I’ve made no secret of my love of action sports, interviewing everyone from skydivers to surfers and skateboarders for In The Zone to find out what goes on in their heads as they head into the unknown. The magic of these pursuits is that they can often be started young, at little or no expense. That means its stars come from the most unlikely sources.
Danny MacAskill certainly doesn’t come across as your average internet sensation; having grown up on Scotland’s picturesque Isle of Skye he speaks with the region’s soft lilt. Yet the wide open spaces of his childhood allowed him to start his odyssey sooner than most, spending his early years playing around on his BMX.
By sticking with it he has now made it to the top of the world. His videos get millions of YouTube hits – including the below return to his home island – but his skills didn’t arrive overnight. They are stored in a mental saddlebag that he has meticulously filled over time, one he continues to cram with new material with every new jump.
‘I’ve built up very slowly so I’m not taking huge leaps,’ says MacAskill. ‘I’ve been riding a trials bike for 25 years, starting on kerbs where you take a long time to learn. Then you gradually build up your confidence. Now I definitely get in the Zone. Sometimes you can turn up for the biggest trick you’ve ever done and you feel really comfortable. You know you’ve got it. On other days you can try something you know is well within your ability but either due to lack of sleep or fatigue from filming you find it hard to get in the right mental state. Sometimes you can get quite frustrated. As long as you’re stubborn enough you can always push through it and do it.’
What marks out the great action sports stars is this constant quest to seek out the new and venture outside their comfort zone. They take the phrase ‘try, try again’ to new extremes, often having to persevere through hundreds of failed attempts in order to break new ground. The drawback? They must find a permanent solution to silence their Monkey Minds – the nagging voice we all carry with us that tells us whether or not what we are attempting might mean leaving in an ambulance.
‘Now I know what I can do,’ adds MacAskill. ‘But when I come to film I always push right at that 100 percent. I’m doing things I have never actually tried before so what I’m doing is always just out of reach. Or it is within reach but I’ve got to try for hours or sometimes days to actually achieve it. So you’ve definitely got to flick a switch in your brain: “do or don’t”. The survival part of your brain is telling you: “That’s really not a good idea.” But the other part goes: “You know you can do it. You’re completely capable of it if you just manage to flick your switch and get over the edge.” It shows just how much power the brain has.
‘I look at trials like a calculated risk. You know what you’re capable of but if you really want to learn something new you’ve got to go outside your comfort zone. I don’t tend to think: “There’s no way I’m going to throw myself off the edge.” That’s crucial. In my head I know I’m going to land it. I might not, I might crash. But when I’m doing it I’m 100 percent committed that I’m going to do it…’
It’s only when you reach MacAskill’s level of mastery that the world changes and you start to see things the rest of us miss out on entirely. When you know Skye’s the limit, that’s when you really get creative – indeed the Scotsman is now one of the elite who really do see the whole world as just one giant obstacle to master.
‘That’s the beauty of trials,’ he smiles. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s grass or logs, rocks or water, you can ride on anything. I visualise stuff all the time. Even now while I’m talking to you I’m looking at the roof up there and imagining what I would do. It’s a natural thing – and to be honest it’s always come naturally.
‘On Skye I grew up spending a lot of time riding by myself, riding the same walls. You naturally think of slightly different ways to ride that wall. Now I have the chance to go anywhere in the world, I can think on a really huge scale. It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to do this for a living. I just wish I could take someone for a wild ride…’
The level of expertise needed to be ‘in the Zone’ is not limited to sport. When Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s Airbus struck a flock of Canada geese after take-off in January 2009, he made the apparently snap decision to land on New York’s Hudson River. He later declared he’d spent 42 years making small deposits in a bank of experience; that day his balance was sufficient to make a ‘very large withdrawal’. This led Sully straight to the Zone when it mattered, saving 155 lives.
No one is born able to fly an aeroplane, just as no one is born driving a car. To get good at either requires long hours as the brain gradually learns how to interpret the sensations sent in from all over the body as the vehicle rolls and yaws, converting this mass of data into instructions to send back to the limbs perched on the controls. This eventually crafts an ability to complete even the hardest tasks without thinking. Still, the proficiency of a lifetime of practice will be no use if you can’t access it on the one day, the one second when it really matters. If you ever suddenly find yourself having to think about what you’re doing, it’s a one-way street to remembering in vivid detail how staggeringly complex your skills were in the first place.
Some professionals have an even bigger bank to draw on – such as British Airways 747 captain Paul Bonhomme, who doubles as a triple world champion in the Red Bull Air Race. Since 2003 this event has claimed the title of the world’s fastest motor sport as its single-seater planes twist, spin and loop, speeding at up to 250mph between a series of pylons just 25 metres above land and sea. Far from the crazy daredevils they appear, pilots are invited to compete only after proving they are among the world’s finest aerobatics aces. Bonhomme’s 19 career wins rank him as the all-time best of the best.
‘Whatever you’re flying, you have to be in the right mood,’ says Bonhomme, who retired from racing after his third title in 2015. ‘It varies if it’s an air race, an aerobatic display or just a flight from A to B. You’re supposed to fly a jumbo jet so far within safety levels it should be relaxing. But depending on how extremely you’re operating an aeroplane, you have to be in a better mood or, yes, “in the Zone”.
‘In air racing the challenge is getting out of a tricky situation. For that you need years of tumbling, flicking, stalling and spinning. That once saved my bacon in an air race and I know others who had similar situations. You need a heap of experience before you go air racing, just as you would want the best stick and rudder pilot flying an airliner. Ironically in both cases if you’ve got it hopefully you won’t need it.
‘Air racing is extraordinary because everything else in aviation is super-safe whereas this is suddenly using motor racing ethics. So there are two fears: the fear of not doing very well and the fear of frightening yourself – or worse. You need to get the mix in clear proportion. It doesn’t really matter if you come fifth instead of first but it really does matter if you’re not around at the next race…’
Australian ace Matt Hall nearly got that balance wrong during a 2010 race in Canada when he skimmed the water with his wingtips. He has since become one of the sport’s all-time greats by learning to manage his self-belief to be ready to peak – including an elaborate mental build-up over the course of a race weekend.
Hall approaches his mental groundwork with the rigour you might expect of a former Wing Commander in the Royal Australian Air Force. His countdown increases in rigidity as take-off time approaches, starting with a stretch first thing and a walk to clear his mind. Media interviews fit into the morning before the daily pilots’ briefing. Within the final hour he lies down in his hangar for precisely 21 minutes, with music building to a crescendo to wake him up with half an hour left. Then comes another set of mind flying, a last look at notes and video before he gets ‘suited and booted’ to be in his plane with twenty minutes left – all with an ongoing musical soundtrack until he swaps his headphones for his helmet six minutes before take-off.
‘I have set times for visualising the track, otherwise you end up over-preparing and you become stale,’ Hall tells me in the book In The Zone. ‘In the hours leading up to a race, on the hour I spend five minutes thinking about it. Then with one hour to go I’m in a formal routine where everything is planned by the minute so I’m not distracted and I have zero stress. The stress only comes when you start looking too far ahead.
‘Music works for me and I always listen to the same set of songs in a row. Every song represents something to me. There’s a song to pump me up when I’m getting dressed, then more relaxing songs as I visualise the track. When I’m strapped into the plane it’s rock – not hard rock but happy rock: “I’m happy to be doing this, my life’s not depending on it, I’m just here having fun and racing planes.”
‘That’s the last thing I do so when I start the engine so I know I’ve done everything I can, I’m confident and really happy to be here. Then it should go well. If you’re too pumped up you’ll just smash it. If you go out hoping you don’t make a mistake it won’t work because you won’t fly aggressively enough or you’ll be really tentative. You have to go in saying “How good is this? I can win this, let’s have a crack at it...”’
Despite everything Hall has long been the pretender, finishing second in the Red Bull Air Race world championship three times. When it was announced the series would not be continuing after 2019 it seemed his time was up. Yet in one of sport's great stories of redemption he somehow pulled it off, finally fulfilling his long-held dream in Japan last month (pictured above). The Australian may now be ‘reigning’ Red Bull Air Race World Champion forever, but something tells me there is one sensation he’ll miss most of all….
‘On the best runs you don’t think about two gates time,’ he smiles. ‘You think about this gate coming up right now and the feel of the aircraft. That’s all. That’s when I know I’m on a really good run – because there’s not a single thought of doubt in my mind and not a single thought of the future. They talk about being “in the Zone” and when I have a good run, I definitely know. It’s a euphoric feeling. I can’t hear the engine any more, I’m just a passenger in the aircraft, just riding this magic carpet through the track.’
This is an adapted extract from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
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
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.
Many thanks to the Euronews website LivingIt for featuring a selection of new articles - based on In The Zone - exploring the mental side of performing at the absolute limit in some of the most extreme sports out there.
Ahead of this weekend's Ironman World Championship at Hawaii's Kailua-Kona, hear from the 2015 and 2016 world champion Jan Frodeno (pictured above). The German is clearly one of the fittest human beings on the planet but you can find out why he considers that even in the ultimate physical challenge, the difference between the best and the rest is always about mental strength.
Click here to read all about it...
It is now seven years since Roz Savage completed the final leg of a truly epic adventure, becoming the first woman to row single-handed across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. She told me she didn't feel strong mentally at first, but over the course the experience of taking on such a huge challenge she learned all about the true meaning of resilience.
Click here to find out more...
Finally, in an exclusive interview big wave surf legend Garrett McNamara describes the spiritual experience involved in taking on the most violent experiences nature can throw at us: 'I look at the tallest tree, the mountains, the ocean and the universe, attract it and breathe it all in...'
If you want to feel the force, read on.
Today marks two years since we lost one of the world’s great free spirits and adventurers, Hannes Arch.
As a youngster growing up in Austria’s mountains, Arch spent his time climbing. He took up hang-gliding aged 15 before a switch to paragliding and BASE jumping. The Austrian would become a true pioneer as the first man to leap from the North Face of the Eiger and the first to land a paraglider on a hot air balloon.
Arch later allowed himself the relative comfort of an aeroplane, seeing off the world’s best aerobatic pilots to win the 2008 Red Bull Air Race world championship.
‘If you do all those really dangerous sports you know exactly where you are,’ Arch told me in a 2014 interview that features in the book In The Zone. ‘Nobody wants to die, especially me, because I really love life. Sometimes you turn around and don’t jump because you know it would be dangerous.
‘These sports also teach you to handle risk so they are the perfect preparation for air racing: focus is the most important factor for surviving dangerous sports, but also to be fast in air racing. The interesting thing is that if you are in this mindset – focused 100 percent on flying without having to deal with thoughts of crashing or risk – you get really fast. And when you get really fast you realise you are always really safe. When you start to risk and play unsafe it slows you down.’
Air racing is such an extreme sport it forces pilots into clearing their minds – fast – and it’s the same with all who push to the edge. Arch sure was fast, too. Overall he won 11 races, finishing in the Red Bull Air Race top three for five straight years.
Elsewhere this ‘lover of life’ invented the Red Bull X-Alps: a punishing dash from Salzburg to Monaco by foot or paraglider. The latest edition took place in July, 2017 and the event will continue as a living legacy to its crazily creative craftsman.
Arch also used his skills as a helicopter pilot to help out with charity efforts in Nepal by ferrying supplies to remote mountain communities. He was flying a helicopter from a hut in his beloved Austrian mountains when he crashed and died on September 8, 2016 – just shy of his 49th birthday.
Thanks for all the memories, Hannes. And keep flying high.
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).
‘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
In a series of famous experiments dating back half a century, scientists tested expert chess players on their ability to recall a board they had seen for a few seconds. When the set-up came from a genuine match the masters could accurately place most of the pieces, faring much better than inexperienced players. But when the pieces were just scattered randomly the experts fared little better than the novices.
The conclusion was that chess masters are busy ‘chunking’ the individual pieces into recognisable patterns they remember from previous games. And it seems this effect can apply anywhere, no matter how apparently ‘cerebral’ the pursuit – or indeed what type of board you use.
That's why Mick Fanning considers himself lucky to grow up on the coast of South Australia, learning to surf when he was five. This lifetime of education on the water set him up to earn a living from what he loves most. Now known as ‘White Lightning’, he has been crowned world surfing champion three times.
‘The ocean is forever changing so you never know what it will dish up each day,’ says Fanning. ‘You can have the same charts but every wave is totally different. Like anything, with experience you see the different shape of the wave or a different movement in the ocean and think: “I remember that back then…” It becomes a sixth sense for some people. There are surfers who always find themselves in the perfect place in the line-up but that’s just from experience and reading the ocean.’
There are limits. Fanning was competing at South Africa’s Jeffreys Bay in 2015 when every movie lover’s worst seaside nightmare suddenly got real. He felt a presence behind him, then heard a splash. The fin that duly appeared next to him was not a dream, it belonged to a 12-foot-long great white shark.
The Australian’s instant reaction, captured on live TV and since viewed 24 million times on YouTube, was to hit out and wedge his surfboard between himself and his aquatic acquaintance, which bit off his leash. A response team eventually picked Fanning up, by which time he’d saved himself from turning into main course for one reason: he was in the Zone.
‘Throughout that whole day I felt amazing,’ Fanning tells me. ‘If you can get in that Zone and not think, it just becomes autopilot. That’s when you’re in your best form, and it’s what we focus on as athletes. So it was probably a blessing in disguise that this happened during an actual event and I was so centred at the time. If I wasn’t in that place maybe something else could have happened and I wouldn’t have reacted that quickly.
‘To be totally honest when I got back to land and saw the footage, I was sitting there wondering: “When did I make this decision? Or that one?” To me it went on a lot longer than what the footage showed. It felt like a good five minutes when it was really just ten seconds. But I guess that’s how fast the mind works.’
This is another classic component of life at the limit – in car crashes and other near-death experiences. When we are scrabbling for a way out of trouble, the brain is awoken from its everyday ‘tick-over’ slumber mode by a sudden influx of adrenalin and speeds up accordingly.
Survivors consistently report the outside world – such as the shards of glass shattering on the windscreen – going into slow-motion. This ‘fight-or-flight’ mode doesn’t let us move our limbs any faster but our decision-making does accelerate, as long as we don’t go into panic mode and freeze. At our highest peak of total concentration it seems we can not only bend space, we can bend time too.
Fanning was already at such an extreme of focus he could slip straight into the right state, fitting 300 seconds worth of critical life-saving calculations into ten. Even more mind-blowing is the fact Fanning was back surfing within a week. He admits to feeling jittery when he heard splashes near him yet he found a way over it: a year later he returned to Jeffreys Bay and won the event.
‘It was one of those moments that sticks out, that’s for sure,’ he deadpans. ‘It put me off a bit from getting back in the water but the more time I took away from the ocean was going to make it even harder. So I just felt I needed to get back in and get on with life. We get dealt with different adversity through life: you can be crippled by it or you can move forward. I always try to take a step forward. I’ve been lucky to be in the ocean my whole life so to have one incident… I put it in the same perspective as when you’re walking across the street and almost get hit by a car. That happens to people every day and others have been hit. So I consider myself extremely lucky.’
This extract is from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big - out in paperback tomorrow...
Victoria Pendleton sure loves challenges. The double Olympic cycling gold medallist has already tamed National Hunt horse racing and today she announced she is taking on the big one: Mount Everest.
Getting it wrong on a bike or a horse and you might get beaten up but you’re likely to live to tell the tale. By contrast mountaineering takes everything to a new level. In the 64 years since Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing first reached the top of the world, 280 people have died attempting to repeat the feat.
Moreover, despite her run of success and glory on track and off, Pendleton has always been one of those sportspeople who have had to fight hard to win the belief required to perform. Luckily she is still able to draw on what she learned as a cyclist through the mentoring of Team GB sports psychiatrist Steve Peters.
‘The key to getting in the Zone is mental preparation,’ Pendleton tells me in In The Zone. ‘It’s a lifelong process, like physical training – and it becomes easier, the more you practise it. Some people naturally have a level of confidence which never falters. Then there are others who have slight insecurities. I’m one of those people. So it’s something I had to work hard on. It’s about eliminating negativity to focus on the task in hand without any doubts or distractions.’
Pendleton’s ability to focus will be tested to the limit during her May 2018 attempt on the world’s highest mountain, where she will be accompanied by TV adventurer Ben Fogle plus a team of sherpas and experienced mountaineers. But if Pendleton needs any extra advice on how to make such a switch of sports, she should turn to Japanese racer Ukyo Katayama, who raced in Formula 1 for six years in the Nineties before taking to the mountains.
‘Throughout my whole life I have sought new ways to exercise my mind and when I stopped F1 I had to find a new challenge,’ Katayama told me in Overdrive. ‘Driving racing cars and climbing mountains look completely different but they are actually very similar. For both racing drivers and mountaineers the battle is totally within, against yourself.
‘In Formula 1 you’re always pushing to gain thousandths of a second under braking, and you have to push yourself in exactly the same way on the mountains. One in 13 mountaineers dies due to falls, hidden crevasses and avalanches. Everyone living on the edge like that is the same. In my case, it is only in an environment like that I can feel truly free.’
This may seem like a curious type of freedom to those of us who have spent our lives nearer sea level, venturing up into the skies only inside a pressurised cabin. Mention the Zone to a mountaineer and they’ll think you’re talking about the ‘Death Zone’, the notorious height above which the effects on the human body are most dangerous. As one such adventurer told me: ‘Going up is optional, coming down is compulsory…’
For Katayama the act of pushing limits is the end in itself. In 2002 he even failed in a bid to climb Mount Everest, reaching the Southern Peak when his Sherpa broke his arm within sight of the summit. Katayama tried dragging him up until he started to run short of oxygen and he opted for the ‘compulsory’ downhill bit. He still enjoys the memories regardless of the outcome…
‘I was 60 metres from the summit of Mount Everest and I could see amazing views,’ he says. ‘I can’t stay in the safety zone, I have to push and find new limits. The main thing is to take the plunge. If you spend your life protecting yourself you may not fall down but you won’t achieve anything either. The only real way to live life is to fight. The most important thing is to know what you want to do. That’s all you need.’
Victoria Pendleton certainly knows what she needs, and she’s prepared to fight for it. Reaching this ultimate peak will require facing nature at its most brutal but there is payback. Indeed these extremes took Katayama beyond the confines of his usual mental state, triggering an extraordinary overhaul in the efficiency of his eyes, ears and nose.
‘When I am in the mountains and especially if I have been above 7000m for a whole month the sensations become hard to express in language,’ he says. ‘The best way I can describe it is that it feels like my body goes to liquid. I have no motivation and no need to own anything. It’s easy to forget to eat and drink. You can’t feel how cold it is, you just feel part of nature.
‘After that length of time my senses become so acute I can even smell danger. Before an avalanche I can feel something is wrong – maybe I sense a change in temperature – then 30 seconds later it happens. The message comes from outside, it’s just your senses working to their full ability.’
The secret to reaching this level of perception is to de-clutter the mind. Paradoxically it is far more attainable in such fearsome environments than in the comparative safety of daily life. Katayama still hasn’t slowed down, now running ‘Team Ukyo’ that has achieved success both in Super GT motor racing (where Jenson Button will compete in 2018) and road race cycling. Katayama insists we can all find this magical state of mind, just by getting active.
‘I’ve never had a feeling like that sitting in front of a computer,’ confirms Katayama, ‘because I’m always thinking about how to make money or my family. It’s impossible to find it. Motor racing’s the same: you worry about keeping your seat until you get in the car, when you block all that out. But you don’t even need to be in a car; it can be on a bike or walking. People have such good powers of concentration – and everyone has this potential within them.’
Thank you to the Red Bulletin for running a ten-page feature in their August edition (above) with quotes from many of the sporting superstars who I interviewed for In The Zone. You can read all about it in their UK, Switzerland and Mexico editions. You can also read the online version here...
Elsewhere Runner's World kindly made In The Zone their Book of the Month for August. The book also received a mention in August's F1 Racing while Autocar ran a British Grand Prix preview feature (below) on the racing mind based on my interviews with Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and more. It can now be f0und online here...
I'm extremely grateful to all the media outlets who have given space to helped publicise the book and its message.
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.