On June 25, 2018 I presented and led a discussion on the multi-sport athlete mindset at the Adventure Report, a group with more than 1,000 members based in San Francisco focused on outdoor adventure.
My article on “The Athletic Mind” was published in Issue 02 of the Battery‘s Candy magazine.
In October 2017 I hosted a panel discussion at the Battery with two of my favorite multi-sport athletes. We talked about what it means to be an athlete, creativity and sport, and began a conversation about bringing skills from one sport to another.
Daniela Moroz, two-time world-champion kiteboard racer, winner of the Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year in 2015 at age 15.
Simon Dominguez, marathon open water swimmer and subject of this film about his swim from the Golden Gate to the Farallones.
I’ve spent too much time trying to make decisions. And you know what – deciding isn’t really any fun.
I’m always happier when I flow through life using my intuition. I’d really like to be making zero decisions and living intuitively all the time.
“…we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking…”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
This led me to ask myself, how do I get better at living intuitively? How do I train my intuition?
To jump ahead for a moment, the simple answer is: you get better at what you do often. You can train your intuition by acting intuitively, by using your intuition in any way at all really. But I was kind of stuck, I was used to making decisions – or trying to make decisions – and I was out of touch with my intuitive self. I needed something more specific, a usable, understandable technique that would improve my intuition in a noticeable way.
At the same time that I’ve been thinking more about intuition – over last few years – I’ve also become more and more athletic. I was always very active but until recently I didn’t pursue anything with goals or training, or even on much of a regular basis.
“To realize the body’s potential for flow is relatively easy. It does not require special talents or great expenditures of money. Everyone can greatly improve the quality of life by exploring one or more previously ignored dimensions of physical abilities.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness
And here’s the thing: once I started being more athletic, I started to notice an improvement in my intuition. The more time I spent doing things with my body, especially authentic physical activities that get me into flow, the more I noticed this effect of improved intuition. I started to think about what the connection is between athletics and intuition – how does being athletic improve our intuition?
This is the answer that I’ve come to: When you’re engaged in authentic physical activity (especially outside), your body is responding automatically – intuitively – to the environment, to the situation as it comes. As you practice this intuitive movement, we train our physical intuition, simply by being active outside.
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A little clip from the #kitesurfing film we shot last summer in Brazil — I love how @brunaatoledo @videocomalma captured the #kitefoil #flow here! . . . . . @boardridingmaui @alpinefoil @flowgenome #LevelUp #WatchThis @canaloff @surfinsemfim @kurtiseyewear #NoFriedEyes #TheSearch
And then – here’s the magic – the mind observes this, sees the body doing its thing, sees physical intuition happening, sees that the body goes where it needs to go without having to be told where to go, and learns that this is possible. Our mind learns how intuition works – and that intuition does work – by observing the intuitive movement of the body.
“…wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.”
― Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity
If we are active and in flow on a regular basis, the mind has plenty of opportunities to see that spontaneous, effortless action of the body leads to good results. It just works, all by itself, without having to make decisions. The next step is that the mind sees this and says, “hey, that seems to be working for moving the body, let me try that for myself. Let’s try some spontaneous, effortless thinking and see if that works just as well.” And (for the most part) it does go well, which reinforces the mechanism, making it more likely that the mind will allow itself you to go in that direction in the future, to allow intuition to happen, instead of going into more of an analytical, decision-making mode.
We can train and improve our intuition by being physically active (outside). The connection between athletics and intuition is so powerful that I now see that as the central theme of my work.
Human-powered, self-directed, challenging, outside.
We all know that physical activity is good for us. Exercise ain’t all it’s cracked up to be though. It’ll certainly help keep you alive longer, and many people love their workouts, but it’s called a routine for a reason, right? I think there’s a better model, and I’ve come to call it authentic physicality. To get in flow, to feel good, I have to be engaged in AP at least once a day. If I really want to feel great I need to do a double, or stay in AP for more than a couple of hours, and I know I’m really putting awesome in the bank on those rare days when I can get into AP in three or four different ways, for several hours at a time.
Let’s break down what I mean:
First of all, you have to be doing something human powered. If you’re not moving yourself, you’re not really moving. This is part of why I gave up riding motorcycles: it’s super fun, it’s self-directed, challenging, and done outside, but it doesn’t really provide any physical exercise, and it requires using an engine. And – even if you’re moving yourself, if what you’re doing requires external power as an intrinsic part of the activity, it’s not going to be as fulfilling – and it will likely be more expensive and energy intensive. Human-powered activities are also, very simply, simpler. We don’t need any extra complications in our world. Another thing about motorcycles that I realized at some point was that I no longer enjoyed having the machine and all of the process and tools required to keep the machine alive. We pay rent on everything that we own, and especially with machines – our machines own us as much as they require us to maintain them.
I find self-directed activities more interesting. This means figuring it out yourself, for the most part. Having a mentor or a leader is great, but if someone is holding your hand every step of the way, it’s too easy to lose awareness of what is happening and what you are doing. Americans love guided activities. Get a guide if you need one, but don’t just follow; work with the guide, and only as long as you absolutely need to. And then try leading something yourself. We’re all capable of leadership, and it’s far more fulfilling than otherwise.
Note that I mean self-directed, not alone. For mean this usually means doing individual activities like kitesurfing with other people. Climbing falls somewhere in the middle as it’s most often done as a pair activity. Team sports can also require a lot of self-directed activity.
How to use this criterion? I went on a short river rafting trip last year that was human-powered, challenging, outside, and definitely not a ride, but we basically just paddled when the guide told us to paddle. The activity felt good, but I don’t think it fully qualified as authentic physicality.
Doing something that isn’t intrinsically at least somewhat challenging is simply boring. Same if you’re doing something that you’re already so expert at that you can do it with your eyes closed. However, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out in Flow, it doesn’t have to be – in fact, should not be – something so hard that you simply can’t do it. In fact, completing attainable goals, achievable challenges, is a key part of getting into flow. It feels great to level up, and it’s good to do that as often as possible. Progression is great. If you’ve mastered something, find a way to introduce a challenge again, and/or start teaching others (which is itself a challenge).
Being active outside and in the natural environment is so important. Most of us live in cities and we certainly get some benefit from being outside even in urban environments, but nature is far more stimulating and inspiring. As Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile, “what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.” Another reason, also cited by the same author, is that a “wealth of details leads to inner peace.” We need the fractal detail of natiure to occupy and inspire our minds. So: running on a treadmill in the gym is better than nothing, running outside on the sidewalk is better, but trail running in the woods is far superior and provides multiple benefits to the body and the mind.
A note on “extreme” sports
Some people think of some of the things that I do as extreme sports. I don’t use this term. The word is vague, subjective, relative – and overused. It’s also not relevant – authentic physicality is most often not extreme at all. Most sports that might be called extreme are complicated, required a lot of gear, and can only be done in very specific locations (and this require a lot of engines/fuel).
The back story
I’ve always been highly physical. Although I grew up in the city of San Francisco, my parents were outdoorspeople who took me backpacking for the first time well before I could walk. I was never attracted to team or ball sports much, but I enjoyed hiking, camping, backpacking, climbing, sailing and skateboarding from a young age, and did a lot of those things plus snowboarding, mountain and road biking, windsurfing, surfing, stand-up paddling, snowshoeing and trail running through my 20’s, 30’s and into my 40’s. In recent years my primary sports have been kitesurfing, paragliding, and open-water swimming – and it’s only in recent years that I’ve pursued any sport with enough regularity, dedication and aspiration to feel like anything of an athlete.
As I’ve become more athletic, I’ve stopped doing some things that I used to enjoy: snowboarding, riding motorcycles, sailing boats, river kayaking, CrossFit. As started to think more about why I gravitated towards certain types of activities and away from others, I began to develop the idea of authentic physicality. There are too many activities masquerading as sports that lack one of the key qualities of AP . Hooking yourself into a zip-line might feel challenging for a moment, but it’s not active, not human powered, and not really physically challenging (unless you’re catastrophically unfit). At the end of the day things like zip-lining are rides, not sports, and you won’t get fit or into Flow by taking a ride. I don’t think anyone – not even a child – is really using their time well on a ride.
The easiest and purest way to do authentic physicality is trail running. Other great AP activities are walking, hiking, backpacking, open-water swimming, rock climbing, cycling (especially trail or mountain biking), paragliding, surfing, stand-up paddling, snowshoeing, xc/backcountry skiing, and skateboarding. There are lots more – get out there and let’s hear em!
A new specialty in kitesurfing is emerging. Long distance kiting is different from freestyle, wave riding, racing and free riding. While all of these disciplines continue to progress, something else is happening that isn’t about tricks, waves, or competition – it’s about exploration, adventure, and the unique feeling of making a journey by kite.
Long distance kiting is about traveling not just with your kite but traveling by kite. There are parallels in other sports: in paragliding it’s known as vol-biv, in cycling it’s bike-packing. It’s the difference between sport climbing and a multi-day climbing expedition, or between a day hike and an overnight backpacking trip.
Long distance kitesurfing can be done with just about any equipment, at any pace, in many places, and with varying degrees of support. Long distance kiting is its own thing, and for many of us it is the way that we enjoy the sport the most. Especially for riders who aren’t into freestyle or racing, and for more experienced and adventurous riders, long distance is a uniquely awesome experience and more and more kitesurfers around the world are getting stoked on long distance kiting.
It’s not just “downwind”
If you’ve been kiting for more than a year you’ve probably done a “downwinder” of some sort, either at your home spot or while on a kite trip somewhere. Usually this involves riding a few miles/km from a known launch and getting a ride back to where you started from. I did my first short downwinders at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It’s a great feeling to ride with the wind and know that you don’t have to worry about getting back upwind – just jump in the car/buggy/taxi/bus, and enjoy the ride back home!
These little downwinders are super fun, but I always wanted more. I wanted to go somewhere. What’s different about long-distance kiting is that you leave from wherever you start, and you don’t go back. You kite down the coast some distance, you arrive somewhere else, sleep there, and then continue again the next day. While we often use vehicles for gear support and/or safety, it is possible to travel this way without getting into a vehicle for days, even weeks at a time. The detachment from the world of roads and vehicles and the immersion in the journey creates a totally different feeling.
Variations within long-distance kiting include supported, unsupported, solo, crossings, distance records, and exploration, just to name a few. All of these areas are seeing rapid development, and I think we will see more and more in the coming years. There is still a ton of unexplored territory and many “firsts” yet to be achieved in long-distance kiting. For inspiration check out Louis Tapper’s original 2000km solo trip, the solo longdistance trips that Andre Penna is doing on his foil in Brazil, the mega-distance records that athletes like Nick Levi are putting up, the multiple world records set by the amazing Bridge family at the Isle of Wight, or the 600km “Ironman” trip” that I did last year.
The most common type of long distance kitesurfing is done with the support of vehicles that travel along the route by land, carrying all of your regular-life stuff (most of which you quickly realize you don’t really need at all). It’s not usually necessary, but in certain conditions a boat or PWC is needed for on-the-water support. On the other hand, given the right conditions (first of all: warm air and warm water) long distance kiting can be done entirely unsupported, with just a waterproof backpack and some cash in your board shorts.
The north-east coast of Brazil is particularly well-suited for long distance kitesurfing, with hundreds of miles of sandy beaches, side-onshore trade winds, warm water, warm air, great food, great culture, and an absolutely incredible landscape – but there are many other places around the world where distance trips can be done, most of them undeveloped. Where? That’s part of what’s so cool about long-distance – most of it remains to be discovered!
Although some specialized gear is starting to emerge, long distance kiting can be done with just about any equipment. You can go long-distance on light wind race gear, wave kites and a surfboard, a twin tip – or perhaps best of all: a foil board.
When you select gear for a long-distance trip, the most important consideration is your skill and level of confidence with your gear. Choose gear that you have mastered – you want to be sure that you can make it work if the wind drops or if you need to go make landfall somewhere other than your planned destination. We’ll go over equipment in more detail in another article, but if you are doing a long distance trip in a warm place like Brazil, you really don’t need much beyond your board and your kite.
You also need to select equipment that is going to work well in the terrain and conditions that you’ll be riding in. My board preference is a strapless surfboard with relatively high volume and long rails. I use a 5’3” Firewire Vader – this board goes super fast on any point of sail, rips upwind, works well in both light wind and high wind, and is also relatively short, making it easy to travel with. I always ride strapless – you can use handles if you like, I just find that they get in the way of my feet!
When selecting kites, the most important criterion is that they are in excellent condition. I also recommend kites that have good range, especially if you are planning a solo trip. I fly the latest Boardriding Maui Cloud kites, and I love how versatile, nimble, and compact they are, but you can use just about any kite for your long distance journey.
Foil boards are opening a lot of doors for exploratory and long distance kiting. Foils require less physical effort for a skilled rider, and they allow you to cover ground in just about any direction, making it possible to plan long-distance routes that include upwind legs as well. The main issue with foils is that they require at least a meter or so of water depth. You absolutely do not want to crash your foil into anything hard – I’ve done it, it’s not fun, and it usually spells the end of your trip. Foils are also more likely to get tangled in flotsam or fishing nets, but that usually isn’t catastrophic. As long as you account for these factors, foils are an incredible tool for distance and for exploring. I love my Alpinefoil which, among other things, packs down very well for travel.
For me, the journey is what long distance kiting is all about. Whether you travel solo or as part of a supported group, down the coast or crossing from island to island like Mitu did recently in Cape Verde, there is very specific and unique feeling that you get from such a journey. Spending several days on the water, traveling entirely by kite and away from the world of cars and roads – away from the land for the most part, in fact, puts you in a unique state of mind.
You may be familiar with the idea of “Flow”. Flow is a state of mind and a state of being in your body. You find yourself in flow when you are totally absorbed in what you are doing. Your perception changes, and your intuition takes over from your conscious mind. It’s common to enter a flow state during intense physical activity, and it can happen for a few minutes or a few hours at a time.
The magic of a journey is that you extend the flow state beyond the immediate physical rush of action. You spend days immersed in the experience, in the feeling of your body working, and in the feeling of being part of the natural world. Being in Flow feels good – it’s recreational, but it’s also challenging, restorative and inspiring. Flow is also addictive – the more time you spend in Flow, the more you realize that other things – most things, really – are a distraction.
When people ask me about kitesurfing, I often describe it as a form of sailing, and as the combination of sailing and surfing. The essence of sailing is to make a journey by the power of the wind alone, to cast off from a known port and arrive on foreign shores. Long distance kitesurfing is how we as kitesurfers can experience this pure soul of the wind – a unique way to travel, to explore, and to expand your horizons in the sport. I encourage everyone to do some long distance kiting and feel how distance is different!
This post was originally published on SurfinSemFim
I’ve been training all year to swim the Golden Gate. It’s about the same distance on the map as the much more popular Alcatraz swim, but the currents in the Gate are even wilder – there’s simply no such thing as slack tide in this massive funnel where San Francisco Bay pours in and out of the Pacific every six hours. I finished dead last but only one of a few who swam in “skin” i.e. without a wetsuit, my time was still perfectly respectable, and I felt great throughout the swim and afterwards.
As a San Francisco native and lifelong denizen of our beautiful bay, swimming the Gate has been in my mind for some years. I put the idea off repeatedly, shelving it under “foreign concepts” and “unnecessary hardship”, but it persisted. This year I got the message again and finally had the courage to commit. I really don’t believe in putting things off, but it sure can be easy to do, especially when faced with a calling that requires truly new skills. There’s something else about swimming – it’s not fear, and it wasn’t just getting past the point where swimming was simply unpleasant because I wasn’t that good at it. Swimming requires a huge amount of head game.
This past Saturday morning was probably the most beautiful morning on San Francisco Bay yet this year: sunny, warm, and relatively calm. Absolutely perfect conditions and I had no fear, no anxiety. And yet during the swim I was constantly confronted with a voice saying “just call it, this is unnecessary, what are shu doing here, the current is pushing you the wrong way, what’s the point, there’s no need for this, why bother” even while another voice was simultaneously saying “wow, this is amazing, the water is perfect, I’m not tired, check out the view, no problem, you got this, it’s not even that far, this is amazing, no worries, have fun, you’re almost there”. I’ve experienced this before while climbing and perhaps I’ve just forgotten how that felt – or perhaps that’s why I stopped climbing. And I’ve experienced it more recently while paragliding, which almost made me stop flying. In both of those cases I can attribute a large portion of the feeling to the situation that those sports entail: halfway up a 1000’ cliff, or dangling in the middle of the sky from bits of fabric and string. While you might think being in the middle of SF Bay in nothing but your sunga is similar, I feel quite comfortable in the water, and so I’m left to face the truth directly. The truth is that it’s not the situation, and it’s not fear. It’s reluctance to sincerely accept a challenge of unknown dimensions. To not postpone, beg off, be distracted or unprepared, to not quit or fail. To not commit to try, but to simply say yes.
My dad said to me not long ago that he thinks I’ve had it easy. I think that’s bullshit. A lot of things have come fairly easily to me, and I give him credit for teaching me so many physical skills early on, which gave me a great deal of physical ability and self confidence. Swimming, however, has not come easily. It was hard to choose to do this, even though I wanted to. I don’t mean to make any more of this than it is – lots of people have swum the Gate, and for a decent swimmer it’s no big thing – but for me, this was a real accomplishment. And – I had an awesome time. Super fun to be able to do something like this and enjoy it!
Most of us would say that art and sports don’t have much to do with each other – but I don’t think that’s true. While our intellectual self lives in the mind, our intuition lives in the body. This embodied self is the seat of creativity – and therefore of art.
On the surface, we tend to think of athletes as physical and not particularly creative, but stretching our physical abilities and challenging our bodies is a well-traveled path to creativity, and many athletes are also artists.
Renan Ozturk is known mostly as a climbing photographer and cinematographer and professional climber, but he describes himself as a “landscape artist at heart”, and his paintings provide a unique window into the eye of a mountaineer.
Gregory Porter is a hugely successful jazz musician who pursued an early career in football before finding his calling in music.
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While riding with @igortavella on the steep little farm roads that wind their way along the flanks of the Dolomites, I wondered if it would be possible to do 5000 meters (or more) of climbing on all the little roads in less than 100k. Igor laughed – of course! In that moment, an idea hit. We should do a ride later this year: invite anyone who wants to join us to get a big flavor of Igor's backyard, his secrets – paved and dirt – but all doable on a road bike, so long as the rider is ok with gradients that are always north of 10% and isn't scared of some dirt roads and a bit of amazing singletrack (meaning this won't be everyone's cup of hot chocolate). It will be on a Saturday or Sunday or both – everything will of course be based out of the Tavella hotel: the @UstariaPosta in Badia. We are thinking early to middle September. It will be the #YOLOMITES 5000 brought to you by @holimites and Igor. If the rider has had their fill at any point, they can cut it short whenever they want – we will never be more than 20k from the start at the Ustaria Posta. #yolomites5000 #conquereveryroad
Gou Miyagi is an incredibly innovative skateboarder who is developing new and unique ways of using his body and his board to create movement and imagery: