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.