In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time.
Csikszentmihalyi (often referred to as the modern day discoverer of Flow) has this to say about people who have high levels of achievement and fulfillment: “…what kept them motivated was the quality of the experience they felt when they were involved with the activity. The feeling didn’t come when they were relaxing, when they were taking drugs or alcohol, or when they were consuming the expensive privileges of wealth. Rather it often involved painful, risky, difficult activities that stretched the person’s capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery”
FLOW was a term his subjects kept using. When everything was going right, the work was effortless, fluid and automatic – flowy. He defined the state as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.”
A couple of other significant items…in flow you do not judge yourself and you stay very present – engaged in the immediate task in front of you. In swimming, while you are aware of your goal, you are focused on the doing, not the end result. Flow is totally process oriented versus the usual result orientation our sport is famous for…did you get your cut, make the team, add or subtract time? You hear that constantly on the pool deck. Coaches are famous for saying a swim is a good one if it is fast…that only adds to the prejudice on results vs process.
Now to Alex Honnold…many of you have heard about him…his book “Alone on the Wall” is mesmerizing. His movie “Free Solo” will rivet you to the screen – his sub 4 hour free solo ascent of 3000’ El Capital in Yosemite Valley – yup, 3000’ of granite slab, no rope, just hands and feet.
His comments are right in line with Csikszentmihalyi’s findings. “There’s all the little things you have to think about, like left-right, which sequence you are doing, but there’s nothing I’m really thinking about – I’m just doing it. I love the simplicity of soloing. You never climb better when you are soloing. Doubt is the biggest danger in soloing. As soon as you hesitate you’re screwed.”…”Basically when I’m soloing, normally I have like a mental armor. You could say I’m in the zone. Something that’s protecting my head from thinking too much.”
And this about another part of climbing…”Had I stopped to think about it, I might have been nervous, or anxious that I was on the least secure part of the route. But that’s why I didn’t stop – I’d done all my thinking over the last six weeks as I worked on the route. I was fully prepared and knew exactly what to do. This wasn’t the time for apprehension. It was the time for execution. I’ve always felt slabs require a certain amount of momentum, for lack of a better word. Soloing slabs is similar to skiing or mountain biking. Once you get started, you just have to see it through to the end. You can’t stop and think about your position. Any hesitation could lead to disaster.”
In Alex’s world a mistake leads directly to death. In swimming a mistake leads to a slower time, a missed cut. In our sport it is critical to stay in the moment and be non-judgmental. Doubt has the same effect for swimmers as Alex…in his words, “you’re screwed”.
Have fun; go for it…train your buns off then “free solo” your event!