A story in last week’s New York times entitled How to Hack your Brain for $5000 examined the concept of “flow” for athletes and artists.
Then, on Sunday in Bergen, Norway, in the Men’s World Road Race championship, Peter Sagan of Slovakia gave a thrilling personal demonstration of flow to win his third rainbow jersey in a row. It was an unprecedented feat that no pro cyclist has ever accomplished, not even the legendary Eddy Merckx.
We quote from the Times article: “First popularized decades ago by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an elusive state cultivated by artists, athletes and others, that of being so absorbed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time and thought, finding themselves guided rather by instinct and intuition.”
It’s a state that Sagan seems capable of reaching on a great number of occasions, often in the biggest races not the calendar. Listen to his explanation of how he won and it’s clear that he was in a flow state in those final few kilometers.
“My strategy for today? I didn’t have a strategy. You can’t plan things when you’re in the moment. What you do isn’t part of a plan or a dream from the night before,” he explained.
While second placed rider Alexander Kristoff road a perfect race, he lost to Sagan by centimeters in a shot-finish. That was a case of flow and a perfectly executed and timed bike throw.
Sagan even suggested, perhaps a bit whimsically, that there was a spiritual component to his victory. “I don’t know, maybe it’s karma that I won,” said Sagan.
That touches on another aspect of flow — and one that was mentioned in the New York Times story, by former extreme skier Kristen Ulmer. “A lot more people are saying they’re spiritual but not religious — but what does that really mean? I would say sports and movement are the most oft way we access a spiritual experience and transcend our ego.”
Three World Championship Road Race victories — Richmond, Virginia in 2015, Doha, Qatar in 2016 and Bergen, Norway in 2017 — is a pretty good definition of athletic flow. Sagan summed up the experience with a certain fluidity: “I hope to do well in races next year but you never know in this sport. I live day by day. Who knows what is going to happen tomorrow.”
Peter Sagan, Flow King.