Reaching Your Peak


By Richard Bennett – Surf Psychologist

Have you ever had a brief and spontaneous experience where the conventional parameters of space and time disappeared, where you simultaneously felt more helpless and more powerful than ever before, where you had a sense of limitless horizons opening up, where you felt immersed among intense feelings of wonder, ecstasy and awe? If you answered yes then it is likely you have had a Peak Experience. Peak Experiences can occur during almost any activity or situation and typically last for a few seconds to a few minutes. They are spontaneous by nature and in fact are unlikely to occur if anticipated or expected.

Peak Experiences transcend immediate, concrete events and the feelings generated are somewhat independent of the circumstances. We may have a Peak Experience while sitting at the top of a mountain watching a sunrise, bush-walking, carving six feet of powdered snow, dancing, playing music, or in the bedroom. The circumstances are endless.


A classic peak experience – the stand up barrel

In surfing, the coming together of wind and tide, the shape of the reef or sand-bank, the swell size and direction, and the surfer being in the right spot at the right time, and surfing well, are certainly conducive to the spontaneity required…

…Consider the following example of a Peak Experience in the surf. As you read through the passage really try to imagine yourself having the experience. When you finish, close your eyes and go through the entire scene again in detail, really immersing yourself in the sensations and perceptions that arise…

You feel relaxed and calm sitting up on your favorite board waiting for the next set. You’ve had some great rides this morning and you smile as you recall them in your mind. You feel warm and free in boardies on this hot summers day, and can clearly see the fine sand grains billowing gently on the bank below your dangling toes. The water is also warm as it laps around you, crystal green it supports you as you look patiently toward the horizon. The faint offshore breeze cools the sun on your back. The overhead sets that were peeling down the bank at dawn have gradually become steeper and hollower with the dropping tide. You happily watch as a new set approaches.

You feel physically relaxed with muscles loose and movements fluid and sure as you paddle into position. You are mentally relaxed with a sense of inner calm and high degree of concentration; time seems to slow down. As you begin to paddle for the wave you sense the raw power as it draws water off the bank, taking you backwards and upwards at the same time. But you are confident and optimistic. Your attitude is positive, you have strong self-confidence and maintain poise and feelings of strength and control. Your optimism stays with you as you lunge over the ledge and begin to free-fall out of the lip toward the dredging pit below.

You feel no fear. You feel in control as your body and mind synchronise, automatically doing exactly what is right without any sense of imposing or exerting control. You set your rail as it re-connects with the wave and confidently draw a clean line as the lip pitches out over your head and a good 30 yards down the line. You are focused on the present moment with a sense of harmony drawn from your mind and body working together as one. Your mind performs unconsciously with no influence from thoughts of the past or future; your body automatically responds.

You have extraordinary awareness. You can see in detail the features of the ocean floor below the wave. You hear the thundering crack of the lip as it meets the water before you and roars violently into the churning foam-ball behind. The spinning green and crystal lights flood your eyes though vision remains clear, fixed on the lip-line and circular exit ahead. The inside barrel-wake sprays at your rail and toes and you notice rainbow colors emerging from their mist. You have the sensation of being in complete harmony with the environment around you; your board; the wave. You are in the cocoon. The harmony continues yet at the same time you feel completely detached from the external environment and any distractions, and all your skills and powers seem effortlessly accessible.

The circular exit rapidly draws closer and the lip-line fades behind into the foam-ball as you come flying out of the tube. A warm burst of rainbow filled spray blasts your back as the wave thunderously spends its last show of power. You glide off the wave and into the channel feeling highly energised. Though this feeling has been with you all along, you now thoroughly absorb the high-energy state, savoring the feelings of being charged with joy, intensity and ecstasy…

The bold-type in the passage above denote key psychological characteristics that typically occur during Peak Experiences in sport. Peak Experiences may have longer lasting effects too such as the feeling of being on a “high” for several days afterward; the result of a plentiful supply of endorphins, the body’s natural opiate, being released into the bloodstream. The person may also view the Peak Experience as a very significant event and be inspired to change in some way and feel strengthened in their daily life.

So how do we have more Peak Experiences? Well, the spontaneous nature of Peak Experiences makes them almost impossible to artificially create. However, particular events such as being in love and being close to nature more commonly evoke Peak Experiences.

Another event is perfect or near perfect sports performance. When an athlete is so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter they are described as being in a “flow” state, or being “in the zone”. A detailed description of the psychological construct flow and how to achieve it would merit an entire article. However, “flow” is important as when an athlete has a Peak Experience, they appear to be “in the zone”, and Peak Experiences are associated with the extreme end of the “flow” state.

Finally, particular people tend to have more Peak Experiences. These are self-actualising people. Self-actualisation is a process of exploring our need for self-fulfillment and personal growth, of realizing our unique potentials and capabilities. Self-actualisation involves exploring our self-knowledge and expressing our-selves with genuine spontaneity. It is an infinite process and people are never considered “self-actualised”. However, one can begin to manifest self-actualisation through activity. This could be through our occupation, our family life and certainly through our love of surfing.

So while you may not be able to cause more Peak Experiences in your life, you can create more opportunity for them to spontaneously occur. The rewards are obvious from being close with nature, exploring your love, achieving perfect sports performance or beginning the process of self-actualisation. At the least you will enjoy some wild adventures. At the most, a mind-expanding life-changing peak experience.

First published in Tracks Surfing Magazine Australia October 1999