January 8, 2024

Flow: the basics

Hazel Findlay

Flow state is the optimal performance experience: movement feels automatic, your inner monologue quietens, you're 100% focused on what you’re doing, and despite the challenge it feels like no effort. When you’re in flow, your ego falls by the wayside and your full attention is on the task.

Flow has been researched through different lenses – by sociologists, psychologists, even militaries and of course sports psychologists. So how can we tap into this powerful state of mind more often as climbers? This article explores the basics of this mental state, the science, and the benefits of finding flow on the rock.

The feeling of flow

Being in flow feels good. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, researcher and ‘Father of Flow’, described the feeling as:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away—time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

This feeling comes naturally when a challenge is perfectly balanced with the skill – you might not even notice you’re in flow until you pop out of flow, feeling elated and wondering how the time passed.

Some theories behind flow

The explicit/implicit system

Cameron Norsworthy, CEO of The Flow Centre and PhD in Flow, explains that when we are in flow, there is greater internal synchronicity, and this plays out in multiple areas in how the body and mind operate.

He explains how we have two systems: the implicit and explicit. Our implicit system is fast, unconscious, high-capacity and automatic. The explicit system is slow, deliberate, conscious, controlled and low-capacity. Ideally we want the complexity of movement in climbing to be directed by our implicit system because our explicit system is too low-capacity to guide complex movement. There are theories suggesting that there's harmony between these two systems when we're in flow rather than our explicit system dominating. In climbing this is the difference between our ‘thinking mind’ directing our climbing with direction from internal monologue versus trusting our more intuitive implicit system.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic system

In flow we feel alert and ready for the challenge but also calm. This feeling is due to the optimal balance of two systems: the parasympathetic (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous systems (SNS). A charged SNS can send us into fight and flight mode, but when in flow, the PNS modulates it, which can help calm the mind enough to perform at our best.

The Synchronisation of Flow Theory explains how our attentional networks become highly activated when in flow, helping us to pick out information to focus on. This links to our reward network that releases dopamine to help keep our experience going.

Pathway to flow in climbing

So how do we improve our access to flow? There is no clear ‘recipe for flow’, but there are clear conditions that help us access it, as Sue Jackson tells us in our recent podcast with her, “flow doesn’t have to be random”.

The most important condition for flow is to have our skill level match the challenge's demands. You’ll notice this in climbing: you feel in flow and feel at your best when the route or boulder problem matches your physical, technical, and psychological capacities.

Flow Channel Graphic

You can see in the graph above that when we’re over-challenged we feel frustrated or even anxious and when we’re under-challenged we feel bored. The key to finding flow is getting that challenge just right. Many people ignore the psychological challenge in climbing and as a result pick challenges that are within their physical capabilities, but still too difficult. Fear of falling and fear of failure often push the challenge level too high so that climbers feel anxious or distracted on climbs that are physically within their ability and don’t access flow as a result.

For example, a 7a on top-rope might be a great challenge level for you, but on lead, or with spaced bolts, it’s too challenging because the psychological challenge level is too high. If this is ringing bells for you we suggest working on your psychological resilience and bringing it up to level with your physical and technical abilities.

Motivation matters

Motivation also plays a big role in accessing flow. Being driven mostly by extrinsic motivations such as results, social validation or fear of failure can be distracting, and therefore a barrier to flow because our motivation comes from outside the task rather than within it. Discovering our intrinsic motivations helps us stay focused, positive and present with the task at hand.

We can access our intrinsic motivations by returning to why we climb. Do you climb to be the best, to have ticked a particular grade or do you do it for the experiences you have on the rock or the wall? When we’re extrinsically motivated, we can feel more negative because many extrinsic motivators are fear-based: for example, we’re scared of not meeting our own or others’ expectations.

Flow happens in the moment, and although flow is a different state to mindfulness, mindfulness tools such as connecting to our breath or the feel of the rock can help us become present which can then serve as a gateway to flow. You can strengthen these tools by practising mindfulness and meditation off the rock to train the mind to be less distracted, more self-aware, and more present in the moment.

Benefits of flow in climbing  

Being in flow is synonymous with optimal performance, so obviously it’s beneficial for us to access this state if we want to be at our best. Flow also feels good; people who find flow regularly are much more likely to be happy and have better well-being compared to those that don’t.

Many people will describe flow experiences when describing their best experiences in climbing. It’s also common for people to describe flow when they talk about working efficiently, getting into ‘the zone’ with their craft, playing an instrument well, the moments when ‘it all comes together’ and it happens automatically. When have you experienced flow? It’s worth reflecting on how often you find flow and the role it might have in your climbing, your work and your broader life.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy the space dedicated to performance and flow in the Strong Mind Community, our discussions in the Community with flow expert Sue Jackson or our podcast with Sue.

Further reading:

Flow In Sport - Sue Jackson

DISCLAIMER: Strong Mind content may not be appropriate for someone suffering from a mental health disorder. If you are unsure whether you should try some of the techniques or advice referred to on this site or in this text, please consult your doctor or therapist first.

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