During the 1970s I did not have the language to describe the “process” I used to learn to surf Sunset. The process came to me as feelings that I attempted to duplicate. The language came much later as I learned to write about performance in general. The process for getting better in any sport can be broken down into the ability to be present, mindful and focused in the moment.
My first experience in being present came one day when I realized that I had "let the day go." I had worked all day in town, driven straight to Sunset and immediately paddled out. Three or four strokes and the feeling of the sun and water washed over me like a wave of relaxation and the upsets and tension from the day were gone. I was totally present, feeling every stroke as I paddled out, excited about catching waves, having the right board and being in the right place at the right time.
From that day forward, whenever I paddled out, no matter the situation or the conditions, I would attempt to recreate that feeling. It eventually became a muscle memory, an internal signal to let go and relax.
Yoga to the rescue
“Breathe into your discomfort and let the tension wash away.” This is the voice of the yoga instructor in my first-ever yoga class in 1972. A friend from the lineup at Sunset suggested I give it a try. The class was located in a small wooden structure at the bottom of the hill from Pupukea. Right on the water, when the waves were big, the building trembled and the sound effects were magical.
After class I went up to the instructor and asked for a deeper explanation. I shared that my shoulders burned whenever I paddled hard to keep from getting caught inside. “Just breathe into your shoulders and imagine that the burning is being washed away.” I was hoping for a better understanding and instant application. But I did begin to practice breathing into my shoulders. All day, in fact, and eventually I began to breathe from the top of my head to the soles of my feet.
As the technique began to work I now realize the I was learning how to bring myself present and let go of negative thoughts and feelings. After a bad wipeout I would repeat a similar routine. Unfortunately, I never learned to settle down when the third reef at Sunset would break. I was good up to a point and when the waves got too big I felt like it was time for me to work in my garden.
Settling down when you feel uncomfortable is about learning to breathe your way to calm, clear and confident. Which is a prerequisite for being mindful: You are very present, able to choose the right thoughts and create the right emotion for the moment. Being mindful in surfing is best characterized by the need for edge control, the ability to feel through your feet to maintain your balance and the amount of weight and pressure you put on your board to maximize speed, turn with power, and adjust your stance accordingly.
During the time I surfed Sunset, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy visualizing and thinking in a feeling sense about making a steep takeoff and turning properly off the bottom. I know it helped. I can remember driving home and seeing and feeling myself making a particular turn and then actually making the turn and feeling so good about it. It is that good feeling that allows improvement to happen. The specific turn becomes a muscle memory to be used freely, on command.
Mindfulness is the power behind making good decisions when they count the most, when you want to perform in critical situations. To handle the crowd. To paddle in when the time is right or paddle over to an easier break when your body demands some relief.
The ability to focus is broken down in the narrow focus and broad focus. The narrow focus is a state of intense concentration; think only of the task in front of you. To shift your focus from narrow to broad, take a deep breath and relax your mind and your body. Literally or figuratively step back from the activity and relax your eyes and soften your vision. Continue to breathe in a relaxed manner and take everything in and be sensitive to your surroundings. To shift your focus you must be able to move back and forth between being intense and relaxed.
To focus is to concentrate on getting the job done and at the same time to feel the right sensations that remind you to use proper form.
Getting the job done is a function of the power of appreciation. To want to be present no matter what, to embrace a challenge and call forth all of your spirit and, finally, to battle with the competition or distractions and not lose the feeling for what you want to happen. The right sensations are a form of muscle memory that lets your brain know that you are using the right techniques, skills and tools to get the job done.
The Power of Flow
When you are able to bring yourself present, be mindful of what you want to accomplish and focus on the proper way, you are setting yourself up to experience The Power of Flow. The term flow can be misleading when it's associated with activities that require little energy or attention; i.e., to go with the flow. The Power of Flow is the product of hard work and a laser-like focus; a very special energy that allows you to breathe, be relaxed and calm as you work your way through self-imposed limits.
The Power of Flow is the authority that you give yourself to push through resistance and discomfort. It is a feeling that makes a difficult task feel easy, a boring task fun, and a very scary task feel both necessary and manageable. The Power of Flow is present when you have the confidence to accept your situation, when you enjoy the process, and when you have the enthusiasm need to accomplish specific results.
My introduction to The Power of Flow was a mystical experience, an altered state of consciousness as presented by Michael Murphy and Mike Spino in their work at the Esalen Sports Center in the 70s. I utilized this approach to create flow while swimming at sunset in Waimea Bay in the summer, surfing in small waves in the spring and fall, and running in soft sand at Sunset Beach...again, in the summer. All of these locations share the beauty and power of the North Shore of Oahu. Swimming at Waimea Bay, looking down in the crystal clear water and then looking up at the light show created by the sunset reflecting off of the mountains. Surfing in the perfection of clean and mellow surf that happens before and after the storm season, waves that made me feel like I was a genius compared to the challenge of surfing the same spots in the winter.
Running in the sand at Sunset Beach is almost impossible except for those few months in the summer when the sea is low enough that the beach flattens out. During this time you can run right next to the ocean, sometimes all the way from Sunset Point down to Off the Wall and back (about three miles, round trip). The magic of these environments combined with the exhilaration of training hard was enough to put me in the flow for long periods of time. In this state, I was able to swim, surf and run better, harder and longer than ever before. Forty some years later, I remember these moments in living color. The Power of Flow can create strong emotions and memorable performances.