Flow Interview – Tom Carroll – Legend & World Champion Surfer
This year 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: 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 rode 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 will 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 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 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 that’s because of the nature of surfing. 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, the board and how I was moving on the wave. 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, what were the highest points?
Tom: Yeah, yeah. 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 second really clear instance of flow was in competition, a moment at the Pipe Masters in 1991, I had two days 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 felt the flow [laughs].
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 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 needing to think about it.
It was all second nature, it was all sixth sense, and most definitely for me that day I was at the top of my game. So, yeah. They were two really clear examples, but there probably has been hundreds of moments where I’ve 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!
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 hips, and really 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 is grounding. One particular exercise I used to do whilst competing was a chant, that where I used to say the four Ps which was power, precision, performance, perfect.
Cameron: A mantra.
Tom: A mantra yeah! Whilst I was paddling, each paddle I’d say “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 always draws me to the present. I don’t have time because mother nature ain’t 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 is sorted out for me once I’m standing up on the wave, as long as I’m out of the way. I’d learnt that working with a mantra helped a lot in bringing myself to the moment and keeping myself focused and not attending to distractions like 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 would say that I do look for it for competitive excellence, but 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, 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, it’s 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- the right now. We seek to pay attention and 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, 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 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. Thanks to you also for reading this post, we hope you enjoyed it!