Flow & Surfing, Skateboarding, Climbing at the Tokyo Olympics

Surfer in a state of flow

What does sport climbing have in common with 2 other sports introduced at the Tokyo 2020 / Tokyo 2021 Olympics? One word: Flow.

Sport climbing was introduced to the olympics in 2020 / 2021 along with surfing and skateboarding. Given that snowboarding has been part of the Winter Olympics for a long time the addition of those 2 other board sports was long overdue.

I’ve dabbled in all of these board sports and found a common theme in them: the pursuit of flow. Flow was defined in 1975 by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and can be best described as a state where an athlete is performing optimally while immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. Some people call it being “in the zone”. Flow tends you to put in a state of mind that is characterised by complete absorption, loss of sense of time. It essentially is an altered state of consciousness that can be achieved without drugs.

In climbing this altered state of mind can be achieved because of the commitment required to focus only on the next moves. Climbing tends to make you “zoom in” on just your hands and feet. Being off the deck, high above your last piece of gear tends to focus the mind quite nicely. In climbing the only thing that really matters is the next move, either because if you don’t make the next move you’ll be in a lot of pain (trad) or because the next move is just really really hard (bouldering).

I have felt this exact same feeling of flow in snowboarding and skiing, especially on steeper, more committed slopes. All that matters is the next turn, the next carve. And just like climbing you get immediate feedback on your moves: a well-executed climbing move or snowboarding carve is rewarded with an immense feeling of joy, keeping you in that state of flow, ready to execute the next move.

Skateboarding is similar. It’s a highly technical sport & while it may take ages and thousands of tries to learn a new trick, just like in bouldering there is this weird experience that once you’ve done a trick or move once, it tends to come smoothly afterwards. All that matters is executing the trick & enjoying the feeling of mastery you achieve from doing it, then smoothly flowing on to the next move.

The Olympics team probably didn’t have flow in mind when they chose these three sports, commercial concerns were probably higher on the list, but I’m still satisfied this three sports made the cut. Flow seekers out there can certainly enjoy the Tokyo Olympics a little more from today on!

Photo by Ben Selway