by Coach Seiji
Think of times when you have had the perfect moto or ride. The unforgettable ride of legend. You could do no wrong, you were invincible, every action was just a reaction and afterwards you had the “glow.” Maybe you can’t even describe to another person what you did, because, well, you don’t quite remember. Rides like this are rare, something like this:
You notice the two lap card out of the corner of your right eye. You are trailing the lead but you can see the front runner clearly at the apex of the turn coming up, a few seconds ahead. Your focus narrows and the crowds you visually noticed before are now just a colored border on a crystal clear track; you can see every bump, every dirt clod, every knobby impression in the ruts. The engine noises fade into the background, barely perceptible. You have engaged a tractor beam to the leader, all of your faculties become sharpened to a point that you are driving into the gap between you and competitor ahead
|flow state is only attainable when you have the ideal ratio of challenge to skill, when the task at hand is at your limits but not terrifying.|
Norepinephrine has been released, a neurotransmitter that is akin to adding turbo boost to your brain, allowing you to subconsciously process information much faster. You notice dried, loose dirt on some turn exits you didn’t see before, even though you are now flowing through turns much faster. Time slows down, becomes elongated, allowing you to uptake more information that aids you in slicing the gap down at every opportunity. Yes, you are getting closer to your target, you can feel it and see it on every turn. You swear you see drops of sweat flying out of the leader’s helmet.
Dopamine is getting dumped into your body, the “joy” neurotransmitter that gets released when something makes you deeply happy. Not only does it make you feel great, it helps hone your focus and quickens reaction times. You are now floating around the track, unloading the bike at the proper times, a mere reaction to what you feel, see, and remember from prior laps, but none of this requiring conscious thought. You are Superman and Superman is now right on the leader as the white flag makes its appearance in the now silent movie that is playing inside your helmet.
You cannot be any closer to the leader; you can feel the vibration of his motor as well as yours. Endorphins have been unleashed into your system and these natural pain killers allow you to push relentlessly in these last laps free of pain. You have become one with your bike and you easily anticipate which way it will bounce and when your tires are pressing into the dirt.
The one lined nature of the track has proven extremely difficult for passing, but your body is dripping anandamide, a neurotransmitter that opens up non-linear thinking and creativity. You are now pacing behind the leader, the speed now well within your means, half a lap to go. Without a directive thought, you quickly alter path in a sweeper turn, cutting inside a hair to avoid tiny, dry, loose marbles in the race line exit you registered on the last lap. Your brain, now seemingly directly connected to your throttle body, modulates power delivery through your right wrist, exactly matching your available traction which is just fractionally better than the leader’s – you make the pass and seamlessly block his exit line, forcing him to chop the throttle just slightly. This gives you a small gap and you can feel where he is.
Before it can hit your conscious, you are punching the air in victory! Suddenly you can hear the crowds as you roll into the finishing chute. Your mechanic is sprinting your way, you can see the pearly whites of his teeth in his huge grin. Your family is in the stands, proudly waving and you feel utterly euphoric. Even as time passes, you feel happy and content in the “afterglow” of your victory, thanks to the serotonin that is released as you come down from the excitement of your win.
What a great narrative, no? This is a possible description of “flow state,” first named in 1990 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi postulates that flow state is only attainable when you have the ideal ratio of challenge to skill, when the task at hand is at your limits but not terrifying. This slightly overfills your nervous system’s capacity to process information consciously, forcing the shutdown of higher brain centers and the switch to subconscious processing. You become fully engaged in the moment, devoid of all other thoughts, emotions, and self judgement – your performance an unrestricted flow of reactions at the limit of your skill and physical ability, and maybe just a little beyond, with the added benefit of the “feel good” neurotransmitters giving you the “high.” Adrenaline junkies might be more accurately termed “flow junkies,” and just like the addict, you become extremely motivated to chase the flow induced euphoria over and over. But how do you reach this seemingly rare state?
My belief is that unless you can be fully engaged in the present, the opportunity of the optimal challenge/skill ratio will be for naught. Remember, this ratio demands the challenge push the absolute limit of conscious ability, and this is not possible if part of your conscious energy is elsewhere other than the task at hand. Simplifying even further, if you cannot be fully engaged in the moment, say sitting in a chair, how can you expect be fully engaged while riding?
This is where mindfulness training comes into play. Think of it as the first baby step to making the flow state more attainable. Mindfulness training is the practice of being fully engaged in all aspects of the present, free from distractions and judgement, with an open mind. Meditation is one way to practice. Before you write this all off as hippy nonsense, search the topic yourself; there is a growing body of empirical and scientific evidence that shows widely ranging benefits from stress reduction, improved creativity, enhanced focus, reduced anxiety, even improved relationships.
I was wary of meditation myself; I thought it was the act of trying to completely empty the mind, which I knew for myself was impossible. Images of monks, chanting in smoke, also turned me off a bit as it seemingly had nothing to do with sport. Also, I assumed it was heavily spiritually oriented, another thing I personally didn’t want linked to training. I learned that meditation is not emptying the mind; it is filling the mind with only the present, which I saw as something I absolutely could improve upon for sport and life and I found plenty of avenues that weren’t spiritually oriented. There are plenty of written programs on mindfulness and meditation, websites, classes and of course, apps.
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I read through many of the programs, tried a few classes, read a few meditation guide books and my personal favorite method to mindfulness training is an app called Headspace. It is an audio based progressive guide into meditation, with a modern, practical and non-spiritual bend. You start with a free, 10-minute per session program which then gradually advances in duration (subscription based). Focus at first is aimed at noticing things in your own body at rest, truly starting at beginner level. Both the app and website contain supporting content, such as audio and video files aimed at your current mood.
There are many sources of mindfulness and meditation training, surely there is one that fits your personal desires. The goal of all the meditation is to enhance sporting efforts, to make reaching the highly desired flow state more likely by becoming more adept at keeping the conscious mind fully engaged in the present. The proposed first cornerstone in achieving flow state is having the challenge in the optimal ratio with skill, which demands your conscious to be fully engrossed and slightly above capacity with the challenge. This means the conscious must be 100% in the present to reach its limit, allowing the conversion to subconscious processing, opening the floodgates to the neurotransmitters that aid the flow state and keep you wanting more. Reaching the flow state in sport may be the driving force behind mindfulness training, but it can also have profound positive effects in other aspects of life.
Kotler, Steven. The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. New York: New Harvest, 2014.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.
Brady, Patrick. “Flow State: The Science of Wheeeee!” Bicycling. Rodale Inc. 02 June 2016. Web. 05 June 2016.
Hochman, David. “Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention.” New York Times. New York Times Company. 01 November 2013. Web. 05 June 2016.
That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness.