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Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series on the phases of flow states. In it, Contributing Editor JP Schlick speaks with The Rise of Superman author Steven Kotler, discussing both the theory behind these states, as well as the applicable and thereby relatable takeaways from experiences of both weekend warriors and tightly tuned professionals.

Author’s Note: So you have endured your share of the Struggle (Part 1). Maybe for you that is years of training, or maybe right now it’s just an early morning trying to land the trick that’s been on your mind for weeks. Either way you are content. You have done the work and despite washing-out in the landing you ride back to the chair lift with a smile on your face. Instead of worrying about the putting the landing gear down, the trick is out of your mind almost as soon as you’ve cleared the landing. You know it is within your grasp because you have put in the time, you have survived your share of tumbles, bails, and misfortunes along the way and your subconscious is more than familiar with this territory and it’s letting your body know it can relax, everything is okay.

From antics to rogue dress, the best know how to distance themselves from an overwhelmingly stressful track and turn that negative momentum on its head.

From antics to rogue dress, the best know how to distance themselves from an overwhelmingly stressful track and turn that negative momentum on its head.

According to Steven Kotler, “a profound chemical change takes place during struggle. To amp up focus and alertness, stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are pumped into the system. Tension rises. Frustration as well. Our problems seem unsolvable, our effort unsustainable, and the whole situation feels as far from flow as one could get… The next stage in the cycle is release. To move out of struggle and into flow, you must first pass through this second stage.”

We’re all familiar with this release phase, whether you consider yourself to be or not. The reason you might not feel like you’re familiar with it is that it tends to happen without our consciously knowing it – when the struggle is too overwhelming, when we have had enough. Some of us grow frustrated, throw up our hands, and swear off whatever it is that is giving us such a hard time; successful athletes recognize this pattern and decide to step away. These athletes know how to distract themselves, often times with novelty and laughter, making light of the task at hand especially if there’s risk involved. It seems counterintuitive, but in action and adventure sports, these releases are so important that the athletes manufacture these reliable methods to “distract” them from the Struggle and act as their leveling Release.

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The key to controlling this release and how it affects you?

“The key is being able to make a mistake and not let it ruin concentration,” says Kotler.

Just watch some of the most progressive athletes. You’ll see this pervasive tendency to partake in schoolboy style debauchery, a wide range of motivated yet random antics, when it is all on the line. Consider Shane McConkey with a naked spread eagle off the palisades at Squaw; or Sage Kotsenburg passing out to Fight Club the night before winning an Olympic Gold Medal; even Travis Rice shooting off fireworks at the top of a gnarly line. They’re facing down impossible situations, yet letting their head back and smiling, sometimes laughing about it. What are they doing? What they are doing is they are all hacking flow.

The best athletes have a way to lose their sense of self and simply perform. That is why they are the best athletes. They have a firm grasp on not only the physical requirements, but the mental necessities to reach above what is in front of them. It is an uncanny ability to strive for greatness and not make it such a belabored or tortuous task. Personalities and circumstance vary, so you’ll see some athletes exhibiting lighter hearted behavior than others. But watch a half dozen or so of these guys. Really watch. A common method for Release you’ll begin to recognize is these athletes, in the face of immense challenge, making light of the most treacherous situations.

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However, as mentioned above, it is important to remember that there isn’t one accepted practice. It ultimately depends on who is doing the releasing. Kotler ties these different methods together by an individually but also collectively desired goal: “The method is unimportant. The message is relaxation. The moment this occurs another chemical change follows: nitric oxide floods the system. This endogenous gaseous signaling molecule causes stress hormones to decline and feel good neurochemicals like dopamine and endorphins to take their place.”

 

What would Shane McConkey do?

What would Shane McConkey do?

Renowned journalist Michael Pollan recently explored a way of providing people with a springboard for this simultaneous control and letting go. In a piece for New Yorker magazine, Pollan discusses the second coming-of-age, so to speak, of medicinal psychedelics research: “The psychedelic experience can help people by relaxing the grip of an overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces. This disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.”

And scientific research tends to agree. Recent studies show a significant similarity between cognitive aspects of the brain on magic mushrooms in comparison to the brain in amid a flow state. In both cases the regularly dominant control center of the brain known as the “default mode network” shuts down, allowing for other less familiar parts of the brain to take the wheel.

The same could be said with flow states. Yet in these circumstance there isn’t the aid of psychedelics; instead, this expansion requires a mindset of definitive growth. Citing Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck (who found that most people have one of two mindsets), Kotler proclaims that “those who have ‘fixed mindsets’ believe abilities like intelligence and athletic talent are innate and unchangeable — i.e. fixed at birth. Those with ‘growth mindsets’ believe abilities are gained through dedication and hard work, and that natural born talents are merely starting points of a much longer learning process.”

The thing is, in order to relax we must, at the very least, know that we are indeed capable, and that we can learn from experiences both successful and not as successful. Therein lies the key to a these freakish athletes and their seemingly unparalleled ability to always be getting better.

For some a more intense focus might be beneficial. But for others, it is dangerous. That rigidness can lead to a ruminating self consciousness which has the potential to destroy performance. Yet there is a way to avoid that disastrous outcome. This defense comes from an extensive understanding of yourself — knowing your limits as well how far you are willing to push them without bringing on detrimental stress. Or as Kotler puts it, “the absence of self-knowledge makes it harder to tune the challenge/skill ratio [the 4% rule discussed in Part 1]. Equally vexing, if the resulting feedback is unflattering, fixed mindsets tend to distort the bad news making it even tougher to remain dialed in.”

Professional explorer Mike Horn has experienced this firsthand. In Rise, he says, “You have to train your body to prepare for the state, you have to train your mind to prepare for the state. You have to know yourself and your limits, know exactly what you’re afraid of and exactly how hard to push past it. That’s serious work.”

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Serious work indeed, but well worth it if it means you are able to relax and thrive in the harshest environments.

 

Take advantage of downtime and RELAX.

Take advantage of downtime and RELAX.

On the lift ride back to the top of the park, you let yourself get distracted. You joke with your friends, laughing out loud as you share bites of the Kind bar. You carry on, and all is good. What you not so aware about is the exuberant and aggressive posturing that is happening. You’re acting in this carefree way amid a formidable foe: the frozen mound of snow who’s cold touch is a testament to its indifference as to whether you rise or fall; land or be consumed by a relentless thrashing on the frozen field of play.

Yet, to you, these supposed realities couldn’t be further out of mind. You are relaxed, but you maintain focus. That is part of your training.

From playing grab ass with your homies on the lift to staring down the in-run of a 70 foot behemoth, you’ve put yourself in a good position, one where you are ready to take it with speed, perhaps even trying something that will challenge you. The consequences are obvious, but they are the last thing on your mind. The affable energy from the chairlift ride is more poignant now then worst case scenarios and far more comforting than a last minute risk assessment. No binding check or board flex test, you give a pound to your compadre and drop, you are in it, fade to white, all else just happens, effortlessly…

Next stop: Flow.

Check back in for Parts 3 and 4, scheduled to appear on The Inertia Mountain.

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