THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PEAK PERFORMANCE AND FLOW AMONG ELITE COMPETITIVE SURFERS
By Richard Bennett – Surf Psychologist
& Dr Peter Kremer – Sport Psychologist
Paper presented at the “2nd Monash Sport Psychology Conference”
Melbourne, Australia, July 2000
During the Australian leg of the 2000 World Surf League (WSL – formerly ASP World Tour) 27 elite male and female surfers of varying nationalities completed an interview survey. The survey explored the most important Preparation Factors for peak surfing performance and their Psychological Experience of peak surfing performance.
The experience of Flow during peak surfing performance was also investigated. Flow is the psychological state commonly found to underlie peak performance in sport and other endeavours. Flow involves clear focus, harmony of body and mind working effortlessly as one, deep absorption and enjoyment and is characterised by nine specific dimensions.
Athletes described peak performances in a wide range of surfing situations and ocean conditions. From intense competition during the Pipeline Masters to relaxing free surf’s at their local beach break. Analysis of the interview surveys revealed the following major findings:
Important “preparation factors” for peak surfing performance
1. Confidence and self belief
Improved by quality equipment, good physical preparation and training, a lead up of consistent quality surfs, having a clear plan/goal, previous solid performance at the surf break and familiarity with the wave and surf conditions
2. The surf conditions
Surf conditions may influence the athletes mood, confidence and perceived opportunity to perform at a higher level in either a positive or negative way depending on their mental perspective and approach to the waves and surfing situation
3. Mental perspective and approach to the surf conditions
The athletes mindset and how they view the surf conditions and immediate surfing situation is a key factor for optimal preparation. Athletes tended to surf better when they took the approach of simply “surfing for fun”, not pressuring themselves and thinking they had “nothing to lose”
4. Motivating factors
Varied between individuals and included a mix of intrinsic/process focussed motivations such as the high challenge and to overcome personal adversity, and extrinsic/outcome focussed motivations such as to make supports proud and to match the high performance level of other surfers
5. Creating a strong sense of stability
Creating a sense of “home” where the athlete feels secure, well supported in an emotionally stable environment and where they have the basic practicalities of life/travel organised, forms an important personal foundation to spring from for consistent peak surfing performance
6. Achieving one’s ideal performance state (IPS)
The IPS involves creating the most favourable situation as well as your optimal psychological state for peak surfing performance. The finer aspects of each athletes IPS tended to vary, however, common characteristics included positive emotions and mood, feeling mentally relaxed and happy, not stressing about any external concerns and generating a healthy competitive aggression and high adrenalin
7. Specific strategies to achieve and maintain one’s IPS
Athlete’s used a variety of strategies to create their IPS such as choosing to prepare alone, simplifying what they wanted/needed to do, keeping positive thoughts going, having a clear plan and goal for the upcoming surf and reassuring themselves they could cope and surf well
The “psychological experience” of peak surfing performance
1. Very high levels of enjoyment and satisfaction
A strong feeling of pure enjoyment and personal satisfaction and reward with a keen desire to experience the feeling and situation again
2. Clarity of concentration and focus
Very clear focus and attention on the act of surfing with no external concerns, worry or distraction and a clear focus on pre-devised plans and goals for the surf
3. Individually defined arousal level
Relaxed – Physical and mental calmness, patience, feeling loose and cruising; OR
Amped – Physical and mental excitement, feeling a spark of energy and adrenalin with a healthy competitive aggression
4. Clear and detailed performance feedback
Taking in and utilising clear/detailed performance information such as physical state, timing with the sets and feeling comfortable on your board, all with a high level of personal and situational awareness
5. High sense of confidence and control
High level of confidence and feeling in total control as though you could go for any move and make it, a feeling of dominating the situation and surf conditions
6. Free feeling of rhythm and flow
Free feeling of being absorbed in the moment and the experience, on auto-pilot, being in perfect rhythm with the ocean and feeling like you and your board are merged and moving as one, flowing in ‘the zone’ where body and mind feel in total harmony
7. Altered perceptual state
Perception and sensation alter to a state that feels beyond your control, a different state of being often seeming to be a complete blur and where your sense of time may speed up or slow down
The experience of “flow” during peak surfing performance
The highest rated dimension of flow during peak surfing performance was the ‘Autotelic Experience’. An autotelic experience is one that entails full involvement and absorption, is intrinsically enjoyable and rewarding and is chosen to do simply for its own sake.
Contrary to the ‘Challenge-Skill Balance’ dimension of flow, athletes rated their skill level to be significantly higher than the challenges they perceived during peak performance.
Peak surfing performances were found to occur more during free surfing than during competition surfing and the ‘autotelic experience’ and ‘action-awareness merging’ dimensions of flow were experienced to a greater degree during free surfing peak performances. Interestingly, where peak performance occurred during competition, the athlete achieved a win outcome 58% of the time.
Seven specific ‘Preparation Factors’ were identified among the elite surfers. These preparation factors give clear direction for all surfers regarding what to consider and work on to create the most favourable situation, and their best mindset, for consistent peak surfing performance.
The ‘Psychological Experience’ of peak performance among elite surfers was characterised by seven distinct dimensions. The common mindset identified serves as the ideal psychological state to aim for and maintain to bring out optimal surfing performance.
Overall, ‘Flow’ was found to be a central psychological process underlying peak surfing performance. It is not surprising that the ‘autotelic experience’ was the highest rated flow dimension, since surfing seems to encompass all the aspects of an autotelic experience.
Elite surfers indicated their skill level to be significantly higher than the challenges of the surfing situation they described, even when the peak performance occurred at places like Pipeline or Teahupoo.
This finding really highlights the ultimate power of the mind when faced with such objectively challenging situations. While experience and a reasonable level of ability is still required, a positive mental perspective, attitude and approach will help a surfer gain that extra self confidence to succeed in highly challenging situations.
Elite athletes indicated a greater number of peak surfs during free surfing than when surfing in competition. This is not surprising due to the increased mental freedom when surfing outside the constraints of competition.
Finally, when athletes peaked during competition they achieved a win outcome 58% of the time. This figure is reasonably high in comparison to other sports and highlights the value of solid preparation and a functional mental approach for competitive surfing success.
This study identified the most important preparation factors to consider and work on as well as the optimal psychological experience of peak surfing performance. The experience of flow was also examined and taken together the findings will assist athletes to more consistently achieve peak surfing performance.
The authors wish to thank Rabbit, Bushy Mitchell and Munga Barry, Mark Richards and Warren Smith, Steve Robertson and the Team at Surfing Victoria for their assistance, as well as all the participating athletes who generously gave their time
Aloha & Mahalo