We have a little chat with speed competition extraordinaire and esteemed Storm athlete Joseph Henderson on the topic of ‘flow states’ - the psychological phenomena which is being studied and discussed more and more in recent years.
Anyone who’s been training parkour for a while will have noticed how different the experience of movement is when they are extremely focused on what they are doing. The extent to which you notice how different that experience is perhaps speaks to how introspective you are. Nonetheless this concept of ‘the zone’ or more recently ‘flow’ is something most of us have been exposed to, subconsciously or otherwise!
It may surprise you that there is an increasing body of discussion surrounding this once very slippery and niche idea. Books like Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler go into detail about what is happening at the level of the brain and the mind when athletes are hyper focused on a difficult task out near the limits of their abilities.
Indeed you hear it discussed more and more often at events as the years go on. One well known athlete who loves thinking about the concept of flow states is Joseph Henderson. Winner of many a parkour speed competition, he clearly is doing something very right with his training - perhaps his understanding of flow is a factor in that? Let’s find out…
So how would you describe what flow is to someone completely unfamiliar with the idea?
I’d describe it as a sensation of optimal experience, in which you’re entirely engaged in the task at hand… It’s a state of mind where you are entirely engaged, entirely focused on the the task at hand. You’re working towards some sort of goal, and that task is on the edge of your ability - be that mental or physical.
...Ahh, I want to pinpoint this!
It’s times at which you feel like you have control over your own consciousness and over your own fate almost. I think a lot of the time you go through life with a state of mind where you don’t feel like you have any sort of control over the external world (like things going on around you), or the internal world either (like the contents of your mind).
You’re pretty much at the whim of the things around you, like if something happens… like some conflict happening nearby causes you to feel uneasy, or you’ll see some advertisement for food and start feeling hungry. Your consciousness is pretty much at the whim of this external world, which is pretty much indifferent to you, or perhaps entirely indifferent to you and your goals.
But when you’re in ‘flow’ you have a feeling, not necessarily control, but at least of participating in the order of events happening around you, and having some sort of control of your consciousness. It's like experiencing order in consciousness rather than chaos.
When did you start thinking about flow as a feeling of optimal experience?
Well I think my concept of flow has changed over the last year or so of doing more research, and educating myself more on it. I think my initial concept of it came from years ago, and at the time I thought I had a good idea about what it was. But now I look back on that I feel it wasn’t quite accurate. I think since reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on flow which is kinda the principle primary text on flow, my concept of flow has become more grounded and substantiated I guess, and more accurate to what it actually is.
I think I used to think of flow as this mystical, magical sort of state of mind where you suddenly have access to abilities and focus beyond what you normally have. But now I understand flow to be more a state of mind and consciousness brought on by doing things close to the edge of your ability.
How can ‘flow’ help your Parkour? Why should someone be interested?
What I think I’ve learnt is that it’s not something you access and then it affects your ability… I think now that it’s a state that you access through doing certain activities. So Parkour can be a flow activity because of the feeling it can give you, which is essentially of being adequately challenged, and feeling like nothing else matters apart from the task you have at hand.
For example in parkour if you’re doing a jump which is on the boundary of your ability - perhaps it’s slightly bigger than you’re used to, or there's some intricacy about it that makes it a challenge - but you feel you have the necessary skill set to deal with it… that’s when you’ll access flow. I think the intrigue of it from a parkour perspective isn’t as something that will necessarily help you in parkour, but it’s something worth accessing that parkour can help you to access.
Because I think the moments of being in flow, being in that state of optimal experience, are the moments of your life that are remembered as the best ones. They’re the ones that bring you the most contentment, and the ones where you feel like you grow as a person. So rather than thinking of flow as something you can access to help you achieve things in parkour, you should think of parkour as an activity that can help you achieve flow I guess.
So you think flow is the bigger deal?
Yeah I think so! And to come back to the idea of defining flow; the reason I’d use it synonymously with this idea of ‘optimal experience’ (which is what Csikszentmihalyi does, he talks about this idea), is that it’s the moments of your life you look back on as being the most meaningful and containing the most joy, and providing the most growth.
Counterintuitively these experiences won’t really be pleasurable in the moment; for example a swimmer pushing for that personal best at a swimming race or whatever, at the time his lungs are gasping for air, his muscles are aching. Similarly with parkour, trying to conquer some jump you might be scared, or angry even - I’ll often get angry if I’m struggling with a really hard challenge.
All those emotions you’re feeling at the time might not have the characteristics of happiness, there’s struggle there. Nonetheless these are the moments you look back on with the most reverence and joy. You feel like if you could fill your life with as many of those moments as possible you’d generally be happier and more satisfied with life.
So can you consistently trigger that feeling of optimum experience these days?
[Joe thinks for a few moments] Yes. I think so. But it’s not something I can trigger instantaneously, but the more I train and the more I reflect internally on my consciousness as I train, the more I understand how to access that frame of mind I suppose.
And although I said it’s more something parkour helps you achieve, rather than flow helping you achieve within parkour, it works as a cycle because that mindset is only achieved through pushing to the very limits of your ability… and being able to understand how you get to that frame of mind helps you to progress, because obviously it's being out at the edge of your ability and attempting to push beyond that where you progress the most.
It kind of goes hand in hand. Pushing that far will trigger the flow state which is a good thing in itself, and then understanding how you get to that frame of mind will help you progress.
So bringing it more personal: is flow an important element of your competition strategy these days?
Yes. Again though right at the beginning when I didn’t have such a grounded understanding of flow I would have thought of flow as something I could tap into in order to help me with competition. But now it’s hard to say why, because I don’t see it as a state of mind that does enhance you anymore.
Your understanding of it is past the point of deliberately trying to leverage it, to gain from it?
Sure. I suppose what you would think of when you talk about accessing flow in order to optimise your performance, what you’re really talking about is optimising the conditions for flow to occur. That’s where the performance optimisation comes from; its that the same things that induce flow are the things that induce your best performance. Things like supreme engagement with the activity, and pushing yourself to the limit as well.
Yeah… essentially being engaged with the task of voluntarily pushing yourself to the edge of your ability - stretching what you’re capable of. So in terms of competition it’s definitely the case that the level of focus that I engage when I do a competition is exactly the same level of focus that I’d have to be engaged in before I experienced flow.
Do you think flow is important to the future of the sport?
I do think it’s going to be important to it, but not in terms of like people’s abilities and what’s possible. But more as keeping the sport valuable on a certain level - in terms of individual progression, and enjoyment, and having some meaning greater than… [Joe thinks for a moment]
Doing parkour with the objective of accessing flow is kind of what most people are doing anyway, even if they don’t know that themselves. Like if they’re not educated on the topic, and don’t understand what it is they’re seeking, but it is when you’re pushing yourself to the brink and do a jump that you’ve never done before, and it’s like “Why do we put ourselves into these often uncomfortable situations?”...
Putting extrinsic motivations like views and fame aside, why do we put ourselves through all this risk of injury and soreness? I think most people actually train for intrinsic reasons, they train because of the way it makes them feel. It’s because being at the edge of your ability in pretty much whatever you’re doing, gives you the most rewarding long term enjoyment experiences that it’s possible to have in life. They’re a lot of what makes your life feel worth living.
And I absolutely believe parkour is a great way to achieve those sort of moments. If that was to become separated from parkour, that would mean that people are doing it solely for extrinsic reasons like wanting more Instagram followers or whatever.
So you think flow is the primary intrinsic reason why people train?
I think so, yeah! Everyone says stuff when asked why they train like “oh, I like challenging myself” but why do people like challenging themselves? Flow cuts right to the heart of that. In that sense it’s absolutely vital to the future of the sport, or any activity really.
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So to briefly recap Joe’s perspective; I think he’s saying flow is a really just a side effect of challenging yourself to the optimum level for progression, because that level of challenge forces you to focus to such an extent where flow starts to occur. That’s kinda its cash value - experiencing a flow state is a signal that you are training optimally, and being familiar with the feeling is like a homing beacon for finding that optimal training mindset.
Of course its value extends way beyond that; as Joe went into at the end, we’re all motivated by flow on some level. Some of the literature on the subject even claims we’re chemically addicted to the state of flow, hence we will go to such crazy lengths to pursue our sports, and get that flow hit.
I also get the sense that Joe has a very grounded perspective on life in general, and doesn’t like to dwell too much on highly speculative or subjective interpretations of what’s going on with flow. Hence why you don’t hear him talking about sensations of time collapsing, and depth perception being radically altered, among other things people like to discuss on the topic. I think that is quite refreshing, and lends the things he does say a lot of authority. Thanks for the interview, Joe.
Follow Joseph Henderson on Instagram @joseph.hendo
Photo Credits: Cover Photo - Lynn Ljung, Leonardo Grillo, The Motus Projects