Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow & Why You Love Snowboarding

I've always wanted to understand why I love snowboarding. It's an odd sport for me to be into considering I live in a country that's short on snow or mountains, and that I've broken myself so badly snowboarding that I can't do half the things I used to be able to. What keeps me forking out a lot of money to do it and going back time and time again to accept even more punishment? I know I'm not alone in this strange behaviour, but what is driving me and all the other snowboarders out there? Is there one thing that all snowboarders share that makes them snowboarders? Turns out there is...

A few years ago a friend of mine told me he was afraid of heights, and I admitted I had the same problem. I told him how every time I was at the top of a cliff or skyscraper I felt a really strong urge to jump just to see what would happen. My fear is that I might actually go ahead and make the jump. He slowly explained to me that actually that wasn't a fear of heights, that was just being a mental.

I've always had a slightly unhealthy interest in getting my adrenaline fix. There were lots of opportunity in snowboarding to get this buzz and for a long time I thought this might be the main reason I liked the sport. Although it partially explained why I loved snowboarding, I couldn't ignore the fact that there were swathes of people that loved snowboarding but had no interest in adrenaline at all (especially my friend that didn't like heights, he was really in the wrong game). I was also aware that at the other end of the scale there is another group of people who take adrenaline seeking to levels that just blow my tiny little mind, like Darren Powell or Marco Siffredi. It was apparent that with such a wide scale that adrenaline seeking was not the one things all snowboarder's had in common.

...or a shared interest in wearing kinky spandex suits

A few years into snowboarding I got a proper job and became a punter, now having to catch the opportunity to snowboard wherever and whenever I could. The downside of this was that I could no longer be a fair-weather snowboarder, I had to start dealing with the worst the elements could throw at me. Suddenly the opportunities to feel the adrenaline rush were curtailed, I'd have a good day often followed by days of boredom and for a while I started to lose my interest in snowboarding. It all changed when one day a friend of mine handed me a short soft snowboard and introduced me to buttering. I was crap at first, but all of a sudden I was having a good time on bad weather days and after a while I was enjoying snowboarding again to the same extent without even a hint of adrenaline in the system.

I was now snowboarding in two completely different ways, two ways that were so different they may have well been different sports entirely. As we found in a previous article, over the years snowboarding has broken up into lots of specialisms. What once was a single sport is now a raft of very different experiences...

You can break this down further too. People can then experience each of those specialities completely differently: there are people doing this for their job, people that sacrifice everything else in the pursuit of snow, people that go one week a year, young people and old people, people who are mostly there for the parties and others who just seem to like getting dressed up in all the snazzy get-up.

Snowboarding is a complicated thing, enjoyed in a number of different ways by a wide variety of people. Could there really be just one thing all of these people have in common?

This bloke is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He's a Hungarian psychology professor who now lives in the U.S. He's never done a day of snowboarding in his life, but he does have the answer. Fortunately his concept is a lot easier to understand than his name, and it's what he calls flow which he describes as...

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

To explain, the human brain can only process a certain number of things at any one time. If you are concentrating on a task that takes up a substitutional proportion of this available processing space then other things have to be sacrificed to make way. During this period things that would normally be on your mind like a sense of time passing, or your ongoing concerns/worries get dropped and you start to feel lost in the moment.

You can see in the chart below that this situation only happens when the task involves a high level of skill and a high level of challenge. A drop in either of those factors and the task is less absorbing and at the other end of the scale the task is really tedious. On the bad weather days before I tried buttering and all i was doing was getting form A to B, the skill level required and the challenge level was low and I was experiencing boredom and apathy. When I started to learn buttering, I took both these factors back up the scale, first feeling anxiety, then arousal (not that sort of arousal you dirty git) and later on as my skills improved moving into a state of flow.

I'd now experienced this same situation when freeriding on a fresh powder day, hooning down a corduroy piste and buttering down a gentle slope. Since then I've found the same experience in other types of snowboarding, I've even found it writing this blog sometimes. You can experience flow in all sorts of circumstances as long as the skill level and challenge of the particular task coincide. It explains why you frequently hear snowboarders saying things like this.

"There's just a feeling you get from certain things you do in life that just kind of feel pure and independent of what's actually, physically, going on. All of a sudden you have this feeling of clarity. Backcountry snowboarding has really done a lot to boost that feeling in me."
- Craig Kelly

For Craig Kelly it turned out to be backcountry snowboarding that gave him this feeling at the end of his career. A few years before he experienced the same feeling in freestyle, which drove him to dominate that scene before he found himself too comfortable and losing the flow. Flow explains why people love snowboarding, but it also explains why people fall out of love with it when they stop being able to feel it. (It explains what Rider's Block is, which Ed Leigh coincidentally wrote about on Whitelines earlier this week)

Here's an even better example:

“Out in the mountains, when I am on my snowboard something totally different guides me, which is quite difficult to explain. I just go with the flow. There is no other way to describe it. I follow what I am told to out there. Where this comes from I don’t know, but I do know how to listen to it. When it’s snowboarding time, it’s sacred time.”
– Nicolas Müller

Nicolas Müller even uses the word flow when trying to explain what he feels when he snowboards. Every snowboarder I have ever meet has had this experience at some point, even though most people have no idea what causes it and difficulty describing it. Flow is the one thing all snowboarders have in common and it's the reason that so many different people love snowboarding in so many ways. It's the pursuit of repeating that feeling that keeps us all coming back. 

Good luck finding your flow

If you want to find out more about flow, here's Csikszentmihalyi speaking about the concept. Try switching his examples from other sports and activities with snowboarding when you watch it.

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Darren Powell - The World’s Fastest (and most obscure) Snowboarder

The Specialisation of Snowboarding

1 comment:

  1. Good article on a very important subject! I'm reading the book now. It's just a problem that I want to exist in a state of flow more often than not... it's addictive.


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