I’m not in the habit of writing reviews of other books on this blog, but Will Buxton’s My Greatest Defeat makes for a worthy exception.
Over the last 20 years I’ve been hunting down the world’s greatest sportspeople in a bid to understand what goes through their minds when they find the magical state of peak performance. But it’s time to admit I may have been missing a trick, because it’s in our moments of despair that we learn the most – and the greats are not exempt.
Buxton has spoken to 20 of global motor sport’s all-time legends about their lowest points. As it happens I’ve been lucky enough to interview all but two of them myself, yet such is the quality of these exchanges I’ve learned something new about every single one of his subjects – from Alex Zanardi to Jimmie Johnson, Alain Prost to Sébastien Loeb.
Each of the drivers opens up about what they learned from their personal disaster, showing how willing they were to buy into this project – not to mention the author’s skills in putting them at ease to talk. And it’s not just about the racetrack, with the late Niki Lauda notably delving into his own darkest hour after one of his Lauda Air planes crashed in Thailand, killing everyone on board.
I’ll resist being the source of any spoilers, but there is plenty of wisdom to be found from Mika Hakkinen, Jeff Gordon et al, plus some surprising revelations along the way from the likes of Rick Mears. What becomes abundantly clear is that every one of these drivers is a human being like the rest of us. And it is a steady diet of defeat that sets each of them up for any eventual, hard-earned, oh-so-sweet taste of victory.
The best part is that Buxton lets them speak for themselves and allows the conversations to flow out onto the page. It’s a throwback to the extended form of interviewing that we could see even on TV chat shows back in the days before it was deemed that we don’t have the attention spans to cope.
Rest assured we do.
To be really picky, we might want to hear from more of the current crop of F1 megastars, because defeat is no stranger to any of us, young or old. But no doubt Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already being lined up for the sequel.
A final point: the book itself is a work of art thanks to the striking cover design and brooding individual portraits of each driver by DC and Marvel comic book artist Giuseppe ‘Cammo’ Camuncoli.
A man used to depicting superheroes with a dark tale to tell…
My Greatest Defeat by Will Buxton is out now
Thank you very much to Autosport Grand Prix Editor Edd Straw for having me as a guest on this week's Autosport Podcast to discuss my books In The Zone and Overdrive.
We had a very enjoyable hour of chatting about how the greats of Formula 1 find the Zone - and some of the surreal effects that happen when they get there, from time slowing down to heightened senses to the out-of-body experience.
Along the way we talked about Ayrton Senna and two of his biggest fans, who both happened to win the world's two biggest motor races last weekend: Monaco Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton (pictured above) and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud,
We also discussed Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc, Nico Rosberg, Jarno Trulli, Jackie Stewart and more. The podcast ends with a special treat for race fans: an exclusive clip from my interview with the late Dan Wheldon which opens the prologue to In The Zone.
Finally, if you can read Italian click here to find my recent article from Italy's Cyclist magazine featuring interviews with Chris Hoy, Nadia Comaneci, Franz Klammer and more...
If you prefer listening to reading, In The Zone is now available as an audiobook - and Google Play are selling it at the special price of £2.99 until May 30. You can find the deal by clicking here...
Earlier this month coach, author and flow expert Stuart Haden of the Storm Beach Authentic Leadership organisation kindly took the time to put up a video about In The Zone. Check out his thoughts on how the insights of the featured athletes (he counted 148 of them in 27 different sports...) can be used in the business world and beyond.
Given the pre-eminence of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners over the past 50 years, it still comes as a surprise that the all-time queen of the road is British.
Paula Radcliffe started running at the age of seven but she had her epiphany as an 11-year-old when she came to watch her father race at the 1985 London Marathon. That day Ingrid Kristiansen set a new world best time (2h 21m 06s, a mark that stood for 13 years) and the young Paula was instantly struck by the Norwegian’s power and fluidity as she saw off all but the very fastest men.
‘That London Marathon was a big inspiration for me,’ says Radcliffe. ‘First it was that smell of Deep Heat on the start at Blackheath. But when Ingrid came past that day, she was right in there not far behind the winning men. To see a woman that far up… I didn’t really have a lot of barriers in my head at 11 anyway but it broke down any barriers that remained.’
Thanks to asthma and anaemia Paula’s dream must nonetheless have seemed distant, yet such was her drive she was crowned World Junior Cross Country champion in 1992. Then within two years disaster struck as a doctor told her she would never run again due to a stress fracture to her left foot: ‘I remember coming home in tears and my Dad saying, “What’s the big deal? Loads of people go through life and they don’t run.” But I said I’m not “loads of people”, I’ve got lots of things I want to do. It has to get better. And it did.’
Radcliffe duly embarked on a meticulous training regime that strengthened the muscle in her head as much as those in her legs. Further cross country titles followed but she always seemed destined to be the ‘nearly woman’ of track racing because she lacked a kick over the final lap. Then it was time for her true destiny to kick in…
At her very first marathon at London in 2002 Paula set a world’s best for a women’s only race. Later that year she became the first woman to run under 2h 18m in Chicago but even that didn’t sate her appetite. At the 2003 London Marathon she used two Kenyan male pacemakers to take the record to the next level. Her 2h 15m 25s is a time so far out of reach of anyone else before or since – over a minute and a half – it could last for decades more.
‘The attraction and challenge of the marathon for so many people is that it’s you against the distance, against your body, against hitting the wall,’ smiles Radcliffe. ‘That’s the way I always like to run anyway, I never looked at split times too much, I just ran hard and strong. It’s only later you realise how much “in the Zone” you were and how much you ask your body and it delivers. You just trust it’s going to be there because it has been there in the training. It’s that “not fear” that you won’t be able maintain the pace or finish, you just trust you will be able to.
‘I don’t think I had more talent than anybody else. There are people around now who have more talent. I just had this stubbornness and a way of wanting to run as hard as I could; even if I had the race won, I wanted to see how fast I could go. So it was this mindset, combined with the luck that my body could withstand the amount of training it did in 2002 and 2003. It enabled me to get into really good shape and attack it.’
Radcliffe may not obsess about split times but when you spend your life at the front of a marathon with a camera truck ahead of you it’s unavoidable, notably for her historic run in London. The first lesson of marathon running is to stick to the same pace all the way round. The Englishwoman’s average mile rate from her Chicago record was 5m 13s, so she could tell if she was up from the split times flashing up. Alarmingly the third mile in London was below the five-minute mark, which she worried was far too fast. To most mortals yes, but Paula was on fire.
‘It was definitely close to a perfect day,’ says Radcliffe. ‘The preparation had gone really well; the only real hiccup was when I had an accident with a little girl on a bike who knocked me over a few weeks before. I spent a couple of weeks trying to get over the dislocated jaw and whiplash from that. But by that point most of the training was already in the bank. On race day conditions were good and I felt good.
‘Even so I did think I would go quicker afterwards but it never happened. I was in slightly better shape in training in 2004 but by the competition I got injured. That shows in the marathon you need to seize the opportunity. You put so much into the training cycle and so often that risk doesn’t pay off: conditions aren’t right on the day or you get a blister or an upset stomach and you can’t capitalise on everything. That’s why that day in London I felt it was really important just to keep running as hard as I could so the record had a chance of standing for as long as possible.’
The pain was worth it. 16 years and counting…
Ever since I read Ayrton Senna’s words describing his surreal out-of-body experience during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, I’ve been on a quest to find others who have found the same magical place.
Over the years I’ve met many great sports stars who have been there too: moments in the Zone that bend time and space and transcend reality as we know it. Occasionally I get really lucky and the human being telling me the story is still at the absolute top of their game, and the world.
After Novak Djokovic collected his fourth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award last week, I grabbed my chance to enquire about his description of going into ‘another dimension’ during his near-perfect Australian Open semi-final in January.
Appropriately we were in Monaco so I brought up the similarity with Senna’s words. The Serbian superstar’s reply was as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from one of sport’s true class acts – and definitely, unmistakably Senna-esque. Here it is in full…
‘I actually watched Ayrton Senna’s documentary so I did hear him speaking about that,’ smiled Djokovic. ‘In my case there were several matches where you just feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. One of them was in the final of the Australian Open in 2012 against Nadal when we played almost six hours. It’s really hard to explain when you feel like you’re present but somehow you’re also not present – because the physical pain is so big that you don’t feel your body any more, but you’re operating on some kind of autopilot that is taking you to your desired places, which you determine mentally.
‘It was one of those experiences where you just feel like there is a higher force that is driving you forward. I’m also a big believer in that, and I always rely on my faith and try to be grateful and understanding of a creator and a greater power and a universal help that we always see. So I try to remind myself of that, of how blessed I am and not to take things for granted because ego is a strange opposition at times, and it can play with your mind.
‘In this process of evolution as a human being I’ve learned a lot more about these things because I’ve become more aware of them. Before it was just… I hit a tennis ball and it was in or out, and I won a tennis match. But throughout the years it became much more than that. It became a spiritual journey. And because the tennis court is a place where I’m probably most vulnerable but also very confident and strong, a tennis court is a school of life for me: where I get triggered most and where I can understand myself on a deeper level. That’s because everything I maybe suppress outside of a tennis court surfaces there.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing tennis. I don’t see too many different places where I can actually evolve as a human being better than on a tennis court.’
Wow. To learn more about Djokovic’s approach to his art, read my earlier interview with him about his 2012 epic against Nadal which is a highlight of In The Zone - or check out the wonderful speech he gave while collecting last week’s Laureus award…
Austria’s Franz Klammer prevailed over a golden era for skiing, sealing a record five World Cup titles plus gold in the blue riband men’s downhill at the 1976 Olympics – 43 years ago today – after a truly wild ride (see video below…)
The secret to ‘The Kaiser’s’ success, which included one matchless run of ten straight wins, was that he didn’t consider his opponents to be his rivals. No, his main adversary was about a thousand times taller.
‘I won every race in one season – except one when I lost my ski,’ he gleefully recalls in the book In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big. ‘That means you have to be better than the best one of the others. You always know one of these guys will have a very good run because they’re all after you. But I’m not racing against any person, I’m racing the mountain.
‘When I was winning all the races, I just knew I was ahead of everything. So you’re the boss in the ring. You know how you want to do it and you can just conquer the mountain. Then you get into the Zone. This happened to me a lot, and those moments almost always led to victory because you’re the leader. It’s not the skis or the mountain telling you what to do. You’re mastering the mountain.’
It takes a big man to take on nature but Klammer offered his mighty rival the highest respect imaginable. He didn’t just show up on the day and expect mastery to fall into his lap; instead it was a steady build-up that began in the privacy of his mind.
‘The most important thing is to figure out what you have to do to perform,’ he says. ‘It’s not up to you when you have to race so you have to be totally consistent. If the race is at midday on Saturday you cannot afford not to be on form then. You have to be spot on. So I had a mental build-up during the week, like gradually pulling back a bow and arrow. When I arrived for the course inspections on Wednesday I started pulling the bow back, building up the tension more and more until you are ready to go. Then on Saturday I let the arrow fly.
‘I always used to visualise the course too. When I went to bed I lay down and went through the downhill, then again the next morning, visualising what I was going to do. You learn that as you go through your career. Once you really have the feel the hard bit isn’t the turns, because you’re always in action, but the flat. If a flat section takes 20 seconds you don’t know how long that takes without a clock. Still, when I was really in my heyday I could imagine the whole course within three or four tenths of my actual racing time. Then when I got to the start I’d do it all different because if you stick to the line you are too slow…’
If a relaxed attitude sounds like a chink in the armour for the other competitors to exploit, they will be sorely disappointed. Such a playful mindset allows the legends to set their subconscious free. That’s when they really start to fly.
‘For me being “in the Zone” is when everything is in slow motion so you have all the time in the world,’ adds Klammer. ‘In skiing you have certain crucial sections of the course when you really have to get it right. Afterwards it is flat so if you make a mistake you will lose a lot of time and you won’t win the race. But when you’re in the Zone, you have a very clear picture ahead of you and you see all these little details. So you can go for it. It’s a special feeling when you’re in full flow…’
This is an exclusive extract from the book In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
We are pleased to report that as of January 2019 In The Zone is now available as an audiobook for the first time. Read by Tim Dickinson, it lasts nine hours and features 100 interviews with the all-time greats of sport talking about how they live their dreams. You can find it on Audible or Amazon.
Click here to listen to a sample clip from the section featuring legendary TT motorbike racer John McGuinness...
To celebrate today's publication of the paperback version of In The Zone in the USA, here is an exclusive extract from the book featuring my interview with Robby Naish, windsurfing and kitesurfing's most famous son - and its greatest ever competitor...
Few fields have the lines between success and failure marked out as clearly as sport. It may be hard to treat these two imposters just the same (as Rudyard Kipling suggests) but regardless of any outer glory or defeat that comes our way, the trick is to trump it with the pure passion for doing what we love.
In 1976, a thirteen-year-old Robby Naish won the world windsurfing championship. The American was still winning titles decades later, before switching to kiteboarding in the Nineties and dominating that too. For those who battle waves and wind Naish is a legend. But to him it’s not about glory. The key to retaining the motivation to scale peak after peak is very human. You can set up home at the top of your field only if there is nothing on Earth you would rather be doing.
‘A lot of athletes are goal-oriented: they reach their goal, then they’re ready to move on to something else in their lives,’ Naish tells me. ‘I was never goal-oriented, it was the experience that I always loved. I was never trying to achieve any single thing. I didn’t want to become world champion then go and become a chef or take up golf. I realised this was what I wanted to do more than anything, and for as long as possible. It’s about the process and the enjoyment of everything that goes with it.
‘I’m lucky that my sport puts me in this pretty pleasant environment – but not always. Our events can be in miserable places like the North Sea when it’s bitter cold. But it’s taking that and enjoying it for what it is. I did that better than a lot of athletes. They’d be standing on the beach miserable and I’d just think: “Give it to me!” I loved being there. I’ve always been really appreciative that someone was actually paying me to do this so I’ve been able to make a living. That realisation helped me continue to push myself to stay in the Zone for all those years. It’s still going: people still pay me to go surfing. I’m not competing any more but in my eyes I’m still a professional athlete. I realise the whole life of being a sportsman is profoundly lucky.’
Before we start painting any picture of Naish as a happy-go-lucky type just out for a good time, there are familiar factors leading to his ability to maintain the heights. He started with a childhood of practice in the sunny Hawaiian surf, before an adulthood of total commitment.
‘In our sport the build-up to competitions starts before you get to the beach,’ says Naish. ‘You have a lot of equipment so you get your gear together and drive to the beach, then there’s the lead-up to a race. Throughout my career I was always the kind of guy who would go to bed early to prepare. Then I’d want to be at the beach before everyone else so when they showed up they’d see me and think: “Oh no, he’s already here.” All those elements helped me know I was ready mentally, physically and equipment-wise – and that I’d done everything better than everybody else.
‘I was lucky that personality-wise I was drawn that way. I hated losing so badly that I wanted to do everything possible to make sure I didn’t lose. It wasn’t so much the thrill of winning, it was doing everything I could to avoid that feeling of losing. For me competition was everything. It was mind, body, spirit, 100 percent focused. The enjoyment of that feeling was worth sacrificing any other things in life. Whether it was partying with my friends or whatever, it was no issue to sacrifice that to be as prepared as I could possibly be for competition.’
Naish sure doesn’t sound like your archetypal chilled-out surfer dude. But the Zone is so special it is worth any such sacrifice. Moreover if you find yourself facing anyone who finds this magical state, that would be a good time to start scrabbling for ‘luck’. While Naish similarly demoralised his opposition, that wasn’t the main point behind his painstaking work ethic before his events. The biggest effect was that it combined to put him into the right mental state to compete, turning Naish into one of the elite who found a way to access the Zone at will.
‘Different athletes have different ways to put themselves into that Zone: little rituals they need to bring them to that point,’ says Naish. ‘I never figured that out as I didn’t have to count crows to put my mind into that space. It would come naturally. But I’ve always been really nervous, internalising it, to the point that knowing I was nervous meant I really wanted it. If it is comfortable and natural, someone who wants it more will beat you. If I was lackadaisical it would be time to do something else.
‘So I never had to think about it – until the times I wasn’t there and I’d realise what it feels like not to be in the Zone. Fortunately it didn’t happen often: through my entire career I was there 99 percent of the time. But it was profoundly obvious when I wasn’t. When it didn’t come together you’d sit there knowing you weren’t quite there. You’d never figure out what happened or why. Occasionally you could click yourself back into the right state but when you couldn’t, you’d have a bad day.
‘Part of being in the Zone for an athlete is being able to put all your baggage aside. Whatever is going on in your life that morning, yesterday or last week, or that injury that is nagging you, you have to put it completely out of your mind. It’s about cutting everything else out so you can focus 100 percent on the job in that second – or the eight minutes of the heat or the half-hour, whatever the contest is. Everything else in the world disappears for that moment in time...’
This is an extract from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big - out now in paperback...
On October 15, 1997 Britain’s Andy Green became the first man to break the speed of sound on the ground, clocking an average 763mph over two timed miles in opposite directions at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in Thrust SSC (Super Sonic Car). Green remains the world land speed record holder but he is not ready to slow down yet. Now into his fifties, he is collaborating with the Bloodhound SSC Project - currently engaged in a will-they-won't-they chase for funding - in a bid to pass the next big milestone: 1,000mph.
Wing Commander Green is used to such extreme speed from his day job as a fighter pilot – but the fundamental principle remains that people don’t kill themselves in the air; it’s the ground that does the damage. That’s why in any land speed record bid the load on the spinning wheels, which will reach 10,000rpm at full speed, is matched by the load on the spinning mind of the human inside.
‘Getting into the Zone fairly common for anyone who does high performance racing or flying,’ says Green in an interview for In The Zone. ‘The way your brain works at apparently abnormal speed is to remove uncertainty. For a Formula 1 driver, it’s about doing the same lap thousands of times. In flying you do enormous amounts of study, simulation and practice. It doesn’t happen on your first sortie, it happens when you’ve got a thousand hours.
‘The tricky bit for a land speed record driver is that the car may only run 50 times over the course of two years. So my practice will be very limited.’
Twenty years on from Green's record-breaking run, Bloodhound SSC ran in anger for the very first time at Newquay’s Cornwall Airport last October: ‘low-speed’ initial test runs up to 200mph. But with real-life physical preparation in such short supply ahead of the full-blown record attempt itself, Green has to settle for the next best thing: watching endless rehearsals in the comfort of his own imaginary movie theatre.
‘If you go to the cinema, when you haven’t read the script and don’t know the story, you’ve got to grasp all that the first time,’ he smiles. ‘Normally it’s the third time you watch a film that you start to see the details. I need to see them first time. So it’s about trying to see the film before you go into the cinema.
‘I’ll go through the profile in detail so I know it, including the specifics of when I’ll press each button. Years ahead I’m already visualising: “What will it be like? What can help me?” It’s picturing every aspect so when you get to the cinema the seat fits you, you’re sitting in a nice place and the popcorn is ready to go.’
The timed mile itself lasts a mere 3.5 seconds but that is just one part of a brutal two-minute acceleration and deceleration. During that time Green is not just holding on for grim life but monitoring a bewildering range of systems, any of which could suddenly destabilise the car. As he builds up speed, he must also build up his mental capacity to a point where time apparently runs slower than normal.
‘I need to break the run up almost second by second,’ adds Green. ‘That’s to see how it is constructed, work out what I need to do in each moment and minimise the things I don’t have to do. Do I have to watch the engine oil temperatures or all the pressure sensors? No, the car can monitor those and find out if there’s a problem. There might be a critical moment 15 seconds in when it becomes relevant but until then I can turn my attention elsewhere.
‘It’s all about working out a sequence so I appear to be doing 15 things at a time when I’m really doing one thing at a time, very quickly one after another…’
Read In The Zone to find out what happens when things go wrong (as they did when Green first broke through the speed of sound) plus why the project’s primary aim is to inspire the next generation of engineers… and learn how the whole Bloodhound SSC crew is in countdown mode towards their bid to take the record out of sight.
‘There is so much untapped potential in people it’s just incredible. It’s almost beyond belief, really. I feel it and I sense it through what I’ve experienced in my own journey. I’m from a humble beginning but the message of my story is that great things grow from small things.
'The magic lives inside every one of us, despite our environment, our struggles and our doubts. It takes courage to realise what that magic is, then to actually go out and try to achieve it. It’s the power of loving yourself, I suppose, and giving yourself a chance.’
In my years of researching the human being at the limit for In The Zone I’ve been privileged to meet over a hundred of the world’s biggest sports stars. But every now and again one of them sends me away with my head swimming. This time it is Australia’s national treasure Cathy Freeman, who has just summed up this entire book in a hundred words.
The magic of elite performance is that it always starts out small: with a dream. By nurturing it, crafting it and loving it, sport’s champions show us all the untapped power of the human mind. When we believe in what we conceive, the Zone can guide any of us to achieve anything. And it’s not just about sport.
More than simply a cliché, the Zone is the mental state required to perform at our own absolute limit in any field. This is the home of ‘genius’: where artists are at their most creative, where musicians produce their most sublime performances, where scientists make their breakthroughs. This doesn’t stop with the stars. Whether you’re a teacher, a chef, a nurse or an astronaut, if you’re taking an exam or cracking jokes in a pub, to find the Zone guarantees you hit your absolute best. You may not even recall how or why it went so right. Put simply, it all goes like a dream.
The Zone can kick in at every level from a kickabout in the park to the World Cup Final. It is just a blissful state where all internal chatter disappears and we truly go with the flow. We assume conscious thoughts drive us on, but it is when we give our subconscious free rein to do its natural thing that we truly shine. That often leads to a performance at the maximum of our potential, albeit beyond what our conscious minds ever imagined possible. This limit rises in proportion to the hours of practice in the bank and the intensity of the occasion. Blend the Zone with supreme ability and a packed, expectant arena and you get fireworks. This book features plenty of those but the good news is that we all have enough spark to match any of them, if only we take the trouble to live the dream.
‘The great achievers, winners, inventors, musicians and painters have all been great dreamers,’ says mind coach Don MacPherson. ‘What’s exciting is that anyone can visualise. We can use it in life’s everyday challenges like school exams or a driving test. If you have to make a best man’s speech, first picture your audience in as much detail as possible, using all your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch. See yourself delivering your speech feeling relaxed and confident. Hear the audience laughing and clapping, then coming up to congratulate you.
‘These mind movies turbo-charge your confidence because the subconscious doesn’t know the difference between the real thing and something imaginary. Like all skills, the more you practise the better you get. But your brain loves a target so give it a big one like a great success. When you have it burned into your subconscious mind, switch focus to the process by visualising how you’re going to get there, step by step.’
This book draws on the testimony of the cream of the world’s brightest dreamers and most focused schemers to show we all have a chance to be a magician. Anyone with a dream can follow these greats all the way to the top of the world by setting their mind unflinchingly on their own specific quest.
How do champions think? They don’t. The original dream comes not from the head but the heart: conceive. No matter how long it takes, they don’t think they can, they know they can: believe. Finally, to truly peak they stop thinking at all: achieve.
We all have this potential if we can stop suppressing it ourselves or believing others who haven’t yet learned this universal truth. When we finally pay dreams the attention they deserve, the payback is a sea change in everything from self-belief to self-discipline, self-knowledge to self-esteem. Then a realisation dawns that buried within each of us is the power to make any dream come true, even if the process may initially seem more of a nightmare…
This extract is from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, out now
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.