I make a cafetière of coffee… and then, still half asleep, I pour cold water from a not-yet-boiled kettle on the coffee grounds. What a numpty… Let’s try that again.
The air outside feels cold, in spite of the blue sky & sun. My body tired from a full-on day on the water the previous day, I struggle with the motivation to get changed. The others are ready to go; it’s ok, I’ll be down shortly, I say.
I’m not really feeling it today, despite having great conditions and an awesome group of friends around me. I pushed myself hard yesterday, and both mentally and physically my reactions feel slow. No matter, I make myself get stuck in, and an early roll assures me it will be ok…
I’ve gone through a phase of lacking faith in my roll recently: with no other reason than a swim or two while I’ve been pushing myself in challenging environments. The human brain is a complex thing, and no matter how much I assure myself that ‘it’s ok, my roll works’, I couldn’t quite believe it hadn’t deserted me. Perhaps that self-imposed pressure is all the greater when the ability to roll ‘in anger’, so to speak, is part of your job description.
I’m at the Falls of Lora, a large volume tidal rapid on the west coast of Scotland. We’re on sizeable tides, the sun is shining and I’m with a group of friends I trust, who are not only superb boaters, but also super-supportive and great company. Feeling fresh yesterday, we all pushed ourselves to our respective limits; with successes-aplenty all round, having challenged one another to surf particular waves or make specific lines, we ended the day feeling shattered but satisfied. This morning, however, is different for me: I feel mentally & physically drained, and lacking in the energy to really commit to the move I'm aiming at.
I crack on… watching the others is inspiring, and I reflect on how fortunate I am to be here, in these conditions, with these people. I’m achieving moderate success, almost managing to surf the wave I’m aiming for, but something is missing from my usual power … I drop off the back, and hit the boils below… in a split second I’m upside down, and I wait for that magic moment when my hands hit air and I can instinctively roll up. It seems to take an age. The moment comes, and I try to roll, but there’s nothing there, no surface tension. I’m upside down again, and there’s no air to get my hands into. I can feel my bum being sucked out of my seat, and my paddle sucked out of my hands. I bail out after what feels like an age. I’m out of breath, out of my boat, and my shoe is being sucked off my foot. Not the most dignified of positions to find myself in!
After collecting myself, boat, paddle, shoe and composure, my pal turns up and offers me a rescue. Thanks Jonny! I’m grateful for his comforting presence, his smile and his encouraging words… ‘Come on, one more shot to get back on the horse’, he tells me. Wise words indeed.
I pull myself together and play some more, and as our energy is fading, Tony turns up, to tell us he caught it all on camera. After tea & cake, stories and photos are exchanged and on the drive home I’m able to begin to properly process the day's learning.
A day later, and I’m at home. A rest day, thankfully, as I’m feeling pretty fatigued. Time to process the ‘playtime’ and learning of the last two days, and to reflect.
In her article 'Learning in the Ugly Zone', Marianne Davies discusses the zone, just beyond our current ability, where we can try, fail, try, fail, learn, and eventually succeed, and so develop our skills through play, exploration and eventual understanding. Ultimately, if we never step outside of the bounds of our comfort zone, we never have the opportunity to problem-solve our way to the next level. Does that make that zone an easy place to play? It's a rewarding place, and mostly a fun place, but that doesn't always make it easy.
Intellectually I know we’re all between swims, but it doesn’t stop me questioning my skill level, doubting myself. I think there is often a stigma associated with failing, with swimming, with getting things wrong: in society as a whole, not just in paddlesports. But if we don't get it wrong, we never learn, right? Right. So how good do you have to be before you stop failing, stop swimming, stop falling, stop having to pick yourself up and try again? For me personally, if that ever happens it means I've stopped visiting the Ugly Zone... I've stopped trying.
My personal take-away? Every day’s a school day: if you’re learning, and pushing yourself, you will fail, and in paddling occasionally that results in a swim. Does that mean I'm not good enough? No, it doesn't. Does it mean I can still get better? Always.
With thanks to Tony Hammock of SeaFreedom Kayak for the use of his excellent photos, and Jonny, George, Sam, Laura & Jenny for their excellent company on the water.
Flow? What’s Flow? We do it for fun, surely? Whether you’re a competitive athlete or a weekend warrior, whether you paddle every day or once a year, paddlesports, by their very nature, must be fun to motivate us to take part in them. But what does that mean? What is it that makes it fun?
For me, it goes something like this...
The wave passes under my boat like molten glass, with no sound, no fury, just pure unadulterated beauty. Time stands still. My mind is empty of anything other than here and now. There is nothing, just me, my boat and this wave, working in harmony, as if they’re connected somehow. I turn my head, and in that moment my boat does as I ask, with no effort. It’s a feeling of pure ecstasy, ultimate control...
It can last mere seconds, or hours, but in those moments I have no worries, no fears, no space in my brain for anything other than the moment I am in. It feels like floating, or like effortless gliding, as though everything I’ve ever worked for has come together in that moment.
For me, that is the purest definition of fun. Does it happen every time I paddle? No, it most certainly doesn’t. Does it happen in other areas of my life? Yes, it certainly does!
So what is ‘flow’?
Psychologist Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, building on the studies of Abraham Maslow before him, researched the concept of flow following his own profound experiences in a second world war Italian prison camp. He had discovered that by learning to play chess, becoming obsessed with the game, nothing else could enter his thoughts. He was completely immersed: his dire situation forgotten, the presence of prison guards irrelevant. He was experiencing flow.
Csikszentmihalyi has become synonymous with the concept of flow, but the idea has been around for millennia. Whether it’s called ‘Zen’, ‘Rapture’, ‘The Zone’ or any other name, it is a phenomena that humans have sought and used throughout history. For good reason, too. It’s an elusive mistress, a drug that we can’t pin down. But a drug it most certainly is: flow releases a potent mixture of hormones including dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins, a group of neurotransmitters which between them make us feel good, respond to challenge or stress, and have a morphine-like effect. No wonder the result is such a high.
I remember being in a maths class at school, and being given a set of equations to solve. But instead of finding them difficult, I thrived on the problem: losing myself in the challenge, so that time disappeared. You might think a maths class a peculiar environment for this to happen, but flow is all around us; at work, in conversation… Ever lost a whole evening deep in conversation with a friend? That’s flow in action.
Not long after I started paddling, I remember watching Justine Curgenven’s film ‘This is the Sea 3’. It featured a few minutes filmed in Scottish Tide Races, and showed a group of paddlers at the Falls of Lora. Towards the end of the piece, a paddler crosses the powerful eddyline with power and grace, and surfs the glassy green wave with effortless precision… It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen: a paddler deep in the zone, absolutely immersed in the moment and totally in control, the challenge perfectly matched to the skill they’d worked so hard to achieve. Watching that moment remains with me to this day as a source of inspiration.
So how can we access Flow? If it feels so good, is it possible to make it happen more often? Well, yes it is. Accessing flow takes a very particular set of conditions. But the good news is that the more you paddle, the better you get, and the more likely you are to be able to find this elusive state – but only if you challenge yourself. I’ve paraphrased the conditions a little to make them relevant for paddlesports:
Is it possible for us, as friends, coaches or leaders, to help others achieve the state? Well, yes it is. And even better, it’s beneficial for learning, too. Learning is long-lasting when it’s achieved through feel – and being in flow is all about just that.
So how can you influence these factors, for yourself or others?
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and challenge yourself; match the challenge to your ability, and let the present melt away. If you are a coach or a leader, experiment with providing an environment where your learners can concentrate fully on the task in had, with no distractions or interruptions. For a coach this is the challenging part: that means silence.
This article is based on literature, but also on my own ponderings and experiences, on my own learning, paddling and coaching. Get out there and try it for yourself- and then, when our paths cross, tell me what you think… So what are you waiting for? Head out and Find Flow.
Article first published in the Autumn 2019 issue of Scottish Paddler, the Scottish Canoe Association magazine.
Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer based in the Scottish Highlands. I love paddling, running, lifting weights, cycling, and moving well- and I love helping other people to do the same. I have to work really hard to build and maintain my skills on the water and my fitness, and I hope that helps me to understand how hard my clients also have to work!