I took my boys to the local skate park on a rare sunny winter day recently. They like riding their pro scooters there and practicing mild versions of the tricks they’ve seen on Youtube. I was watching them practice as well as the dozen other boys gathered there, from ages 9 to 16. This park was adequately equipped, but not extreme in it’s dimensions. The collection of boys there were doing nothing we’d regard as very dangerous or professional, but clearly they were having a good time.
I pondered the source of this joy. From the signs, I sensed these kids were naturally tapping into a bit of flow state – completely absorbed in the challenge they chose, repeating their move over and over, alternating looks of fear, excitement and satisfaction on their faces.
The park provided a good variety of heights, slopes and edges so any young skater could find the challenge that was just right for his abilities. But listening and watching them, it was clear they were not always trying to stay within the safe (easy) boundaries of their skills. After some repetition of one thing, they would immediately seek out something different and more challenging than what they had already done. I doubt any of them consciously knew it, but something in their nervous system was seeking out and riding a small wave of flow each time they stepped up the challenge.
Moving from a psychology to a physics filter in my mind I observed the flow of energy going on – each skater was drawing some natural force into their body each time they slipped over the edge of a ramp. They could build up that force through acceleration, then redirect it as the slope curved, as they shifted their center of mass and turned the handles a bit. I think it is this manipulation of energy flow in the body that is so thrilling. The boys exemplified how humans love to have (certain kinds of) energy flowing through them and around them. We not only love to generate and direct our own force, we enhance that pleasure when we take in more energy from our environment and magnify the effects of those movements.
I see a clear relationship between the psychology of flow state and the physics of energy flow.
Just about a week before this visit to the skate park, for his birthday, I took one of my sons up snow boarding (I went on skis, while he was on a board). I was a bit of a ski bum in my college years, arranging my schedule to have a day a week free where I could drive to the mountain all winter. After college I gave it up for other things, but always fondly recall those hours of quiet, clean motion propelled by gravity. On this trip with my son I was refreshing my memories and love of smooth, coordinated motion on the quiet slopes and introducing him to the same pleasure. He seemed to be natural at it and caught the bug like I did.
My son was discovering how skating/scootering and snow boarding/skiing are quite similar in how one uses his body to work with gravity in a thrilling way. Though the skate park is local and free, the snow offers a much more forgiving surface to try out more daring experiments in gravity-driven motion and speed. So, it can be a very helpful part of improving the skater’s sense of potential.
On the snow, I had no problem restraining myself, to be cautious with my knees and hips and back – I am fit, but fit for swimming and running, no longer conditioned for the 3-dimensional bending and twisting that skiing requires. I want to keep running at my age too much to repeat the snow heroics of my youth. I was content to just carve smooth turns and do spins around him while my son moved a bit slower learning his own moves on the board.
Back in the skate park, however, I did start to envy the boys’ pleasure around me. I felt tempted to borrow a scooter for a while to try it myself! I almost asked my son – he would only have been too eager to see his dad try! – but then realized most of the boys were taking spills and dropping on the concrete quite often. They are smaller, lighter, softer and lower to the ground so their collisions with earth would cause less trauma to their bodies than it would to mine. A broken wrist or elbow right now would not be good for my training or coaching work, so I easily resisted.
As I continued to watch I reflected on how much I still love motion and harvesting natural forces in swimming and in running, like these boys are doing on wheels. Swimming, for me, is not about ploughing through the water, battling as if it were an opponent. Running is not about pounding against the ground, throwing myself in the air, or gritting through the discomfort. Swimming the action of my body moving in total coordination with itself, and that body moving in smooth cooperation with gravity and with the water. Running is like that as well, with the added advantage that the human body is actually designed for running. When I slip into the form I’ve spent decades perfecting, when I when I get into the rhythm, it becomes a marvelous experience inside. Flow is something I seek out and tap into every time… or else, something is wrong!
Granted, swimming and running, as we normally practice them, don’t automatically include fear in action, like skating and skiing can, which can actually make it easier to tap into flow. But we can set up challenges for our skills that takes us out of the comfort zone and set up the conditions to make flow easier to reach.
Components Of Movement Pleasure
The first piece in the pleasure of motion that we experience comes from harmonizing movements within our own bodies. Proper form is paramount so that the body is moving in patterns that it is designed for – these are the safest, strongest and longest lasting movement patterns. Only after the athlete/artist has mastered proper form can she then explore creative and unusual patterns that might yield even more pleasing or effective results.
The second piece in the pleasure comes from harmonizing the body with the external natural forces as much as possible, seeking out ways to work with them more than we are working against them. It is important to view them as partners in the action rather than opponents. Gravity is pulling downward. Water or ground is pushing upward. Water molecules are slipping away or resisting. These are all neutral, natural features that we can view negatively and fight against, or view positively and learn to cooperate with.
The third piece is incrementally adding more challenge so that the nervous system has to pay attention and stay sharp, and increase skill to keep up. In the case of swimming or running, challenge comes from increasing distance (duration of uninterrupted rhythmic motion), varying speed, cadence/tempo, stride/stroke length, trying more difficult terrain or waterway, dealing with more difficult weather, and things like that. It could mean creating self-limiting exercises where you are required to maintain quality under more restricted or unstable conditions, where finer and finer control must be acquired.
Energy Flow = Pleasure
All of this will help improve performance, of course, if you want to get PR’s and win races. But the underlying point – the more important value – is that all this flow of energy in the body creates pleasure. And pleasure is what we are most powerfully motivated by. Our bodies love to be immersed in a flow of energy. Our brains love to play play with it and increase in ability to work with it. Children know this instinctively. My son begs me to take him to the snow or to the park. We should take notice and learn something from this.
But too many adults use a race to force them to work out. Or they treat exercise like a discipline. What makes adults forget the pleasure of movement? What switches so that external achievements become more important than the pleasure of harmony inside our own body, mind and within our athletic environment?
If there ever becomes a competition between the demands to train for an external achievement and your pleasure in the activity itself, why would you ever sacrifice the pleasure of motion? Or how long could you risk training that way before the loss of pleasure had a long-term consequence to your motivation to exercise?
Maybe we should stop and watch, if not play with children like these every once in a while to remember and refresh our own love of motion. And, maybe if we tapped into the motivation that kids naturally have to go play on skis and scooters we’d never struggle with the ‘discipline’ of daily exercise again.
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