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…’
Brad Snyder remembers the beautiful sunrise over Afghanistan on September 7, 2011 with crystal clarity. That’s because it was the last one he ever saw.
Within hours the US Navy bomb disposal expert lost his sight when he stepped on an IED. As he lay in darkness, he was convinced he’d died. So when a doctor told him he was blind, the message Snyder heard was surprisingly upbeat: “You’re alive…” Three weeks of intensive care later, he began the laborious process of learning to do daily tasks all over again – without vision.
“The biggest barrier to success was mobility,” he tells me. “I had the capability, I had the right mental attitude. But at that point I didn’t know how to get out of bed or cross the room, let alone leave the hospital.
“So the way forward was to make sure every step was better than the one before, adopting the approach known in Japan as ‘kaizen’ (continuous improvement). At first I didn’t even know what a cane does, so I learned to use that to cross the room. That’s better than yesterday. Next I reached the nurses’ station outside my ward: better still.
“Within five weeks I was transferred into a rehab ward where I was outside walking. I ran 5km at the eight-week mark. After 12 months I was competing at the Paralympics in London. So it was a quick process. But with that kaizen mentality, within 365 days even a goal medal is possible…”
No kidding. Having swum for his Naval Academy, Snyder was ushered back into the swimming pool while he was still an inpatient. In a plot twist that sounds scripted, he took his first Paralympic gold medal – in the 100m freestyle – on the first anniversary of his life-changing accident: September 7, 2012.
Never one to shirk a challenge, Snyder then readopted this “kaizen” mentality to start four years of work towards his next “impossible”: the world record.
“The London race was a spiritual victory but Rio was another level,” smiles Snyder. “When I said I wanted the world record I didn’t think it was possible. I still doubted it until I dived in, when I felt like magic the whole way. I had the energy, I was moving super fast and when I hit that wall I knew it was mine.”
While this timely visit to the Zone crowned Snyder as king of the Paralympic pool, he insists he’s “one of the worst blind guys there” in daily life because it’s still relatively new to him. Eight years on he has learned to click his fingers as he walks, using echoes to judge where walls are, yet he admits each new environment is an adventure.
That’s why Snyder is so excited by Paralympic partner Toyota’s global “mobility for all” campaign. He recently made a pilgrimage to the Olympic movement’s spiritual home in Athens for the Toyota Mobility Summit, sharing tales with Paralympic greats including wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden and British runner Richard Whitehead. These champions of the human spirit have all benefited from technology and Snyder is passionate that everyone should have similar access.
“What we’re talking about is human rights, valuing each person equally,” he declares. “It’s about enabling the world’s population to move, regardless of disability, creed or ethnicity. The social implication of that is very powerful…”
As for Snyder it’s onwards and predictably upwards. His next challenge is the mother of all events, the paratriathlon. Roll on Tokyo 2020…
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...
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.’
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.