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Hazel Findlay’s Mental Training Series: Part 2—Demystifying Flow

Friday, January 27, 2017
Black Diamond Global Athlete Hazel Findlay is on a quest to harness the elusive, elevated performance-inducing feeling we call “flow.” Her search has led her to Cameron Norsworthy—a straight-up guru in the art of finding flow. In this second installment of her mental training series, Findlay interviews Norsworthy to get the low down on what flow is and how we can use it to improve our climbing.


Art: Tessa Lyons

One of my residing memories of flow was in Yosemite in 2012. My friend James “Caff” McHaffie and I were at the base of El Capitan at 2 a.m. about to embark on the “MuirBlast”—a 12-pitch intro into the “PreMuir” free variation of the Muir Wall. I was nervous and doubtful. The last few weeks I’d been climbing really anxiously and rigidly. This was before I really started to think about mental training and I had no explanation as to why I felt this way. I just accepted it as an unfortunate truth. I turned to Caff, headlamp shining in his face (obviously perfectly confident and self-assured).

“I’ve lost my flow, Caff.”

“There’s no such thing as flow, H,” he replied in a disparaging Cumbrian accent.

Ironically, it was this same day that I had one of my most intense flow moments. The climbing on the route was that kind of delicate granite climbing that really captivates you. Weirdly, the frogs were hanging out next to the cracks, and dodging them in the dark added an interesting challenge. Climbing by headlamp seemed not to annoy me at all. In fact, it seemed to close the rest of the world down, leaving just the climbing.

Caff had already done the pitches and he gave me the sharp end for the crux: a short but fiercely technical 5.13b traverse pitch. The pitch had barely any foot holds or hand holds. You had to press up into the roof with your hands and smear with your feet. I flashed the pitch much to Caff’s amazement (and annoyance). But if you’d ask me to repeat it? Who knows … maybe I could never repeat it. It was a peak performance for me. But more than that, I moved without thinking. I did it subconsciously. Things happened automatically. Time seemed to slow, or was it sped up? It felt easy and nails hard in equal measures. It wasn’t until later that I would read, “Flow in Sport” and match Sue Jackson’s definition of flow to experiences like this one.


What Is Flow?

I think too much. About everything. And thinking too much about climbing has led me down the road of enquiry into mental training for climbers. This road led me to Cameron Norsworthy—Expert in Flow. We’ve had a number of Skype chats with the purpose of coaching me in the art of harnessing flow. When we eventually met in person late this summer, he came bouldering with me and a few friends. We had a hard time explaining to my friends how we knew each other and what his job was.

“Wait, you make money by training people to find flow? What is flow again?”

Cameron is working toward a PhD in flow, and he’s coached flow in about 20 different sports, from nine-year-old kids to world champions and everything in between. The more high-profile athletes have been predominantly in the adventure-sports space. The most interesting aspect of his coaching is that finding flow experiences becomes gold. It becomes the highest prize, a greater prize than sending your route or winning a competition.

But “I want to send” and “I want to win,” you ask? As Cameron explains below, in choosing flow you win twice, not only do you get to experience flow (which is great), but you are also more likely to achieve your (now) secondary performance-based goal of sending or winning. And moreover, you’ll have more fun doing it.


Image: Ben Moon

In this article I interview Cameron, Mr. Flow himself, to find out more.

Q&A

HAZEL: Tell us about your history with flow. Where did it all start?

CAMERON:

I used to play tennis as a junior internationally. My first experiences of flow were on the court; those moments where I would hit a shot down the line and everything would slow down. I’d watch the ball kind of curl into the corner, right into that square inch in between the baseline and sideline, and I’d almost stand there a little bit stunned and surprised as if it was really me who had just hit that shot.

Later on, I unfortunately developed an elbow injury. I quit tennis and went backpacking searching for other things. While in Peru, I experienced someone else having a different flow moment. I was walking up a hill, a little bit tipsy with altitude sickness. Taking a gasp of air, I noticed a poor busker playing on the streets. I became totally absorbed in what he was doing. I was mesmerized by every note that sung from his harmonica. He played with such passion he could have been playing in the Royal Albert Hall or Sydney Opera House. The closer I looked, I realized that he was playing the harmonica with two stubs as arms; the creativity and the innovation that he was using to find his moment of flow was breathtaking for me at that time.

It was this moment that helped me realize that I didn’t need tennis to find flow. If this guy could find flow with a simple harmonica and no arms, then so could I. So I became fascinated. What is this space? What is this moment where we get so engaged that we end up losing ourselves completely and perform at our absolute best? I went on to study sport psychology, where it’s most commonly found, and it was while looking through a whole realm of performance psychology literature that I came across Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work in which he coined this term “flow.”

HAZEL: Now that you’ve gone on to study flow state academically, what is your preferred definition of flow?

CAMERON:

Flow is often misrepresented; it’s often given lots of different definitions by different people. My preferred definition of flow is:


“An optimal mental state of functioning in which our skill matches the challenge, action and awareness merge, and we become so engaged in the activity that we have a loss of self-consciousness and time gets distorted. Full stop.”




Image: Ben Moon

HAZEL: Beyond the academic definitions, can you explain it using examples we’re all familiar with?

CAMERON:

Flow is fairly common to most people in the sense that we’ve heard it by different names. Some people call it being “in the zone,” some people call it being in the “sweet spot.” Fighter pilots call it being “in the bubble,” musicians call it being “in the pocket,” and some people call it being unconscious. However, when I look at my experiences, the common descriptor for me is when I emerge from a state of doing and I’m suddenly surprised by what’s just happened. I come out of it and I’m like “wait, did that just happen?”

A very simple example that most people can relate to: someone throws some car keys across the room and you launch out your hand and catch them without even thinking about it, without even processing that that event has just occurred. It’s almost like an instinctual response. Then suddenly you’re surprised and like, “Wow, how did I just catch that?” I didn’t even think about doing it, it just happened.”

HAZEL: At what point did you realise that you could train for flow?

CAMERON:

It got born out of my dissatisfaction for life without it! When I realized it was actually these small magical moments of flow that I missed from playing tennis, not the travelling, trophies or the xyz, I started to focus on flow and I made it my intention to try and find it. All of a sudden it started appearing more and more in my life, in different areas; in business, in writing, in other sports I was doing such as surfing. As a result, I started using flow as a philosophy or a principle for performance coaching. I started to see that when our focus is on flow, not only do we experience more flow in our lives but typically our motivation increases and our anxiety decreases.


Image: Colette McInerney

HAZEL: Tell me a bit about the results of this coaching and more specifically your experience with climbers.

CAMERON:

I recently did a study with the University of Portsmouth on four elite rock climbers. We gave a very basic level of flow training, involving a level of education and then some primary psychological skills focused toward adopting flow as a number one priority. Flow scores increased by 28%, self-reflective performance scores increased by 34%, and objective performance scores increased by 62%. In general, when the athletes I work with adopt flow as their highest intention, I also see them enjoying their activity a lot more.

HAZEL: Having flow as a number one priority is the central premise to your coaching. Tell us more about this.

CAMERON:

Flow coaching differs from other performance coaching or other sports psychology in that finding flow overarches everything else within that specific activity. Flow becomes our highest order; superseding any performance goals. So in the case of climbing, when you start to climb your aim is not to climb to the top, it’s to find flow.

Most athletes are wired to focus on performance outcomes. However, when our mind suddenly goes “Okay, I’ve got something that I need to achieve now. I better not mess up. What happens if I don’t achieve it?” We immediately become distracted from the route in front of us. If I’ve got a particular time to beat or if I’ve got a particular project to complete, the first thing that’s introduced is fear. What happens with fear when it goes throughout our body? It becomes debilitating, it becomes a negative rather than a positive. Although a certain level of fear is good in order to amp our senses and draw us into the moment, when we pass this activation stage this fear seeps into our muscles and just when we want to relax we tighten; just when we want to commit we question. Moreover, for every moment that our mind and energy are focused towards that end point we are depleting ourselves of that energy and that attention to be 100% focused on the task at hand. If 30-50% of our mind is focused on getting to the top then only 50% of our energy, mind and body is focused on the next move, the next foot holds.

So, if we still want high performances but don’t want to induce the same fear and avoidance techniques that performance outcomes do, then Flow is an obvious alternative focus point. Why? Because it’s the state we’re in when we achieve our greatest performances. Time and time again, research is denoting that it’s focusing on the task and the process that leads to better performances rather than the outcome, the winning, or the ego-orientated focus points. And flow is at the summit of all our processes.


Image: Simon Carter

HAZEL: Other than adopting a flow mindset, what can we do at the crag before we climb to help us access flow?

CAMERON:

A good one is essentially a “warm-up” or priming yourself for flow. Firstly: recall a flow experience. Remember a time when you were climbing and maybe you moved better than you had done previously, maybe your mind went quiet and everything felt easy and went exactly how you wanted it to. Simply bring up that memory of when you were in that moment and just sit with that moment, sit with those feelings and build a picture of it. Recognize what it looks like, recognize what it feels like, and recognize if there are any sounds associated with it. Then build either a little personal postcard in front of you or build a symbol that helps represent that moment. Then when you next go climbing, bring that to the forefront of your attention, bring that symbol or that postcard or that previous flow experience back to the front of your memory.

What we’re doing there is essentially reverse engineering a flow state. We’re bringing back the same associations, emotions and neurological responses. We ignite the same thoughts and space that we had previously with a flow experience. Essentially, this helps us to prime our mind and body to then find flow within the next climb.

HAZEL: Thanks so much Cameron!

If you are still interested, please visit The Flow Centre and keep an eye out for the book Cameron is writing.

***

I’m roughly a year into my flow training and it’s certainly got me captivated. I’ve noticed that alongside my other mental training I am more focused and more psyched. It doesn’t matter how much we train our arms and fingers, if our attention is not on the next move it’s all gone to waste. That said, I have a lot of work to do in becoming a true flow-seeker. Twenty years of training in “getting to the chains” is hard to shake off. When I’m nearing the anchor on an 8a onsight, “finding flow” is not what I’m thinking about, but don’t worry Cameron, I’ll keep trying.

—Hazel Findlay


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