Mindset & Flow

When Steve rang I thought it was to catch up and talk fishing. We’d recently been fishing together and I knew he was preparing for the next New Zealand championships, as he’s a keen competition angler. After the usual pleasantries and reminiscences, Steve casually asked for my brother’s number. My brother Mike is a sports psychologist and works with the All Blacks in the field of high performance. After passing on the number and finishing the call, I realised that to improve his fly fishing, Steve wanted to improve his mental approach, and his willingness to do so indicated he had the right mindset. For many people, fly fishing is an excuse to get out in nature and enjoy a day or two by the water. Consulting a sports psychologist is not likely to be foremost on the average angler’s agenda prior to a fishing trip! However, without a doubt most anglers would like to catch fish and regularly seek advice on flies, locations and any other ‘secret’ tips that might enhance their chances. This of course is fabulous and adds to the experience. Furthermore, I would suggest that improving one’s mental approach is fundamental to increasing enjoyment of the sport. Success varies and the adage that 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish is true. So what separates the majority from that elite angler who can catch fish anywhere and who always seems to have the right fly? GROWTH MINDSET Experience helps as does careful preparation and a level of confidence and competence with equipment and techniques. However, it is their growth mindset which truly sets top anglers apart — this involves their ability to improve ‘flow’ during periods of challenge, and their preparedness to work harder. It is a desire for continuous improvement and personal excellence. It is the ability to ask questions and then bring ‘game’ to any situation to enjoy the day. A simplistic example would be the willingness to walk further up a river in a fishing session. Other examples of a growth mindset might include researching the location prior to a trip, interpreting weather patterns, learning the language of fly fishing and tracking previous people’s experiences. The growth mindset is enhanced and framed more strongly when the controllables are well addressed. Have I got the flies and casting skills for the location I have chosen? Have I got the appropriate clothing and nutrition for the day? Have I been to this spot before? Do I have some background on the location I am fishing? Am I excited! An elite angler approaches this situation knowing that no matter what his preparation, variables will change throughout the day and his ability to adapt and respond will determine success. As will his ability to learn from the continuous feedback he will be receiving from his observations. This article will not tackle the preparation for the day nor the confidence ‘state’ but rather only concentrate on one aspect of the elite angler. The reason ‘why’ they have confidence, seem to be able to strike at exactly the correct moment, make good fly decisions and find fish when no one else is catching. Carol Dweck, a famous psychologist and researcher from Stanford University, developed the notion of growth mindset (see her well-known book Mindset). She coined the terms ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset. In terms of the angler – am I ‘the fish aren’t biting’ kinda guy (fixed mindset) or do I think that if I keep fishing and honing my technique during the day my chances of catching fish will improve (growth mindset)? Am I prepared to research and try new techniques, to read in order to advance my own knowledge, and adapt new thinking? A fixed mindset focuses the success of the day on an outcome based objective, whereas the growth mindset will take an approach more centred on the process of fishing and where the catching will take care of itself. Fly fishing is full of dogma. The flies we use, methods and techniques may sometimes be dictated by other anglers’ values. Your enjoyment of the sport should be determined by how you want to fish – and by your own choices. I mean, you chose fly fishing over using a net. You didn’t really want to catch a lot of fish, did you?! An example I would like to use relates to Euro-style nymphing, popularised by the competition anglers. Although I do not use this method on my home waters, I have sought out elite anglers and tuition. They have taught me how to ‘swim’ my flies correctly, and shown me there are many, many fish in a pool that I have not seen or caught. Taking a growth mindset to our angling gives us the primary tool to add to ourselves as anglers. Do I Euro nymph when I go fishing? No. However, I do incorporate the ideas and concepts of why dead-drift is less important, depth is crucial, as is the constant need to maintain contact with my flies. I go to my casting instructor friends when I want to improve my casting, that’s for sure! So does simply increasing my knowledge and execution improve me as an angler? Does it enhance my experience? Yes, without a doubt. However, it must be underpinned by a willingness to fail, with lessons learnt from that… Did I have multiple opportunities but not execute well? Do I need to rethink my approach to the water and take more care with my presentation? Was the water temperature too low? Have I managed my controllables to the best of my ability? I can record these observations and increase the effort I put into improving as an angler — focusing on my techniques, decision-making and ability to observe and take on feedback. I can develop and foster my growth mindset. In sport we often focus on the outcome and it is the same with fishing — the win or the numbers we catch dictate our success. Experiments at Stanford conducted by Dweck have shown that students with fixed mindsets are 40% more likely to lie about their scores if no one knows better… Does this sound like any angler you know? As clichéd as it might be, win or lose, the All Blacks always seem to have ‘work ons’ seeking to improve their game, rather than focusing on the outcome of the next game, the opposition, or even dwelling on the game just played. A winning record like theirs is not maintained without a culture of growth and hard work. So how does ‘mindset’ relate to the elite angler and why they are catching fish when others may be struggling? It is the questions and observations they are continually seeking, because of their mindset, that provide advances in their own methods and responses to riverbank or saltwater flat challenges. For example: rather than ask, “what fly” and limit yourself to a pattern to ensure success, ask questions such as what size, colour, weight, and how is the fly behaving in the water? Is tippet size a more valuable question? All things being equal, the pattern is less important than how the fly is being fished and why the fly was chosen. ENTERING FLOW When fishing, the ability to forget the world and only be mindful of the water and quarry is what often attracts us to the river, lake or ocean. When the fish is located, how do we present the best of our skills to catch our quarry? Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ — arguably the secret to happiness. Flow is a mental place where action and consciousness may merge and where focus, clarity and ease of task bring enjoyment and positive feedback or outcome. This is the state of mind where anglers are enjoying themselves the most, and performing at the highest level. Ultimately during periods of the day we would want to enter a state of flow, where we are fishing well and ‘in the zone’ or ‘in the moment’. Flow is where time slows and there is clarity of movement. Where we are completely absorbed and focused. Ultimately by being in this mindful state we will fish at our best. You will see golfers go through a routine before every shot and a batsman in cricket going through their pre-movements and routines before a delivery. I would suggest finding the same before executing a cast to a fish you can see, or as you approach the water at the beginning of the day. In fact you may have several pre-angling routines throughout the day – to re-centre and bring yourself back to the present moment. As an example, once my quarry or targeted drift line is identified, I will acknowledge externalities such as currents, obstacles and depth. I may use my breath to centre my focus. I will choose a fly to elicit a response (I may have it on already!) and visualise that fly landing. With deliberate movements I will unhitch my fly and then — in the moment – enjoy the cast but have my intense focus on the target area in which to land my fly, switching my attention to the fish once my fly has landed. This is key, as the controllable is not the fish but rather our own skills and presentation. By enjoying the activity of entering flow we leave all externalities behind. We often are at our best and we certainly become very present in the moment. For many of us, that is why we fish. To enjoy the moment and the slowing of time when we are not pulled in life’s other directions. Where, for a moment, we may invite a fish to electrify our lives. If the goal is to catch fish, then by having a growth mindset our response to that outcome will only improve us as anglers. Our skill levels will be enhanced as we react with questions that assist us to learn the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ rather than the ‘whats’. By entering the zone or flow when fishing we receive positive feedback from the activity, and pleasure may be immediate as we are present in the activity rather than the outcome.

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