Archive for October, 2012

Sandy, Surfing, and Finding Flow

As Sandy rolled in yesterday afternoon, I was in the midst of rereading Steven Kotler’s West of Jesus.  In particular, I found myself two-thirds of the way through the text when Kotler starts to brood over if surfing has the greatest transcendent potential of all sports.  As he enjoys surfing and has spent significant amounts of time hanging out with surfers, on the surface it seems like he is biased in his claim.  He speaks with spiritual gurus, surf fanatics, neuroscientists, and considers Csikszentmihalyi’s flow.  The section is an entertaining read, but does not fully compel that surfing is the sport where transcendental experiences (a.k.a. the zone) happens the most.

After sitting back for a few moments and dwelling on the idea, I do think that one can connect the dots to see how surfing is well suited to creating a flow state.  In particular, the uncertaiImagenty of surfing sets the stage nicely.  At the core of flow theory is challenge.  Just about any activity that can be perceived as reasonably challenging can lead to flow.  Standing on a skinny piece of fiberglass in the ocean seems to fulfill this requirement.  Secondly, transcendental experiences in sport create a paradox of control.  The athlete feels in full control, but is making little conscious effort to control things.  I would like to take this one step further and suggest that when in flow, there is a high level of acceptance of the experience.  Acceptance is a powerful psychological skill that reduces the mental conflict created by adversity, allowing for physical skills to thrive.

Surfing cannot happen without acceptance.  Mother Nature simply has too much say in the matter.  A surfer must sit and wait for a set of waves to roll in.  Some days they won’t roll.  Some days they will rock.  The playing field of the surfer is in a constant state of flux and it only lasts a handful of seconds.  A surfer cannot shape the wave in which he rides, he can only try to shape the path he takes on it.  When all is said and done, the surfer is the playful passenger on what Mother Nature throws towards the coastline.

The surf forecast says the remnants of Sandy will throw clean, chest high waves at Nantasket Beach Friday morning.  It may be time to seek out some H20 driven enlightenment.

Don’t Knock a Balanced Lifestyle

In the hard driving world of competition, “balance” sometimes feels like a dirty word.  In reality, it might be one of the keys to high performance.  Do not discount the intensity that ought to be given when the ball is in play (a.k.a. deliberate practice behaviors), but also do not confuse it for lack of balance.  Balance minimizes unhealthy stress and maximizes physical resources.

In sport, this is made most clear when one considers athletic injury.  Injury, especially long-term injury can lead to an incredible sense of loss of control of one’s life… this sense of helplessness is reduced when outside of sport activities (school, charity work, etc) and family/friends hold a prominent place in the athletes life.  Injury is not a complete loss of self, but simply a missing piece that is likely to be recovered in time.  The other pieces provide escape, control, and fulfillment.  This is well highlighted in the recent research of Ruddock-Hudson, O’Halloran, and Murphy on Australian Football League professionals.  The pros are better pros when they are balanced.

For a more in depth discussion on this topic tune into The Sporting Life over the next few days.  Enjoy it all.

Captain of your own ship

You are the captain of your own ship; don’t let anyone else take the wheel.

~ Michael Josephson


Challenging words to live by, no doubt.  Captaining your own ship requires you to put yourself on the line and stay in control when the seas get rocky.  And in response to rough seas, well, many of us are content going below the deck and hoping somebody else takes over.


Our response to protect ourselves from hardship may have evolutionary rooting: as a species that’s programmed to survive, we must react accordingly to a perceived threat.  We self-preserve.  That’s what we’re designed to do. 


Humans, like animals, have been known to run, or hide, or fight (or spray) in response to perceived physical threats – the presence of the Moro, or startle, reflex at birth is an example of our survival instinct’s biological deep-rootedness – but also to perceived emotional threats.  The desire to escape threats in order to protect our self-esteem is a uniquely human motivation. A turtle hides inside its hardened shell only when it senses its life is in jeopardy, never to escape embarrassment or social awkwardness.  We hide (or run, or spray, or give up control of our ship) for both.


Oftentimes, to protect our self-esteem, we’ll attribute our successes to personal factors but attribute our failures to situational factors.  Consider the following dialogues; perhaps you’ve some familiarity with your players or children, or as an athlete yourself, in assigning these reasons for each performance.


After a perceived success:

 I did all the things I was supposed to.  I worked hard the whole time, I stayed focused, I felt really confident, and I put up some great shots.


After a perceived failure:

The refs were making terrible calls!  And did you hear the other bench?  They were so annoying!  My mom shouting from the stands didn’t help.  And my stupid coach was calling the worst plays!  Why won’t my teammates give me better passes?!


After a strong test grade:

Because I’m smart!  Plus I put in a lot of studying.


After a weak test grade:

Mr. Johnson does NOT know how to teach!  He’s so old, he should’ve retired years ago.  And the test questions were so unfair…we didn’t learn any of that during class!



These well-intentioned individuals are demonstrating an optimistic attributional style, a characteristic many in the social psychology and wellness industries view as a requirement for happiness and stress-free living.  Those who adopt such a style of thinking will view positive events as internal (good things happen because of me), stable (good things will keep happening to me), and global (good things happen in every part of my life), whereas negative events are viewed as external (bad things are not my fault), unstable (this bad thing was a fluke), and specific (bad things won’t happen in other parts of my life).


Optimism, to a degree, is helpful.  It may promote hope and lead to increased persistence.  And pessimism may breed helplessness and passivity. 


But optimism, particularly unrealistic and inflexible optimism, may also lead to relaxation and abandonment of effort.  And pessimism may result in investing more effort and energy into an activity: research suggests that students who give pessimistic explanations to their poor exam performance tend to make more plans than their optimistic counterparts to study for the next exam.


Rigid optimism is dreadfully self-serving and self-protecting.  No blow to the self-esteem is taken when failure is attributed to something else, rather than me.  “Not my fault” means that there’s no perceived threat, and my coveted self-esteem doesn’t take a hit.  


But what if Mr. Johnston actually taught the material properly?  Or the refs made all the right calls?  Or your teammates, in fact, were giving inch-perfect passes throughout the game?  Our desire to protect ourselves may cause us to blame others and make excuses, thereby losing control of our ship.  As a result, we neither learn nor self-improve.


What would captaining your own ship look like?  To start, it’s studying for every test with the purpose of mastering the information.  It’s setting your own alarm for an early morning practice and not relying on your teammate to set his.  It’s learning the mental skills so that when refs and opponents and parents do get in the way, you’re in a position to deal with it.  It’s acknowledging responsibility when responsibility ought to be acknowledged.  This is a remarkably mature and developed brain function that requires courage, and so not everyone is willing to do this.


Keep your hands on the wheel, and don’t let go.  Ahoy.

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