Flow in Sports: A book, a lifestyle, a challenge

I borrowed this book from my friend Sarah and have been working my way through it this week. It’s very interesting and I found myself reading sections of it out loud to my husband–for a non-fiction ‘how-to’ that is pretty unusual!

The crux of sport is the quality of experience, of richness, that it offers.

But how do we recognize ‘flow’ and how do we capture it? I know I have experienced that effortless, ‘flow’ movement running, even racing. Time slows down, my breathing is perfect, my legs feel strong, I feel suddenly effortless and smooth. I am floating! I can DO this!

Sadly, this is also rare and fleeting, and also extremely hard to replicate. Also, I have NOT been able to replicate it in riding. Why? How can I?

The book suggests a few different paths to take to achieve that flow. Here are some of their suggestions on the path to flow:

  1. Challenge-skills balance
  2. Action-awareness merging
  3. Clear goals
  4. Unambiguous feedback
  5. Concentration on the task at hand
  6. Sense of control
  7. Loss of self-consciousness
  8. Transformation of time
  9. Autotelic experience

What would it take to make you happy? You might guess a big TV, a beer, some chips and dip, and a great show on Netflix, but you’re wrong. That would make you relaxed and content, but it would not satisfy you, it would not make you happy for other than a fleeting second.

You have to struggle, overcome and try a challenge to be satisfied with life. We are apparently nothing without an obstacle to overcome= welcome to sports, particularly running and riding!

We have to create challenge, and overcome it. This happens one of two ways- physical and mental. For me, the mental challenge is the biggest! Having confidence in your skills is also incredibly important, you need this ‘I got this’ when going in.

Sometimes that means lowering your goals/challenge from outcomes to process. That means instead of seeking a placing or AG group win, you nail every fence and get smooth changes, or hit the paces you want instead of trying to beat a person.

Here is a good exercise to develop self-awareness: Pick a quiet spot, close your eyes, and focus only on your breathing. Time yourself to see how long you can do this before other thoughts intrude. A minute? Two minutes? It’s tough!

Also a great exercise- keep a notebook on you for 1 whole day, all activities. Write down every time you have a negative thought about yourself. Are there a lot? How are you managing them and refocusing them?

Set smaller, specific, daily goals rather than big, scary ones. You will be happier knowing you’ve ‘won’ instead of constantly trying to get to one that may never happen.

Prepare for competition- have a plan A and a backup plan B. I admit I am really bad at this, and I need to be better. What do you do when the wheels fall off and things go bad? That is when Plan B needs to step in to save the day.

Take advantage of feedback–it can be a game changer if things start sour. Also I am sooo guilty of this: You have a great start and think you’re winning and then things IMMEDIATELY go south. Ie- fall off at the last fence. Not that I’m guilty of that or anything…

You can prevent this by staying in the moment

And, I have an good example of when I was feeling bitter and sour about how badly a race was going and how slow I was, it was hot, the course was extremely hilly and I was just having a shitty time knowing there was no way I was going to get the time I wanted/hoped for. Until I ran up the big hill, I held this bad attitude. And then, a volunteer shouted to me “Hey you’re halfway done!” and I smiled and thought yeah you’re right!

I felt the pressure to get the time I wanted lift off me, and from then on, focused on enjoying the ‘experience’ of the race. It was hot, beautiful, I had lots of Gatorade to drink and hell, the hills were hard but they also meant that I could forget my time-pressure goals. I was loving it!!

Remember: the past is the road to nowhere, the future is a road under construction, and getting back on the right road is what matters!

We can only control the controllables- in running that is your pace, emotions, feelings and hydration/nutrition. In riding, there are a lot more…variables to put it nicely.

To sum this up, I also have another example of when I was SO ready to let the train run off the track, but was able (through a strength I didn’t know I had) re-focus, re-direct and just ‘be okay’ with what was happening.

I had Oats in the warmup at a big show and he was lit up. Bucking in-hand and just excited. I’d slept badly, there was huge drama in the morning with my trainer’s sick horse, so she was having a hard time of it and was distracted and upset, I tacked up Oats by throwing his tack on while he spun in circles wildly…It was just horrible. I was stressed beyond belief and when he was getting nutty, I was just hoping I could stay on.

Nobody knew what the course was, the class descriptions were all over the map, and I was just like, arghhhh.

I got on Oats, and immediately went to work. He spooked a few times, was jiggy and silly, but I know my horse and I know he will work down. So, we did. And I just kept in the moment- ok, trot. Fine, some walk. More circles! Canter. Canter this fence. Canter another fence. And exercise by exercise, he calmed down and I was ready to go show!

Sadly this focus didn’t last – apparently it was too hard for me to maintain it and I fell off in my second round after a fabulous first round- but I was very proud I was able to shake off the external issues (there were MANY) and just do it, by staying focused and present on my horse, in the moment.

And the last tip? Focus on the FUN! Yes, that’s why we do it mostly! There is no better feeling than a big fist-pump when you finish a great course, feeling like freaking Ian Millar! Or giving your all in the last sprint. It is AMAZING!!!!!!

Cathartic

I’m not sure if it’s SAD or what (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but I sometimes feel like I was riding a real summer ‘high’ and now I’m falling into a fall ‘low’…

I’m riding through the tough stuff, but I find myself over sensitive to even the most basic things- small corrections at work? Stew and steam for awhile, longer than you should even be thinking about it… Had a shitty ride? Obsess over it. Plot, plan, scheme, whatever. I don’t think I should be necessarily feeling this way, but I am.

SAD-lights necessary? Quite possibly!

I had a good lesson yesterday actually. I was feeling a bit crabby (see above unreasonable responses to normal work situations) but I felt so hyper-focused in my lesson that it all kind of just…melted away… That’s not to say it was easy- it wasn’t- Oats tried to intimidate me out of asking what I was asking, but I didn’t let him, and we achieved some mini-breakthroughs. Phew!

I found this on the Chronicle of the Horse web forum, and it really resonated with me. I love jumping, riding, showing, etc. but it really takes it out of me. Sometimes it’s all I can do to show up! And this is something I LOVE!

A lot of amateurs spend a great deal of their riding time pushed to their limits. It is a great privilege and stroke of luck (which could be taken away by a bad fall) if you are able to canter around serenely well within your own comfort zone. Many more people spend a lot of time persevering and continuing to show up to the barn despite the fact that, a lot of time when they are on a horse, they are afraid. Sure, I get to come to the barn and not spend 90% of my lessons battling fear or anxiety, but this is not true for everyone. They are scared but they are DOING IT ANYWAY.

Half the time they would NEVER be doing what you are asking them to do of their own accord or without you there, but because they want to learn to ride worse than they are afraid they put essentially blind faith in you, rustle their brass ones together, and still try to do everything their brain is screaming at them to for the love of God not do. I feel the same way when one of my trainers put the jumps up two more and wider for the nth time, but because he is expert at pushing people to the limit but never over, the scope of my limits expand in his presence.

(Meanwhile, I feel the same way rarely, when the jumps have exceeded a certain size, and those moments serve to really reinforce my respect for people who feel that way most of the time, about stuff like ‘cantering’, and still want to ride worse than they are afraid. That takes BALLS and tremendous determination, and I am not sure I would continue with the sport if I had to always ride at my limit. So I really respect those who do. You cannot be brave if you are not afraid in the first place.)

It’s crazy. So why do we do it in the first place? Because when I’m feeling blah, having a blah day, feeling crabby and out of sorts…Going to the barn and having a super-focused ride that leaves me feeling cathartic is what I need the most. Even if I am on the edge of comfort (and over that edge) for most of it. I deal with fear a lot, and extreme performance anxiety- to the point where I let it take over for me and I’m drifting around on-course, or tuning out in a dressage ride.

I hope to be ‘more present’ jumping and riding. That’s all I can hope for sometimes!