficient at it. That action gets locked in the subconscious as motor memory.
This pattern gets ‘chunked’ in your brain and accessed as a block of information which is a whole rather than split into its sub-components. When learning to play guitar for example, initially we consciously place each finger on the correct fret in order to play a chord. Slowly as we rehearse placing our fingers in the correct location, it becomes automatic – part of our motor memory. When first learning chord A, we would place all our fingers in the correct position, then strum the chord. It takes a whole lot of brainpower to accomplish this, until slowly it becomes integrated into our subconscious and ‘chunked’ in to our brain so that whenever we see it coming up on a piece of music our fingers automatically arrange themselves in the correct pattern.
What is fascinating about chunking is that initially complex tasks actually get packaged in a form that is much easier for the brain to handle. The result is less energy expenditure for higher-level tasks. ‘Chunks’ can exist in multiple hierarchies. The next chunk for guitar playing could be playing a chord pattern that becomes automatic after rehearsing it a number of times. For example, musicians play chords A, D, E, A in order without having to think about the minutiae of the chord changes.
The ultimate experience and gateway to flow occurs when we transcend the motor components of our skills and get into higher-level thinking. We are able to think of the strategy, enjoy the moment and get a greater view of our surroundings – if we are on stage we are not thinking about how to play the chords or the song structure.
Instead the experience becomes about engaging with the crowd, feeling the music and communicating with the other band members. Jazz music is a perfect example of this as musicians subconsciously communicate with the band members allowing the improvised patterns to find their own flow. Transitioning from one solo into another becomes an effortless task. Good jazz groups seem highly connected as if they are playing as one. In jazz this is known as ‘being in the pocket’. Scientifically, we call this flow. The greater the challenge and intensity of this experience the deeper the flow experience for these musicians.
In kitesurfing, this happened to me when I finally mastered the kite and board combo to the point where I no longer had to think about it in detail. I was then able to take a meta-viewpoint on the situation. Suddenly I was able to enjoy the wind in my face, the view of the ocean and take charge of the direction of travel. It became a whole new experience. Once you stop having to Think and you are able to just Do, it is possible to let go and naturally flow will occur.
The bottom line is that there are many layers to learning and mastering a skill. It starts with the basic parts and slowly things integrate into chunks of information, to the point where you are finally able to transcend the skill itself and enjoy the activity on a whole new level. Flow comes naturally to those who forget about the How because the conscious thinking part of your brain switches off as you take your skill to the next stage. Keep persisting through the challenging stages when learning a new skill as the real fruits of your labour lie further down the path to mastery.
An important factor to enabling flow is being at ease in your environment. You need to be comfortable and relaxed. Though practice, it is possible to gradually get comfortable with the uncomfortable, allowing you to transcend fear and access flow when it counts the most.
Consider your comfort zone as a series of well demarcated circles around you like a target with you in the centre. As you push your boundaries ever so slightly, and step over the outer lines of the circles, you expand the circles diameter as a representation of growing the realm of what you are comfortable with. Pushing comfort zones brings things you once thought to be uncomfortable into your accepted reality. They allow us to stretch our boundaries and give rise to a new capacity that we have previously only dreamed of.
Let’s take surfing as an example. Many people start by surfing smaller waves in a safe environment. As they become comfortable with these waves they might drop into something a little bit bigger. As they keep testing the limits of what is comfortable, they integrate the experience of the larger waves into their normality. Before long they are surfing head high waves that they once looked upon with awe. It’s possible to keep surfing bigger and bigger waves, as they too get integrated in to what is considered normal. These continuing sequence of consistently pushing the bar and taking the challenge to the next level is the reason why adventure sports has been such a focus point for peak performance in this last decade. Each time they upgrade and widen the circle there is an element of fear to be overcome. It’s a fear of the unknown; a variety of manifested feelings derived from a multitude of ‘what if’ scenarios.
These fears are no more real than an oasis in the desert. When we apply the flow elements and maintain an honest reality of the situation we see the desert for what it is; we see the situation without the fear it once ignited. When we ‘keep it real’ and acknowledge that any uncomfortableness is simply a resistance to learning, or for some accepting that we are already more capable than we would like to think, we free our minds of the anxiety and fearful thoughts that would normally have us turning back. When we become comfortable with being uncomfortable, our perspective changes and we stop thinking and start doing. It is in this mental space that we find the release valve during this struggle and plug in to flow. As long as our skills have been adequately trained, this uncomfortableness is actually the perfect prequel to finding flow.
By regularly pushing the outer circles of our comfort zones, this feeling of unfamiliarity is something we get used to. If we are to strive for excellence, it is only a matter of time before we become uncomfortable, at which point it is essential we become at ease in this environment and enable flow to occur.
So, in practical terms, regularly do things that are out of your comfort zone. Learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and learn to access flow when it counts the most.
If everyday life was always easy, we would regress as human beings. We are all driven by the challenges in our lives as well as the great challenges of the world. We are problem solvers and thinkers and the obstacles we overcome are part of what makes us feel alive.
In today’s society it is easy to get swept away by the current of day-to-day life. It is now possible to sit around and literally do nothing all day, and there would be minimal consequences. Some might argue that this is a positive step in humanity as we can now afford the luxury of minimising our energy expenditure and just enjoy the stimulation that is provided to us by mass media and consumerism.
For me this is not living. Living requires energy expenditure. Living requires us to get up and do something with our days. My proposition in this article is that humanity has reached a point where we must now actively choose to challenge ourselves. It is time to choose: live a marooned life within the bubble of your comfort zone, or embrace the plethora of challenges that are readily available.
The times of greatest expansion and growth occur in us during the times we are pushed beyond our physical and mental comfort zones, outside the bounds of every day life and beyond what is in our views of normality. These are the times we gain new insights of what is possible and expand our views of what the world is.
Creating challenge in your life involves creating high stakes. This means there is some sort of outcome, purpose or reason attached to what you are doing. For example you might enter a running race, competitive sport, or give a presentation at work. All of these activities have the potential to push you out of your comfort zone because of the high stakes. By increasing the stakes, you are creating a reason to push your limits.
As you enter these uncharted waters outside of your comfort zone, your mind is forced to engage. There is no option but to be present as you are snapped out of the autopilot nature of day-to-day life – here lies another avenue into the flow state.
For example, you might be training for a marathon. The intensity you bring to the training sessions will far outstrip the energy you would bring if you were just jogging with a friend. By having the difficult goal in your life creates high stakes that urges you to commit, engage, and be forced in to the present – it is in this space that flow can be accessed.
This is one of many ways to tap into flow. For those with a competitive nature, try creating high stakes in the areas of your life that you are working on. Maybe it’s your fitness, maybe it’s your work, maybe it’s your sense of adventure. For those who dread the idea of doing something uncomfortable, remember it’s not about grand gestures. It is about slowly learning to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Just try one small thing each week that might push the boundaries ever so slightly. Before you know it, you’ll be addicted to the sense of life it gives you.
Flow is a place where external and internal elements align to create a state of peak performance. Purely by definition it is impossible to always be in flow.
For some, flow is an elusive state of being that they may have experienced once in their lifetime. It all happened so fast, was so blissful and almost indescribable in nature. And somehow it has been impossible to get back into. Often in these cases, it was pure luck that the necessary ingredients were available to create a flow state in that person. So in some ways you could argue that on a population level, flow is a statistically rare event. But it’s not to say that we can’t be in flow more often using the concepts applied through The Flow Centre.
Everyone goes through cycles of expansion and contraction. Taking a close look at your day I’m sure you can pinpoint the times you are the most alert, most active, and most productive. You could also pinpoint the times you feel more relaxed and calm. The same cycles appear on a weekly level where you might feel different on a Monday compared to a Friday. Now consider the seasonal changes in your state of mind. Winter is different from summer. These are all part and parcel of the normal ebbs and flows of life. Hence it’s not a reality to expect flow all the time, but we can definitely increase our chances by creating the most optimal platform during those times our mind naturally expands.
Using concepts from The Flow Centre it is possible to do two things. First is to increase the number of opportunities to access flow by creating the conditions to cultivate it. The second is to maximise the number of times we enter flow by seizing these opportunities when they present themselves.
So do we always want to be in flow?
As a flow seeker and a person who also seeks balance in life, for me personally the answer is no. For me, flow is an amazing state of being that is a very important component to a fulfilling life. It is these peak experience, which give life purpose and meaning. But at the same time I value and understand the importance of down time.
We all need time to recharge, centre, and collect our energy. In fact this is a huge component to creating the foundations of flow. If our minds and bodies are constantly drained of energy, how could we expect to enter peak performance states? Part of the balance is to nurture important parts of life including relationships, physical health, emotional health, career and personal goals. This takes down time. It’s ok to cycle through periods of contraction. Often it’s important to let nature take its course and allow the process to happen. Consider these times as the foundations for your next expansion, which you can use as a launching pad to get more flow down the line.
In summary, getting caught up and anxious that we might not be feeling 100% all the time is counter productive. Expand, contract, and join us at The Flow Centre to get more flow in your life.
Tapping into flow is addictive. Thousands of people around the world are hunting it down day-after-day without even understanding what they are searching for. This is part of the reason The Flow Centre exists: to explore the different ways people tap into flow and use this to generate the body of knowledge to allow anyone anywhere to access its power. This article is about extreme exercise and how this can be an entry point into flow.
Not everyone has accessed flow through exercise before. It’s definitely not easy and takes both physical and mental training to achieve. Flow in athletics is commonly referred to as ‘the zone’ or ‘peak performance’. For events such as marathons, bike races, triathalons and Ironmans, flow is accessed through the extreme stresses put on the body. If you have taken The Flow Centre course you will understand that part of the break down of our mental states is when we engage in fight, flight or freeze responses during pressured scenarios; as opposed to adopting flow. These pressured scenarios and responses we choose to adopt are as applicable in the extreme exercise realm as any.
There are a number of mental hurdles that occur as you go through progressively more intense phases of exercise. I’ve experienced this myself and have occasionally accessed flow states. The times that I have were absolute bliss, which is part of the reason I am addicted to, and passionate about bringing intensity to sport. Lets go through the barriers that exist before you even get close to achieving flow or ‘the zone’ though exercise.
A huge part of being healthy and active is physical fitness. You hear it every day and know it well. But flow is the next level reason for why you should get fit. Without a baseline level of fitness it will be impossible to traverse beyond the first barrier of exercise and flow. The first barrier is the initial physical discomfort of training. As you train, your brain is getting massive amounts of input. It is continuously processing our experiences in order to make the next decision. Breathing right, moving right, fatigue, muscle soreness are all part of the package of neural input your brain is processing. If it’s new to you, the initial physical discomfort will dominate your mind. All you will be able to think is ‘when is this going to be over’, ‘how much more do I have to do’, or ‘I want to stop’. This is all a normal part of getting into shape. This first barrier is unfortunately where 80% of the population stops. We are evolutionarily wired to take the path of least resistance so it’s only natural to expect that most people stop here. Hence the constant on and off phases of exercise, diets and fads that people go through.
For those who are lucky enough to persist and get past this phase and gain a baseline level of fitness, a multiple or further physical barriers will present themselves. These barriers are where athletes might believe that they are not capable of anything beyond this point. However. these hurdles are actually more mental than physical. The human body is capable of amazing things but mental barriers must be pushed through to achieve them. Each time a new mental barrier presents itself you are faced with a few different options. Fight, flight, freeze or flow. Only through practice and persistence will you be able to choose flow more often; assuming we already have the necessary fitness required to complete the task.
After pushing through a number of these fatigue barriers and experiencing a number of ‘second winds’ your mind becomes more engaged in the moment. Higher centres for conceptualising and planning are no longer important so they are shut off. The priority becomes getting through the current circumstance or event so extreme presence and flow is accessed.
Tips to finding your flow in exercise:
Look for extreme pressure/intensity in your exercise as a way to plug you into flow
Actively choose flow over fight, flight and freeze. Do so using a simple exercises that plugs you into the moment. Focus on your breath.
Make sure your fitness is above adequate for the task
Look for flow through all your exercises
Know your body first, then push your limits. When the body says stop keep going. Do this gradually to avoid injury.
So there you have it. Find your flow through exercise. Push through the barriers and choose flow over flight, fight, or freeze responses though practice and perseverance.