A Guide to Flow State and Surfing

Author: Thibaud Sulzer

Chances are, you’ve experienced flow state before without realising. Maybe you were playing an instrument, cooking a meal or engaged in your favourite sport, such as surfing. You were totally immersed in the activity to the point that you didn’t even realise you were doing it, and things seemed to flow effortlessly. In this guide we explore what flow state is, how to reach flow state through surfing, and what the benefits are, including greater happiness, performance and connection to the ocean. 


What is flow state?

Flow state is a theory developed by positive psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentimhalyi (pronounced Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) in the 1960s. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as:

“the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

It’s also been described as ‘being in the zone’, and can happen in any activity. In his TED talk on the subject (with almost 100 thousands views), Csikszentmihalyi goes into greater detail about what flow state is, which you can watch below:

 There are 8 key conditions for being ‘in flow’. These are summarised as:  

  1. Balance of task difficulty relative to skills: the experience must be achievable, but not too easy. Flow happens in between anxiety and boredom.
  2. Clear goals and immediate feedback:  You know what goal you are seeking and are constantly getting feedback on your own performance
  3. Effortlessness: The task seems automated and easy. 
  4. Intense focus and concentration: All of the attention is focused on the experience, so that nothing in the outside world matters. 
  5. Control of one’s actions: You feel in control of your emotions and of the experience. 
  6. Loss of self-consciousness: You forget your own sense of self and are completely absorbed into the experience. 
  7. Alteration of time: You do not know how long the experience lasts. 
  8. Autotelic experience: The experience is intrinsically rewarding

How to reach flow state through surfing

Surfing is one of the best sports to achieve flow state, because you come in direct contact with the ocean and seek to become fluid with it. Below are some guidelines that will increase your chances of reaching flow state. However, note that it is impossible to guarantee you’ll reach flow state each time, so don’t get disheartened if it doesn’t happen immediately!

Become used to surfing

Flow state will only come through repeated practice. Time in the water will allow you to become used to the ocean’s movements and to step beyond the initial anxious feeling when you’re hit by a wave of water. As you become more experienced, this negative emotion will become more enjoyable and you’ll be able to set your own targets. The aim is to find the sweet spot where you’re a little bit above your comfort zone, but not too much so that you’re scared. 

Remove distractions

When you’re preparing to get into the water or waiting for a wave, find a way to remove unnecessary distractions, so that you can focus on the experience of surfing alone. This of course is easier said than done, as the mind will often tend to wonder in different directions. But tools such as meditation can help you be more mindful and present to the experience itself, and increase your chances of reaching flow state. 

Let go 

If you try and force flow state, then you’ll most likely get distracted or anxious and never reach it. Instead, try to relax, be fully present and let go to the experience of the ocean. You can’t control flow state or the ocean, but you can control your own emotions by being calm in any situation. You’ll see that one day, at the most unexpected moment, you’ll be in flow, and afterwards you’ll be able to reflect on such a positive experience. 

Benefits of flow state and surfing 

Flow state is a well developed theory within sports and particular surfing, and it provides benefits for wellbeing, connection to nature and performance. Let's take a closer look at each three aspects: 

Mental Wellbeing

Surfing on its own increases personal wellbeing, since being in the ocean releases natural endorphins. Flow state will amplify this even more as you’re surfing on your favourite waves. You’ll be in pure bliss during the experience and when you come out of it, you’ll feel stoked about what just happened. It’s likely that you’ll maintain this happy feeling for the rest of the day!

Increased performance

As you reach flow state, you’ll stop doubting your skill level, but instead your surfing will seem effortless, as if you’re perfectly attuned to the movements of the waves. You’ll appear more fluid and that tricky manoeuvre that you struggled with in the previous session will suddenly become easy. It is no secret that the world’s best surfers, including Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Stephanie Gilmore, all advocate for flow state as a means of better surfing performance. 

Greater connection to the ocean

If you’re in flow when surfing, you’ll merge with the ocean to the point where you feel more familiar with it and where you can relate to it with inner joy. Following the flow experience, you’ll come to understand the ocean more than before and acknowledge the intimate moment that you have shared with it. Your connection to the ocean will be stronger, which will make you want to return to it often and take care of it.


Flow state through surfing provides a deeper experience of the ocean, which increases both wellbeing and performance.  Anyone can reach it, but it does require some level of experience and intentional focus. Of course, flow state can happen in all sorts of other sports too, including kitesurfing or cold-water swimming. Find whatever you feel most comfortable with, try these steps to reach flow state and enjoy that bliss.


Further reading: Discover more about flow state and how to achieve it in other areas of your life.



Thibaud Sulzer has recently completed a Masters in Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education. His interests lie in environmental philosophy, flow state and human connections with nature. When not studying, you’ll usually find him outside, either on cold-water swims, surfing or hiking in the Scottish hills.