Friday, May 18, 2007

Flow Sports

It's been a while since I wrote anything on here, but I've been crazy busy with travel and a video edit, so I've been playing when I have the time to do something non-work related. In the last few weeks I've been in the water and air a lot more (surfing in LA, thanks to Sheldon for that), paddling on the Kananaskis after work, flying in Saskatchewan (really good despite it's flat reputation, thanks to Jim Bahr for the hookup!) etc. My elbow is coming back strong, but every time I go rock climbing (bouldering in Squamish a few weeks ago, crazy fun!) it tweaks out, so I've decided on an active recovery program based on any sport but climbing, which is going great, definitely much stronger and happier, climbing will come.

I've been thinking a lot about the differences between what I call "flow" and "static" sports of late. Flow sports include kayaking, surfing, mountain biking, skiing, paragliding and any sport where the motion doesn't easily stop mid-action. "Static" sports include climbing, hiking, tennis, landscaping (been doing a lot of that, it's a sport for sure, anything you can get really sore at is a sport of some kind) etc. Now, static sports can have an element of flow and even brief moments of truly dynamic movement, but in general you can just stop doing them at almost any time and not much happens. In flow sports you can't stop without at least something interesting happening relatively quickly. In kayaking you're in the flow from the top of the rapid to the bottom, same with flying. In skiing you can also stop, but there's a much stronger sense of linked movement and reaction to the every-variable snow than in climbing, so it's a flow sport also.

I think we as mountain sports athletes often think the sports we do in the mountains are all related, but I don't think they're related beyond being in the same geographic area. Flying is far more like kayking than climbing, and surfing is far more like skiing than climbing. What's interesting to me are the mental links between these sports; someone who enjoys climbing may not enjoy or be mentally cut out for flying, it's a completely different form of stimulus and response. A pilot may not enjoy climbing, or be any good at it. The best pilots and best climbers are usually very good athletes and can cross over relatively easily, but I'm starting to think that the sports are best grouped not by their geography or physical movements but by the mental patterns a participant experiences..

When I first start flying and paddling every spring I can literally feel my brain working completely differently; it's not a physical response, but a mental re-wiring that needs to happen. When I'm paddling and flying a lot my reflexes are noticeably faster; I'll catch a dropped pen before it hits the ground, or respond on a "hard wired" level to stimulus that wouldn't effect me at all when I was climbing a lot. Driving feels very, very slow when I'm doing a lot of flow sports--I truly see traffic in a totally different way. When I go climbing after paddling a lot I'm too "twitched," and my motor skills are definitely messed up--it feels like I'm waiting for something to happen. I'd bet that I would respond much faster to a falling rock after a spring spent paddling than a spring spent sport climbing. Bouldering crosses a little more into the flow side of sports, but it's still relatively short, and often about grunting a well-visualized movement out smoothly than responding to new stimulus. The rock doesn't change a lot, and it's easy to step back and analyze things carefully. When I'm climbing well I see patterns and sequences better; I'll automatically sequence getting in and out of my car, or think about how I'm going to open a can of tuna--I can't help it, that's just how my brain works when doing a lot of climbing. I'll bet a CAT (Edit--MRI or PET is the correct technology) scan would reveal real differences in brain function; someone more educated than me can probably come up with what parts would be lighting up while paddling a big drop vs. climbing a sketchy 5.11 high above gear. Climbing is much more thought and visualization-intensive, paddling is much more reaction-intensive.

There are experiences that are common across flow and static sports, such as standing on top of a peak enjoying the sun or floating between rapids deep in a canyon. There's the same sense of appreciation for the power of the natural environment, at least for me, but the tools to access that state are totally different. I love the experience of blasting through deep powder just as much as giving blood and skin to a hard crack in Indian Creek and the physical "cook" can be similar, but they are totally different on a mental level.

No real point to this obviously, just interested in how my mind responds to sports. Flow, static, it's all good but so different. I look forward to thoughts others may have...



Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas. Little technical nitpick: A CT scan doesn't see brain activation. A functional MRI (fMRI) would (using magnets and fancy physic) and a PET scan would (using radiation sensor and a radioactive marker).

A CT is basically a whole bunch of thin X-ray images acquired in small rotating steps around the head and joined together through some math. They can't show much more then would be seen through an X-ray, but they do so in (sort of) 3-D.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree with this differentiation Will. There is something about switching over to the autonomic nervous system and your response to the stimuli is almost spontaneous. Climbing is about thinking and planning while your in the experience, in paddling, skiing and skateboarding, there is little time to think everything through.

To be a “flow” activity I think some or all of the experience must be about automatic responses and I definitely feel like it uses the other parts of my brain. Best lesson for me was starting to skateboard vert after 20 years...


Loren said...

Excellent way of thinking about the similarities and differences in these sports. I've been thinking about this a bit lately in a different tack, but one that seems to tie in nicely with your observations. I've come across a similar pattern but having to do purely with vision.

I'm farsighted and can usually optically correct for the error by mentally concentrating on focusing. So I usually don't wear glasses or contacts unless my eyes are tired, near the end of the day. But I've noticed that sometimes I'll have a stronger desire to have the optical correction ... and those times seem to correspond to the "static" sports. When I'm flying or boarding or kiting, what you call "flow" sports, I tune more into the physical feeling and reaction and less on sharp visual acuity. Maybe i'm drawing s tenuous link, but I like the descriptive system you've come up with. It works.

Anonymous said...

It's funny, I have thought about this issue a number of times and I think that these things are all related. I have always felt that the link between all of these sports is rapid decision making in the face of real or perceived risk. I agree that bouldering or working a project may not give you that feel of flow, but what about a day of on-sighting right below your limit?

Will Gadd said...

Thanks for the thoughts, glad to hear them. Totally agreed on the vision thing as well, interesting. I can play kayak without contacts in my eyes as it's based much more on physical feel/response than vision. Couldn't climb anything without my contacts. "Autonomic sports" might be another way to look at this tha makes sense, interesting.

On-sighting has some flow for sure, especialy when it's going well. But I don't have the same "twitch" reactions, or at least not as much, and it's almost always possible to simply stop and chalk. No chalking in the middle of a big hole or while coring a savage thermal or hucking a cornice on skis, it's game on until the motion stops.

I'll correct the CT to MRI, thanks. I got into the flow of writing, grin...


Anonymous said...

IMO all these mountain sports are, to a large extent, related by the committment level. Climbing becomes more & more committing when its runout &/or technically difficult; mountain biking is more committing when the trails have complusory drops & log rides etc; & skiing becomes more committing when you're dropping a into that steep chute or dropping a cliff.

obviously there are differences between the 'static' nature of climbing vs the 'flow' of riding; but its that mental confidence you need to do climb/ride/ski *that* committing line that links a lot of these sports.

stefan mitrovich said...

you always seem to hit the nail on the head for me Will.
Check out a book by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called, "Flow"
It tries to explain some of this and does a decent job of it. Follows the Zen mind and relates well to sports (climbing in general).


David Dornian said...

There's probably a gradient to what you call 'flow' in sports. To my mind, they all share quite a bit, and the only real category definer is the speed at which decisions need to be made. You gotta be more on your game, improvisation-wise, when you're talus running that when you're chalking up for redpoint attempt n. Likewise, doing a good job in a mogul field (my favourite) requires quicker access to your repertoire of physical tricks than a more proscribed feat like jumping into Corbett's Couloir ("I'm gonna go in over that, then hip check and turn left..."). Compare your claim of kayaking flow to the rigorous preparation for a big drop. I think those flow moments can be found anywhere, with just about any activity. Maybe you want to think about flow sports as those games that REQUIRE you be in a flow state. Don't know what these might be, though - slacklining?