If we want to understand the power of dreams – and how greatness always starts in our own heads – the all-time greats of sport provide all the evidence we need.
The world’s most decorated Olympian Michael Phelps collected 28 swimming medals over a record-shattering period lasting a day shy of 12 years. Of those, 23 were gold: he won his first on this day (August 14) at the 2004 Athens Games and his last in Rio on August 13, 2016.
The foundation to his success was a brutal training schedule of countless repetitions – averaging seven miles a day, 365 days a year. Phelps started young too, spending his early years permanently around a pool. By the age of 11 he was swimming two and a half hours every day. He was just 15 when he made his Olympic debut at Sydney in 2000, reaching the 200-metre butterfly final but missing the medals. Just months later he broke that world record and the deluge began: his total now tops the entire collection of over 150 Olympic nations.
The American was fortunate to grow up into the perfect physique for swimming – a long trunk and a wide arm span – but it’s in his head that he shines brightest.
Such a staggering, history-altering career would never have come to fruition if Phelps hadn’t worked tirelessly to create vivid images of his races in advance, then steer his future accordingly. Thanks to rigorous mental training with coach Bob Bowman he learned to write his goals down, specifying each target time to a hundredth of a second. Even in his early teens he soon found himself hitting them precisely.
‘I started visualising when I was about 14,’ Phelps tells me in the book In The Zone. ‘It was all about thinking how a race could go, how you want it to go and how you don’t want it to go so you’re ready for anything. I found it could really help me to prepare. Visualisation is important so you don’t have any surprises. That means you can always stay relaxed. That was a big key in everything we did. Starting it at a very young age really helped me throughout my career.’
Visualisation is not just about being prepared for anything, it’s about shaping the future to fit the mould of your private vision. The greats start with a big vision, then they map out their route towards it by dividing it into smaller, more manageable goal-sized images.
It helped that Phelps was also taught never to believe in limits. As such he always dreamt big, not settling for gold alone: ‘It’s crazy when I look back on my career because to me it feels like I’ve been living a dream come true,’ he smiles. ‘This is everything I thought about and dreamt of as a kid. It’s like: “This is real?” And it’s wild. Everything I’ve been able to accomplish is something I’ve always wanted and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to achieve. I wanted to change the sport of swimming and take it to a new level – and I have.’
Before his racing retirement Phelps, now a father to Boomer, started a foundation aimed at promoting water safety: ‘I still swim, but now it’s more for peace of mind. But there is still a lot I want to achieve. Spending time with kids is a passion of mine. Putting a smile on a kid’s face and seeing them having fun always puts a real smile on my face too. Now I want to help kids accomplish their dreams.’
The fact these successful ‘dream achievers’ are so keen to share out the secret is a lesson in itself… One thing the greats can’t help but learn en route to the top is that we are not merely passive beings being battered around the universe. Now they are desperate for the rest of us to realise we all - without exception - have the power within us to shape our own future.
So where will your dream take you?
Click here to hear more about the power of visualisation in Clyde Brolin’s interview on the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show with Chris Evans
Life as a football fan can have its surreal moments. In February 2017 I happened to watch two matches in the space of a week. Both drew crowds of about 5,000 people. Both cost me about £15 to get in.
One was an English League Two match featuring the might of Grimsby Town. The other was a French Ligue 1 match between AS Monaco and Metz that I only caught because I was on the Riviera collecting the last couple of interviews for In The Zone, notably a certain Usain Bolt.
The setting was the gloriously picturesque Stade Louis II, though the tiny crowd gave it all the atmosphere of a pre-season friendly – despite the fact that Monaco were busy running away with the Ligue 1 title.
The home line-up featured the likes of Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho, Fabinho (now with Liverpool), Tiémoué Bakayoko (now with Chelsea) plus Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva (both now with Manchester City). Thomas Lemar (now with Atletico Madrid) was there too, but he didn’t even make it off the bench.
Have I forgotten anyone? Oh yeah, the Monaco keeper was Danijel Subasic, who now has a busy Sunday lined up keeping goal for Croatia in the World Cup Final.
Then there was a young lad who also has his plans for Sunday sorted: Kylian Mbappé.
You might just have heard of him by now. But I’m prepared to admit that as I looked at the team sheets, his wasn’t the name that stood out. His £160million move to Paris St Germain may have been just months away, but this match came before Monaco set the Champions League on fire en route to the semi-finals.
It didn’t take the 18-year-old long to make his mark. As early as the seventh minute Mbappé latched onto a lay-off from Falcao and swept it home first time. By the 20th minute he’d added a second. In the second half he completed his first ever Ligue 1 hat-trick as part of a 5-0 romp. Given the pitiful crowd, something tells me this might be an ‘I was there’ moment that will give me bragging rights for a while…
Fast forward 17 months and – with the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar Jr coming up short – Mbappé is being hailed as the undisputed star of the 2018 World Cup after lighting up game after game in front of slightly bigger crowds. Now France’s golden child has the chance to seal that status, with his nation and much of the world willing him to take Sunday’s World Cup Final by storm.
This French team is loaded up with great players, not least an impressive defence and the midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, who would walk into any team in the world. But never underestimate the effect of a genius, particularly when it comes to getting a group of players into the Zone en masse.
No matter how motivated and well drilled a team is, in fast-flowing ball sports the difference often stems from a flash of brilliance. It seems the Zone is contagious and team-mates can catch greatness from each other. That’s according to Marcel Desailly, of the French football team that was the first to hold both World Cup and European Championship, starting with their glorious triumph at home in Paris 20 years ago today.
‘France didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup but in 1996 we started to build that new generation,’ Desailly told me for In The Zone. ‘We had natural leaders who showed they could perform at a higher level. We were professional players, focused and dedicated to the game. On top of that we had Zidane.
‘When Zidane was there it was different, even in a training session. A star like that brings direct motivation and more responsibility for the others. You want to keep the ball correctly, your attention is higher and you are more focused. The concentration and consistency we showed were what allowed us to last at the top.
‘From 1998 to 2001 we were the world’s best team. Luckily we were able to deliver collective performances. A collective link in a team is very important in football and makes the difference every single time.’
Mbappé is not even 20 years old yet, but if he can inspire his team in the same way we could be in for something special. Of course France still have to overcome a team in Croatia that is high on national pride and has its own talisman in Luka Modric, 13 years Mbappé’s senior.
Both teams have shown grit, skill and outstanding team spirit to make it this far, but something tells me Monday’s headlines will mention a magic moment from a man whose name begins with M…
Either way, it was the best £15 I’ve ever spent. (No, not the Grimsby game...)
Thank you so much to all the media outlets who have taken In The Zone to their hearts and helped spread the word over the past months all over the world.
The latest publication to feature the work is the June issue of Ukraine's Megapolis magazine, which carried out an extensive and very well researched interview about the mind of sportspeople and how we can all learn from what they are able to achieve. If you don't happen to be travelling through Kiev this month (whyever not?) and your Russian is up to scratch you can see some of it in the above picture and find the entire magazine online by clicking here.
This week I also enjoyed a rare TV appearance on the Motorsport Show hosted by Peter Windsor. We discussed solutions for the widely-criticised 'boring' 2018 Monaco Grand Prix before moving onto a race that is always exciting, the Indianapolis 500, won this year by the aptly-named Will Power (see clip below).
Triple world champion Nelson Piquet likened driving a Formula 1 car round Monaco to “flying a helicopter around your living room” (an extension of his famous line comparing it to riding a bicycle indoors) - and it's 30 years today since one of Piquet’s countrymen became the greatest indoor pilot of all.
It was on Saturday 14 May 1988 that Ayrton Senna went into overdrive, blitzing the F1 field including his great rival Alain Prost in an identical McLaren. In a classic interview with Gerald Donaldson, Senna revealed: “I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
Most professional racers can switch off their conscious mind – letting their autopilot control the minutiae of driving if they’re in a busy race. But Senna’s experience was something else altogether. This was not easing off but going beyond concentration to the other side. No wonder that as Senna recounted what happened he was shaking, his voice wavered and his eyes misted over – sure signs of his passion for any subject.
Hollywood’s modern classic The Matrix came out after Senna’s death but fans will recognise this kind of experience. “Detached from anything else”, he had unlocked an all-new level of hyper-ability that rendered Earthly pursuits easy. He described the sensation as “between two worlds”. It sounds fanciful, but this was no movie. It was very real and witnessed by millions around the world.
Of those, one had a clearer view of the magic than most. Switzerland’s Alain Menu, who went on to touring car glory, was competing in the F3 race that weekend so his pitpass let him stand on the inside of the chicane, looking back up towards the tunnel exit. What came next remains etched into his memory, as I discovered decades later.
We were talking about Menu’s own career when, unprompted, his mind drifted back to that Saturday in 1988: “There weren’t many people around because it was a private area but I’m so glad I was there. Ayrton Senna was visibly braking eight metres later than anybody else but it was his car that was amazing. All the other cars were a bit unbalanced and you could hear them banging around under braking. For him, nothing. As he braked the whole car just shook. You could hear nothing except for a noise that sounded like phphphphph.”
Menu’s exclamation is reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter recalling his favourite meal in The Silence of the Lambs, but breathing out rather than in. Spine tingling? You bet: “It made an immediate impression on me,” he adds. “It gives me goose pimples to talk about it and I’m so glad I saw it. I’m sure people who didn’t see that lap would have heard what Ayrton said and thought, ‘He’s crazy.’
“If I hadn’t seen it and I’d heard what he said, I’d have said, ‘Okay, whatever, it was just a fantastic lap, that’s it.’ But something definitely happened that day and I believe it was special because I’ve never seen a racing car do this. Never, ever, ever. And I have no doubt it was the same the whole way round the lap. Ayrton was one and a half seconds quicker than team-mate Alain Prost and two and a half seconds clear of the next guy. Alain was a great driver but when he saw the lap times and the printouts he couldn’t have believed it because it was so far ahead of what he could do.
“I’m very down to Earth and I generally don’t believe in this kind of thing. In my own career I’ve had some very good qualifying sessions but never anything like that, where you almost forget what you’ve done. Later I heard Ayrton had to come into the pits because he was looking down on himself from above the car. That was all so hard to believe but now I believe it because I saw it and I heard it.”
Ready for the next Hollywood twist? During my research for In The Zone I spoke about this sensation to Formula 1 world champions including Lewis Hamilton, Mika Hakkinen and Emerson Fittipaldi plus greats of the Indianapolis 500 and the world rally championship. But it was Prost himself who surprised me when he revealed he underwent a similar experience around the very same Monaco streets, two years before Senna: “I was really flying and I could not see the speed. To me it felt like I was driving at 30mph. The whole weekend was like this. Your mind is still focused but it’s really happiness. It's happiness. And you are fast...”
Monaco has been such an eternal, magical presence in Formula 1 it seems strange that the one thing the principality has always been missing is a bona fide top-line driver.
But amid all the mayhem of last weekend’s manic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, one of few indisputably positive stories was a young Monegasque driver taking the principality’s first points since Louis Chiron scored at home in 1950 in the second ever F1 race.
No motor sport fan was surprised by Charles Leclerc’s drive to an unlikely sixth place in the lowly Sauber. After romping to GP3 glory in 2016, his 2017 Formula 2 season was extraordinary: as dominant as the feeder series’ all-time greats including future F1 world champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. No wonder this long-time Ferrari Driver Academy protégé is a clear favourite to end up racing for Maranello.
But Leclerc’s stunning rise has been tinged with tragedy: first he lost his close friend and mentor Jules Bianchi. And there was added poignancy that Leclerc’s first ever F1 points should arrive at the same Baku track as his remarkable Formula 2 win in 2017, just days after the loss of his beloved father Hervé.
‘I’ve had two huge losses for my family and myself over these past three years with Jules and my father,’ Leclerc tells me. ‘It has definitely been hard but obviously it has made me a lot stronger.
‘The only thing I told myself before the Baku Formula 2 race is that I knew that from up there they wouldn’t want me to be completely devastated or do a very bad race. They would certainly want to see me happy and doing great things out on the track.
‘Once I arrived in Baku I just tried to focus 300 percent on Baku and try to think the least amount possible of all this while I was in the car. Somehow I believe they hear me every time I speak to them, that they are still somewhere here, trying to help me from up there…’
Mental strength is a key element of all success in sport and anywhere else, but it takes exceptional poise and determination to make a positive out of the worst things life can throw at us. Still only 20 years old, Leclerc has somehow taken everything in his stride.
Of course it helps that he has spent so much time lately honing the racer’s mentality…
‘I’ve grown quite a lot mentally over the last past four or five years,’ he adds. ‘There are many techniques that can be used. I personally like the one of picturing the perfect lap in my head – especially before qualifying.
‘I do this often because I really think it helps. Every time there is a break and I’m not in the car, this imagery helps me hugely to be fully concentrated. When I get back in the car it feels different but this visualisation helps you readapt quicker to the car.
‘Then for the race it’s about looking at previous races then picturing all the different scenarios to be ready for any of them – like where to be at the first corner because obviously that’s very important.’
Later this month Leclerc will have his first chance to take an F1 car around his home streets at the Monaco Grand Prix. This will be even more special as he grew up with tales from his father about what Ayrton Senna’s magic performances and watching them on video.
Ironically Monaco was the only race weekend where Leclerc failed to score last year, but that didn’t stop him taking a characteristic storming pole and leading until retiring with a tyre problem. So it would be no surprise if he comes away with another strong performance later this month.
‘I really like city tracks,’ he smiles. ‘Last year the speed was amazing at both Baku and Monaco: they take so much focus yet I felt very comfortable in both. Of the two pole laps it would be hard to choose – but maybe Monaco because it was the home race and it felt a bit more special.
‘Of course I can’t say I’ve ever felt something like Senna because that would be very cocky. All I can say is that every time you race in Monaco it’s a different feeling: you have so much concentration, you don’t think about anything else. To be honest when I got out of the car I couldn’t even remember anything about the race. Because we are just on it like in no other track. Yeah, it’s a great feeling…’
It was 25 years ago today that Ayrton Senna passed four cars on lap one of the 1993 European Grand Prix at a drenched Donington Park, ending up in the lead. Legendary commentator Murray Walker classes it as the best lap he ever saw and few disagree.
Senna’s former race engineer James Robinson recalls: ‘Everyone quotes Donington in the rain, but you only have to watch classic examples like that to see what Senna was made of. Even with such self-belief you just don’t overtake four cars on the opening lap of a grand prix in the pouring rain at a track where there are guys who have driven more laps than you.
‘But while the rest were thinking, “If I go any faster I’m going to fall off because I haven’t been round here for fifteen minutes and it’s rained heavily since then,” Ayrton could judge the grip level on the outside. He would say: “I’ve driven Donington in the wet so many times in earlier formulae I know where the grip is. It’s not on the racing line when it’s raining. In this corner it’s here, in this corner they resurfaced it two years ago and it’s here.” He’d just put that information together. That’s what made him special.’
Senna’s explanation was simpler still. That Easter Sunday, hours before golfer Bernhard Langer declared his US Masters victory was extra special, coming as it did ‘on the day my Lord arose,’ Senna nipped in first. When Brazilian TV asked him how he’d managed to destroy the Donington field, he said: ‘God is great and powerful and when he wants nobody can say anything different.’
Einstein was right. God doesn’t play dice; he drives fast cars and plays golf. Moreover Senna had enjoyed another intervention from above a couple of years earlier, as the Brazilian maestro finally took his first ever win at his beloved home circuit of Interlagos…
‘Ayrton finished the last seven laps with only sixth gear,’ adds Robinson. ‘Riccardo Patrese’s Williams was chasing us and they didn’t know. Over the radio I heard a couple of comments in Portuguese and Ayrton was sitting in the car praying.
‘That was a new experience for me but you soon understand that’s him. His thought process led him to conclude somebody could help him through this and sort it out. That’s what set him apart – his sheer belief in his own ability, that he could do what other people couldn’t do. And, though he’d probably hate me for saying it, the belief that somebody else was looking after him. I’ve never experienced that with any other driver.’
This is an adapted extract from Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone
It has been a busy month for articles in the UK media about In The Zone. Athletics Weekly has this week printed a big feature about how the greats of the 400m hurdles perform at the limit - from Positive Mental Attitude to racing in blissful silence in a packed stadium. The piece includes extracts from my interviews with legendary hurdlers Edwin Moses, Nawal El Moutawakel, David Hemery and Felix Sanchez.
Then there are not one but two articles in cycling magazines out now. Cycling Weekly has a feature on what we can all learn from Paralympians including my interview with Alex Zanardi plus fresh material from Jon-Allan Butterworth, German star Andrea Eskau and Team GB's John Lenton. This month's Cyclist also has an extended extract from In The Zone featuring insights from Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Nadia Comaneci, Jan Frodeno, Franz Klammer, Steve Redgrave, Michael Phelps and Novak Djokovic.
Finally we are honoured that Feedspot has included this website in its top 40 Sports Psychology blogs on the web - at number n-n-n-n-nineteen. You can see the medal of honour at the bottom of the sidebar to the right...
‘The last second is what’s most special and addictive: when you stand on the edge, you look down and you still have the chance to turn around and walk away. That last particular second when you step off. Then you know you are on the way. You cannot return. You pick up speed and you accelerate so fast. A couple of moments later you pull your parachute, you land, you look back up at that big mountain and you’re still alive. For me this is total freedom.’
Some people really do seem born to fly. When Felix Baumgartner was just five years old, he drew a picture of himself parachuting to Earth with his mother Eva watching on from ground level. Felix gave Eva the drawing, only for her to hand it back to him when he did his first real skydive, aged 17, at a club in his home city of Salzburg.
Felix then spent five years in the Austrian Army’s parachute exhibition team, building up his mastery of freefall. It was when he switched to BASE jumping that the haul of records began. His 1999 leap from Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers was the highest from a building and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue was the lowest. This constant quest for greater challenges led to his big finale: the world’s highest ever freefall – from 24 miles up – in a bid to become the first human to break the sound barrier without an engine.
This one wouldn’t come easy. Five long years of preparation for Baumgartner and his Red Bull Stratos team may seem excessive for a mere ‘stunt’ but this is the discipline required to go to the limit and beyond. The Austrian worked his way up with practice runs from 15 and 18 miles. Most crucially he was busy breaking the sound barrier over and over again – away from the public gaze.
‘I visualised this jump from the moment I heard about it,’ Baumgartner tells me in an interview for In The Zone. ‘I did it a thousand times in my mind – just like every other jump I’ve ever done. I lie in my bed and come up with a proper game plan.
‘I’m really good at pre-programming my mind and I always do this. I think about how it will feel, what it will look like. The more I think about it, the more it becomes reality. When I finally do it for real, 99 percent of the time it works exactly like I’d visualised and it feels the same way it felt in my mind.’
The aim of visualisation is more than just preparation; it’s about taking control of the future and tailoring it to our liking. By continually dreaming of his freefall from the edge of space Baumgartner painted a vivid picture and created a momentum in his mind that made success all but an inevitable consequence when he finally took one small step out onto his capsule’s external platform on October 14, 2012.
‘It’s the power of will and the focus you have,’ he adds. ‘When I was standing out on the exterior step it felt almost how I expected. This is the key. The more you can turn thoughts into reality, the better you are. Mental preparation is crucial: you have to ensure you find the right mindset for that moment. Then when you are finally in that position there will be no surprises. You pre-program your mind and it works exactly the way you expect. Most of the time…’
Pity the question Baumgartner is most often asked is: ‘What it was like up there?’ because the view was the last thing on his mind. He was in the Zone…
‘You’re so focused and determined you don’t see or hear anything around you,’ says Baumgartner. ‘In the first part of the jump I spun five times anticlockwise and 22 times clockwise. I didn’t think about anything else because I was so focused on stopping that spin. It was a lot of work and took almost a minute. For the rest of the flight I was more relaxed. At 5,000 feet (1.5km) I had to pull my parachute. Then I realised I’d broken the speed of sound.’
Ready for your own big one? The good news is Baumgartner insists we all have the ability to rise to any challenge, as long as we can silence the doubters: ‘I’ve met Neil Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Sir Edmund Hillary – and it wasn’t easy for any of them. When they came up with their idea everybody looked at them like “What the hell is wrong with you? This is impossible. You can’t climb the highest mountain in the world…” So you have to focus on one goal and make the judgement: “Am I willing to go the extra mile and invest all the blood, sweat and tears to reach that goal?” If the answer is yes, go for it. That’s what I did and this is where it brought me. Everyone said I could not break the speed of sound. But I proved them wrong…’
To find out much more about how Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump – including how he conquered his fears and coped with his mental demons along the way – read In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
Monaco has been the scene for many of the world’s greatest ever sporting moments – in athletics, tennis, football and, of course, Formula 1.
This week it combined all the above and much more as it hosted the Laureus World Sports Awards – the premier global celebration of the sporting year – back where it was first held in 2000. It means Monaco has been swarming with the greatest names in the history of sport, not least the 200 Laureus Academy members and ambassadors, all bona fide legends who are now uniformly determined to give something back.
This event has long been the source of many of my most inspiring interviews, and this year has been no exception. Over the past two days I’ve had the privilege to speak to Olympic champions, Paralympic greats, World Cup winners, Wimbledon champions and stars of everything from rugby to rowing to ice skating to kitesurfing.
But the real star of the show is the work of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which uses sport as a power for good in some of the most deprived areas of the world. And this is summed up by one of the foundation’s newest ambassadors, Indian cricket legend Yuvraj Singh.
“It’s been a great experience to be part of Laureus,” says Singh. “The first time I came to the awards was in 2004 as an athlete, this time I’m here as an ambassador. I believe sport has the power to change the world and we share a common goal to improve lives and encourage underprivileged children to come out of whatever adversity they are going through.
"That’s also the aim of my own charity YouWeCan, which helps young cancer sufferers in India to get their lives back by giving them scholarships and getting them studying. So the common goal is great."
Singh has endured plenty of hardship of his own, having been diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after helping India win the Cricket World Cup in 2011. His eventual recovery gave him first-hand experience of what it takes to face one of the toughest battles of all.
“When you go through something like that, you have a lot of doubt about whether or not you will come through,” Singh tells me. “But if you can bounce back – in my case with the help of my family and friends – it makes you stronger and gives you belief. That was a big setback in my life and it has made me really strong as a person. If you can make it through this then nothing can ever put you down.
“So people need to identify through their own story how they can actually go through the downs, get their self-belief and let that story make them stronger. Especially in the case of kids it’s very important to be in the right environment of friends, parents and teachers, and to listen to what they say. If you have the right core system of people around you, I’m sure they’ll pull you through.”
The good news is that we don’t have to wait for such adversity to unearth the power we all have within. That’s why the legends associated with Laureus are so passionate about getting the rest of us dreaming too.
“I always say the power of the mind is the biggest, the most powerful tool,” adds Singh. “Your dreams are made of you. And I think it’s important to believe them until you achieve them. I’m sure that if you keep on believing and if you take the right path, you will live your dreams.”
Since In The Zone has come out in paperback I've been interviewed for a couple more articles in the media.
Thank you very much to the Leaders Performance Institute and writer John Portch for their feature about the lessons of In The Zone. It features some of the book's insights from Ayrton Senna, Nadia Comaneci, Novak Djokovic, Michael Phelps and more. Here's the link...
Elsewhere Motor Sport magazine have published a feature on the out-of-body experience in motor racing, which featured heavily in my 2010 book Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone. Written by Joe Dunn, it includes fascinating insights about the subject from Damon Hill, David Brabham, mind coach Don MacPherson, Neuropharmacology Professor David Dexter and more. Click here to read more...
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.