The dark side of flow: a qualitative study in big wave surfing

S. Partington, E. Partington, S. Olivier

Research output: Contribution to journalMeeting Abstract


Flow has been described within sports psychology as the optimal state underpinning peak performance. Research in sports psychology has focused upon how athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists may create and maintain flow states. However, Csikszentmihalyi's (1975: Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass) conceptualisation of flow indicates that flow is not always good in an absolute sense. One negative connotation is flow's addictive nature. This aspect of flow has been addressed in the study of alcohol and gambling but has been largely ignored in sport. The purpose of this study was to redress the balance in sport psychology by moving away from a wholly positive conception of flow.

The study was approved by the School Ethics Committee. Fifteen of the world's top big wave surfers (mean age 37) completed in-depth semi-structured interviews. Interviews lasted 1 – 2 h and took place in a variety of locations depending on the availability of the participants. The interview guide included topics such as participation motivation in risk sports, as well as flow and addiction, with a focus on motives for both initial and continued participation and the transition from surfing small waves to big waves. A constant comparison method of data analysis was employed. The initial level of analysis involved using the surfers' direct quotes to create raw themes. Connections were made to theoretical constructs that seemed to be related to the specific issues emerging from the participants' stories and an inductive analysis was performed to generate a set of higher order themes. Finally, themes were integrated into more general, abstract dimensions.

Results indicated that these surfers did experience the documented positive associations of flow, such as improved mood and performance. However, they were also found to be negatively addicted to flow. In relation to flow, surfers demonstrated several key criteria of negative addiction such as a prioritisation of euphoric feelings, social and physical impairment, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. It was suggested that certain individuals might be particularly susceptible to the development of this negative addiction, based upon early life experiences and temperament.

The results indicated that flow in sport is not a wholly positive experience and may lead to negative consequences such as addiction. Sports psychologists must be aware of these implications when advising athletes and coaches on the creation and management of flow. Further research into negative addiction and potential susceptibility to negative flow is required.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberPC38
Pages (from-to)S62-S63
Number of pages2
JournalJournal of Sports Sciences
Issue numberSupplement 2
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2007
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'The dark side of flow: a qualitative study in big wave surfing'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this