Flow, climbing, and optimal human performance

Imagine it’s last day of your climbing trip. You’ve managed a few good sends, but there’s still one unclimbed project remaining. You’re trying your best, but you can’t put the moves together. You should have sent in your previous session. The frustration builds up, and a sense of disappointment creeps in despite your best intentions not to be childish.

The boulder is some ten moves long and you’ve fallen off every single one, even the easy finish. The crux is still low percentage, and even in isolation you stick it only once in two, three goes.

The first attempt of the session was the best, and since then things have been rapidly going downhill. And now it’s time to go – you have to wrap up your pads and leave the problem unclimbed. If you’re anything like me (overly emotional and investing way too much in random pieces of rock), there might even be a few tears swelling up.

“Just one last go!” you declare with a sense of panic, seeing your friends’ packed bags and knowing that in a moment, in just five minutes, the sun will go down and the trip will be over.

So you pull on, but you’re completely wasted after nearly four hours of failing. Your fingers are opening, your bicep can’t sustain a lock off. You fall off the first move. For fuck’s sake!

But you go again. No resting. This time your fingers explode off the second hold, a nasty, greasy crimp. You let out a shriek. Your friends’ faces may look concerned, but the outbreak of anger and sudden grief blinds you, as if this piece of rock was the most important thing in your life. And so you pull on again, for the third time in the same minute. A ridiculous idea that would never even cross your mind. But now your mind is not functioning in a normal way.

You fall off the crux. And you pull on for the fourth time. Horrible grunts come from behind your gritted teeth. You hear them perfectly well, as if they were not your own, but they bring no emotion. Your left hand crimp suddenly pings off the crux hold, and your right bicep opens, letting your arm straighten in the most strenuous position on the problem. You’ve fallen here a countless times; a millimeter shy of perfection and these moves are impossible.

But not this time. This time you make your right arm bend again. It’s like a mechanical, pneumatic instrument that can be operated with a remote control. Your core tightens and you bring your hips closer to the rock, exactly where they need to be to allow your left hand to return to the crux crimp. You are very aware of the exact positions of your two friends – you know where they’re standing, and you hear them breathe. You know one of them is right next to you, ready to catch your fall.

You know you’re not about to fall.

You make it to the top, and you have no idea what the hell just happened.

That’s how I climbed one of the two (grade-wise) hardest boulder problems on my tick list – ‘Chaman’ in Fontainebleau. What I experienced during the send is a scientifically documented state called the flow.

struggles on ‘Chaman’ (7C) | photo by Dylan Asena

It took me seven months to finally write this post, and I hadn’t really known what I wanted to write until Mina Leslie-Wujastyk shared on social media a link to a short lecture by Steven Kotler which presented some of the points from his book, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” (which I just downloaded to my Kindle).

It is believed that flow state is behind not only most major athletic achievements, but also scientific breakthroughs, progress in the arts, and even in business. Interestingly, it is the rise of adventure sports that has pushed our knowledge of flow forward, giving researchers more labrats than ever before: snowboarders, climbers, and surfers all regularly find themselves “in the zone”. Their brains deactivate the prefrontal cortex responsible for the perception of time, will, morality and other complex cognitive processes. With the cortex shut off, the sense of self dissolves, leaving no space for self-doubt – or any doubt. In this state, extreme athletes, or anybody else experiencing it, are able to take risks otherwise unimaginable, and pull off seemingly impossible feats.

The term “flow” was first coined by a Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes it as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. From my understanding, his thinking is more along the lines of everyday life, rather than performance in sports, but I have not yet read Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).

Although Csikszentmihaly was the first to use the term “flow” in the context of optimal human performance, the state itself was recognised for centuries (millennia?) before him. A book I can recommend is Bone Games by Rob Schultheis (the author became popular in 2008 with Hunting Bin Laden). Written in 1984, Bone Games is true to the era and explores flow from a more mystical perspective. Schultheis starts off with his own near-death experience in the mountains, and tells the story of how optimal performance saved his life. He then goes on to explore the history and mechanisms behind flow. Although he might not get any concrete answers, it’s definitely a worthwhile read, tracing the shamanic origins of trance-like states that push our performance through the roof.  

In my case, ‘Chaman’ was not an impossible feat. After two sessions, I was actually certain that I had the capacity to make the moves. I only had to be fresh, the conditions had to be right, I had to have that one lucky go. But the fourth time in a row, after hours of failing, worked to exhaustion, and with tears falling down my cheeks, was not that go. Yet my brain randomly decided to snap into flow and, in that very moment, pushing through the crux was like pole vaulting over the boundaries of possibility.

The most exciting thing is that researchers (and professional athletes) believe that flow does not occur as randomly as it may seem. Like Schultheis’s shamans and ancient tribesmen inducing trances through sequences of seemingly random rituals, we can train ourselves to trigger the shutdown of the prefrontal cortex.

Although there are many leads, there are not many concrete answers. Fortunately, more scientist are taking an interest in the subject. Less fortunately, my list of overdue reading is growing ever longer. Dr Susan Jackson from The University of Queensland has written extensively on flow in sports, and many of her articles are available via Google Scholar. Dr Jackson also co-authored a book with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow in Sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances) but it’s rather hard to come across in Europe other than by paying through the nose for a second hand copy on Amazon.

Instead of leaving you with some sensible conclusion to this post, I’m only going to say that the biggest (only?) advantage of living in London was my unlimited access to The British Library, and I’m really gutted I’m left only with the internet. Unlike Schultheis, I’m not very likely to travel the globe searching for answers regarding transcending the human condition, so I’ll stick to bouldering, and hope for the best.

"Chaman" (7C) | Fontainebleau

This one was a little bit of a surprise! We figured out the beta in one session, going from "this is impossible" to "this can happen" in about 4 hours. The day after my core hurt so much, I couldn't even laugh! In the second sesh Dylan found some adjustments (beta master!) but despite Daisy's best attempts at helping me remember what to do, I kept messing it up (that's when we took the video). And then in our third session, boom! Sent. Once again, it all came together after I'd given up. I was about to pack the mats with tears of frustration and anger well pouring down my face (I get quite intense when I'm projecting, can't help it!) But I jumped back on… four or five times in a row, messing up every move, shaking, gasping, swearing. In a desperate attempt to make sure I gave it everything I had – and to let some of that frustration out – I knew at that stage it was impossible to stitch it together. And yet. Flow. The bizarre, elusive, unintelligible state kicks in and takes over your body. An experience so intense it's unforgettable. It's pretty shocking that you can work yourself up to that stage by just repeatedly throwing yourself at a small piece of rock! I did some reading a few years ago and there's some decent literature on flow. It's not the first time I've experienced it (third!) but now the memory of it so fresh, I'm doing some writing myself. Will hit you up with a blog post as soon as its ready 🙂

Posted by Zofia Reych on Monday, May 15, 2017

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