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The Flow State in Adventure Sports: What Is It and How to Tap into It More Often

by Octavia Drughi

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Think back and try to identify those brief moments of absolute commitment and determination, when you were fully engaged while surrendering to intuition, in complete harmony with your surroundings, powered by an unrecognizable force coming from deep within you.  

That’s what I feel when I am truly able to focus on a difficult climb or a wave. Time slows down. Fear dissipates. There’s no more pain. My mind is free of any shackles, my body is light. I lose myself and achieve mastery of performance. Athletes experience this in the heat of the game. They call it ‘being in the zone’. Buddhists call it mindfulness.

Adventure sports are taking the world by storm, all thanks to their exponential progress. Athletes are taking their sports to new, heightened levels, constantly pushing the boundaries and breaking records. What is the recipe behind their success? Being in the flow.

You don’t have to be a surfer or a rock climber to experience the flow. For writers, the words seem to pour out as they are caught up in the story. For painters, the hand simply follows the brush as it moves by itself. Every time we are faced with a new and demanding challenge, we must switch to warrior mode, otherwise known as the zone. That’s easier said than done. I mean, what do you do when you don’t know where the switch is? I’ve been searching for mine for years now, and still haven’t found it.

No, these are not just the musings of a climber and surfer. If you want to find out more about the flow state and how to enter the zone more often in order to maximize your performance and reach your full potential, read on!


What is the flow state?


Many people have adopted the terms ‘achieving flow’ or ‘being in the zone,’ often using them when referring to work and productivity. But the flow state is about much more than that. It is about being one with your surroundings. Being one with nature, with the wave you are surfing, the mountain you are climbing, the powdery snow you are skiing, the music you are listening to, the story you are writing, or any challenging task you must complete.

When you’re in the zone, you are entirely absorbed in an activity. The chatter in your mind stops. Everything is quiet and the goal is clear. Worries, fears, inhibitions, all melt away. Hunger, pain, fatigue, all disappear. You zone out reality, your attention is undivided, and you experience a state of heightened awareness.


Steven Kotler, director of research for the Flow Research Collective and author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, says “Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, when you feel and perform your best. It’s the moment of total absorption. Time speeds up or slows down like a freeze-frame effect. Mental and physical ability go through roof, and the brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply.”

Kotler adds “It’s ubiquitous. Anybody anywhere can apply the triggers for any task. And the amount of time someone spends in flow has a massive and powerful correlation to life satisfaction.”

The flow state is like a rush. It is addictive, a natural high that you want to experience over and over again.


Understanding the flow state


Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the leading authority on positive psychology and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, coined the term ‘flow’. In the 1960s, he wanted to find out what makes people happy. Unsurprisingly, he discovered that money plays no role in our happiness, nor do personal possessions. Instead, people are at their happiest when in the flow.

Csíkszentmihályi discovered that optimum performance arises when a person is fully engaged in an activity. While in flow, people are at their most productive, creative, and happiest. In an interview for Wired Magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.”


What happens in the flow state?


When we are ‘in the flow,’ the chemical and electrical patterns in our brain change. Kotler discovered that during flow, stress-triggering hormones are flushed out of the body, while potent neurochemicals flood the autoimmune and nervous systems – norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. These chemicals are the biggest rewards that the brain can produce, and the flow state is one of the very few occasions when the brain can produce all five simultaneously.

Kotler also noticed that flow slows down the activity of the prefrontal cortex. This eliminates the sense of time, fear, and other complex cognitive processes. Nothing holds us back anymore. We act effortlessly, spontaneously, intuitively. Time is distorted, our senses heightened, attention is laser-focused, and the ego vanishes. The brain takes in more information per second and processes it more quickly and deeply. The inhibition of the prefrontal cortex allows various areas of the brain to communicate more freely, which also accelerates the creative process.

Research shows that we are 500% more productive in flow. Furthermore, people report being six to eight times more creative in flow. The state is believed to be behind our most notable achievements. Not just in sports, but also behind major breakthroughs in arts, science, and even business. It is only when we enter the zone that we can unleash our full potential.


How do we tap into the flow state?


Most of us experience flow, or being in the zone, for a fleeting moment. It is an elusive state, it comes and goes, apparently beyond our control. What if we could tap into that state more often? Imagine what we could do…

Through his studies, Csíkszentmihályi identified eight characteristics of flow:


1. Complete focus on the task

First and foremost, you cannot enter the zone when you have distractions. In our hectic modern-day lives, we are all so used to multi-tasking – we are usually involved in several simultaneous actions. To achieve flow, it is critical to focus on one task and one task alone. Only this way can you lose yourself in the task. Your whole being will be immersed in the activity and you’ll reach a higher level of clarity.


2. Clarity of goals and immediate feedback

Whatever you do, be it surfing, climbing, riding your bike, running a marathon, singing, or writing, you must have a specific goal and focus on it. You must know exactly what you have to do in order to succeed. You also need immediate feedback to measure the impact of your actions. Without feedback, you don’t know whether what you are doing is good. You need to act, observe the result, and react to it.


3. Balance between skills and challenge

When a challenge is bigger than one’s skill level, anxiety and stress creep in. When the skill level surpasses the challenge, one may become bored and distracted. To enter the zone, you need to find a balance between your skill levels and the challenge in front of you.


4. Control over your actions

You don’t need to be in complete control, that would mean that your skills exceed the challenge. But you need to feel that you have enough control over a challenging situation that is right at the limit of your capabilities. You know you can do it, but you have to give it your all. There’s no room for mistakes.


5. Effortlessness and ease

When in flow, you experience complete harmony. You don’t think about your next move. It comes by itself. You connect all the dots with little effort. Everything just falls into place.


6. Distorted perception of time

Time adapts to your experience. For some, it speeds up while for others, it slows down.


7. Action and consciousness melt together

Flow demands total involvement. Your ego steps back, making way for unrestricted movements and thoughts. The ‘ego’ dissolves. Together with it, so do all self-doubts. This way, you are able to take risks that have before seemed unimaginable.


8. The task is intrinsically rewarding

The task has to be completed with intrinsic motivation – for a person’s own sake, and not as a means to an end.


Different people experience the flow state differently. You can find flow while involved in a challenging sport, such as surfing, climbing, skiing, running, rafting, tennis, soccer, or dancing. It can occur while immersed in a creative activity, such as writing, painting, or composing music. You can achieve flow in every aspect of your life.

The rise of adventure sports has taken research on being in the zone even further. This is because adventure sports athletes can tap into the flow state easier – they are constantly taking risks and plunging into the unknown.

Risk is the most powerful trigger of flow. It demands immediate focus, turning on the body’s survival and self-defense mechanisms.

According to Kotler, novelty, unpredictability, and complexity will get you closer to the zone. “In surfing, no two waves are same,” he adds. And no two climbs are alike, I may add.


Final thoughts


Finding the switch button for the flow state is difficult if not even seemingly impossible. But you can train yourself to enter the zone by constantly challenging yourself to try something new, pushing your limits even further, slowing your mind just a bit, and pushing your ego aside.

We are all artists at heart and can reach the flow state whenever we marvel at a beautiful painting or a stunning sunset, when we listen to the music we like, when we’re involved in a constructive and meaningful conversation with friends, even when we’re making love. So go ahead, switch off and find your flow!


There’s probably no better way to train your mind to enter the zone than adventure sports. Challenge yourself to take up surfing and see for yourself how you can find true happiness in a wave.

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