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Ever Wondered How Athletes Surf 80ft Waves Or Jump The Great Wall Of China? This Is Their Secret Formula…

Athletes have achieved more jaw-dropping stunts in the past thirty years than ever before. How have they done it?

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Have you ever been “in the zone”? That feeling where time seems to slow down, a state of total calm and clarity, where all your focus fixes on a single task?

It can be triggered by anything – a good rhythm while running, deep meditation, the exhiliration of skydiving, even knitting or computer programming. This sensation, argues Steven Kotler, is called the state of flow – and it’s changing the world around us.

“In the past 30 years, the boundaries of what is possible has been pushed further than ever before”

Flow is still a relatively new concept in the science of psychology. Kotler describes it as “an optimal state of consciousness in which we perform and feel our best”. It’s something many of us have encountered at one point in our lives – getting in the “zone” – even if only momentarily.

But why does it come about? And how has it altered perception of what’s humanly possible? This is what Steven Kotler decided to investigate in his book The Rise of Superman. 

In the past 30 years, the world has seen an unprecedented growth in physical human accomplishments. The boundaries of what is possible has been pushed further and faster than ever before.

Steven Kotler Photo: The Rise Of Superman
Steven Kotler, the author behind The Rise of Superman. Photo: The Rise Of Superman

“Not too long ago, the idea of anyone jumping a motorcycle over a bunch of school buses was so incredible, the whole world tuned in every time Evel Knieval decided to give it a go,” says Kotler. “These days, on any given weekend, you can watch dozens of riders across the world jumping similar distances – only backflipping as they go.”

“Not long ago, the idea of anyone jumping a motorcycle over a bunch of school buses was so incredible, the whole world tuned in to watch it”

Where has this speed up in evolution come from? How have humans managed to progress to surfing 60ft waves, dropping 60m mega ramps or even skydiving from space in less than three decades? Kotler says the answer is flow – the discovery of it and how athletes have learnt to tap into it.

“If we want more flow in our lived, the best places to start that investigation is with the people with the most flow in their lives.” Hence the book’s focus on action and adventure sports athletes.

For these athletes, being in a state of flow isn’t just a desirable, it’s a necessity. As Danny Way says, “It’s either find the zone or suffer the consequences – there’s no other choice available.” The slightest error means almost certain death.

Dean Potter is one - free soloing (climbing without any harness) in Yosemite. Photo: National Geographic
Dean Potter is a pioneer in the death-defying sport of free soloing (climbing without any ropes or harness) in Yosemite. Photo: National Geographic

Kotler’s book is split into three parts: how flow works, what athletes have done to master it and the future of flow and its dark consequences.

Flow produces chemicals in the brain which are akin to those produced by drugs – namely nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, anti-depressants and a whole cocktail of prescription drugs.

“The high people get from flow is the same as illegal drugs – it’s just naturally produced in your brain”

The high people get from flow is the same produced by illegal drugs – it’s just naturally produced in your brain. This explains hence why these surfers, snowboarders, skaters are quite literally addicted to their sport.

Kotler explains that athletes shouldn’t be called “adrenaline junkies”. It’s not adrenaline they’re looking for, it’s flow. Flow is a creative, problem-solving state, which unlike adrenaline, goes beyond fear and panic. It’s not an “extreme stress response”, it’s calm, calculated and helps people achieve the unimaginable.

Sports psychologist Michael Sachs believes behind every sporting victory is an athlete in flow. How else did Danny Way ollie over the Great Wall of China with a broken foot?

The book works because it doesn’t just spout scientific theories. Just when you think it’s all got a bit too dense and technical, Kotler pulls you back in with another jaw-dropping first person tale of human performance – from surfer Laird Hamilton’s Millenium Wave to free climber Dean Potter’s record-breaking solo climb (without any ropes or harness) of the Yosemite Half Dome.

Any snowboarder, surfer, skiier, skateboarder or outdoors nuts will enjoy reading The Rise Of Superman. It’ll make quite literally make you think differently about athletes – what makes them tick and how they accomplish feats beyond our wildest dream. It even encourages you to bring more flow into your own life. The only question left is how far can humans go?

You can buy Steven Kotler’s book The Rise Of Superman now from Amazon UK for £10.49

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