Flow State in Surfing

Flow state in surfing is easily reached by bringing your focus directly to the present moment. The challenge/skills balance is achieved with an awareness of your own abilities in relation to the ocean’s conditions. Here I relate my own experience of a time that I got into flow state during a surfing session. Read this article for a better understanding of flow state.

The Setup

It was a fairly warm, humid day on Cornwall’s north shore. Early summer time, the skies were clear and crisp. A light breeze blew, untypically, from the south-east; making it pretty much directly offshore for this spot. Also not so typically, the surf was absolutely cranking today.

Super long-distance ground swell, 11 to 12 second periods between set waves, rising A-frames off a selection of sandbars and pounding surf that roared with the wrath of Zeus himself.

The tide was just off slack and flooding. Waves were at their heaviest. The sets were a pretty solid eight feet. I was already in my full-body wetsuit, had my board under arm, waxed and with fins tightened. I was going in.

A Break of Flow

As I walked over the sand towards the thrashing water, reading the timing of the waves, I was already entering a sort of focused trance-like state as I worked out how I would navigate myself and my board out behind the white water.

“Whoop! Whoop!”

A loud siren broke my concentration. It was the lifeguards in a 4×4 pickup with extra large tyres.

They addressed me over the loudspeaker: “Those waves are the reason the beach is closed! Let that be a warning to you.” He had an Australian accent. There were red flags up further down where more people would be. I threw up a Shaka, the Hawaiian surf sign, on my neoprene gloved hand. The pickup spun around and went off and away, leaving me to my own devices. They weren’t going to stop me from getting in. Likely surfers themselves, they didn’t even bother to try.

That diversion lasted just a few moments, but I was able to quickly get back into the focused hypnosis that I had previously. I was so “in the zone” that I had almost completely forgotten about the interruption from the lifeguards.

Actually, the fact that they were there could have been a source of comfort for me at the time. When I think back, I’m glad that they were, but at that moment I didn’t give them any thought.

Back Into It

The conditions were challenging for any level of surfer. There was no channel that could pull me out to the back, so I would have to time my entry in between sets to save energy on the paddle-out.

This swell was so epic, it was coming in perfectly formed 9-wave sets every six minutes or so. The rest of the time there were constant smaller waves and tons of rushing whitewater.

I walked up to the water’s edge, waited out a full set, then sprinted in as far as I could before diving flat on my board. Maintaining as much momentum as possible by paddling hard. I shot straight into a wall of whitewater, but was not pushed back towards the beach. Momentum stalled, paddle hard towards the back.

Every surfer knows this routine. Paddle, inhale, breath-hold, duck-dive, pop-up, repeat. This type of paddling out into strong surf is the hardest “work” you have to do when surfing. It is quite physically demanding and can tax the cardio-vascular system a lot. You know you have to do this part if you want to ride some waves and you accept it. The repetitive nature of dealing with wave after wave, coupled with the deep breathing and exertion, further enhances overall flow state.

The Breakthrough

Finally, after punching through maybe three giant sets, being careful to avoid the impact zone, ducking under several big ones and floating up out of the back of them, everything calms down. The waves are still crashing onto the shore, but you are now behind the break point.

Instead of foaming walls of whitewater, you are floating on top of unbroken waves. You can stop paddling for a moment and take a rest.

I was at this point. By now I was actually fully immersed into flow state. All of the required components were present.

The challenge was just difficult enough to tax my skills as a surfer, so the skills/challenge balance was optimal. My goals were clear to myself: short term, catch some good quality waves. Longer term, improve positioning on the wave-face, allowing for better tube riding or launches for a big air. My self-feedback was honest. “My stamina is good but my shoulders are a bit too sore. Better check my paddling form.”

All this, and I still hadn’t yet caught and ridden a wave.

The Ride

With the hardest part of the session over (the paddle-out) I could relax and select the wave I wanted to go for. Not quite fully relax though, there was a current drifting me westward somewhat parallel to the shore. I had to keep paddling against this to stay in position. Leave it too long and the paddle to the peak I was at would be more difficult.

These waves were rolling in from the mid-Atlantic with a lot of power, so it was wise not to catch the first wave of a set as I would have had another eight bombs dropping on my head after I finished the ride.

So first I let a full set go by. I was completely present in that moment. I had no other thoughts in my mind than what I was doing right there and then. There was not a single other surfer either in the water or on the beach. Too big, too wild for them maybe.

Then I saw the ominous shapes of the start of the set of waves that I would catch one on. The swell moved in closer as I paddled, anticipating the position that I wanted to be in when my wave arrived. The first wave broke. An utter bomb which I let go by. The next was even bigger. I thought I would take the fourth one. The waves just kept increasing in size.

I was in such a flow state that I barely needed to paddle into the wave that I selected. My position was perfect to just “turn and burn”. Simply drop down the face of the wave, let the fins engage the water, and ease the rail in at the bottom.

I carved and turned several times on that wave before it petered out. At the end of the ride, I turned and saw that I was far away from where I started.

There was another surfer making his way into the water.

End State

I hope that by reading this experience of mine, you are able to see what it’s like to be in a state of flow. You might recognize some of your own experiences and realize that you were also in a flow state at the time. Usually, you don’t think to yourself “I am now in a state of flow” while it is actually happening, though that is indeed possible.

After this memorable surf session, I was “stoked” for days later. The flow state went to very deep levels and stayed with me even after I had finished the activity and went home. My surfing also improved significantly after that.

Flow state for the win!