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...
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.’
Some days really are ‘your day’. November 28, 2010 was Filipe Albuquerque’s day as this young Portuguese racer emerged from obscurity to defeat a line-up of legends – including Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost, who have 15 F1 world titles between them – to take the Race Of Champions crown at his first attempt.
Ho hum, not bad. But today was my day. I don’t believe you can ask Nadia Comaneci or Usain Bolt for a piggy back to get a close-up of what they do. Yet here I was lapping the same twisty racetrack inside a Düsseldorf football stadium – in the passenger seat one year later as Albuquerque revved the very KTM X-Bow he had used to defeat Vettel.
I was soon given no doubt about how seriously Albuquerque was taking this. Even on the supposedly gentle run to the start line he ensured the car rarely felt like a car at all. As he put heat in the tyres with a series of weaves and burnouts, the X-Bow would suddenly feel unsettlingly light as if we were on a futuristic hoverboard. By the time we were waved away for the actual timed laps I admit to losing circulation in my knuckles: mercifully this was to be a short run or my typing days were over.
As the lights went out and we lurched forwards I knew I had to suspend every idea I’d ever cultivated about the speed that corners should be taken. The track also featured a specially-built 100-tonne crossover bridge linking its two loops, like a giant Scalextric set. I now understand why bridges do not feature more widely in motor sport: on entry, all you can see is the top tier of the stands. As we launched skywards at full throttle all evidence suggested our inevitable final destination would be Row Z. Yet as soon as the laws of physics overcame any brief moment of ‘air’ my nonchalant chauffeur was on the anchors for the next right-hander.
With the reflex of self-preservation beaten into submission, I focused the rest of my simpering mental capacity on the majesty of Albuquerque’s skill. That was not hard because racing at the top level is an art. He didn’t just hurl the X-Bow round the track, he danced. Every time the back end skipped out this leading man teased it back in line and away we shimmied round the floor, whirls seamlessly blending into reels and pirouettes. Too soon it was over and I let fly with the whoop I’d been stifling for fear of breaking the concentration of the maestro beside me. Some chance…
‘Being a racing driver is all about chasing the perfect lap,’ says Albuquerque. ‘Getting to the limit is what gives us the pleasure. When you put on new tyres you are so much faster everywhere and the feeling is amazing. You go corner by corner and you’re not thinking about the lap. You just push to the absolute limit, almost locking the front wheels. I like oversteer so I need to feel a little slide at the rear otherwise I feel too safe. I don’t breathe on the fast corners to make sure there is no movement at all, I just swerve it out. When all this comes together it’s fantastic.
‘The feeling is unbelievable and really makes you happy. You feel arrogant, like “Damn I’m good” – not meaning no one can beat you, but that this was a perfect lap, one you would like to show your friends. You think, “Wow. If someone beats me I’ll shake their hand because they’re definitely faster than me.”
‘Sometimes I can’t even explain to myself how I could do it. You look at the time and think, “How did I do that?” I don’t know but I’m not bothered. You don’t even need to see the data to know no one will beat you because the car has really gone beyond the limit. The secret is just to let it happen like you think it will. Be yourself in the car, be natural and just do it. If you go faster, awesome, if not keep trying.’
To make it big in motor racing you clearly have to nail this perfect lap when it really matters, preferably with monotonous regularity. Albuquerque, who now focuses on endurance racing, recalls one such lap when he took Nürburgring pole by half a second in Formula Renault. But after he was snapped up by Red Bull’s young driver programme, his results weren’t consistent enough and he was dumped. He was racing in an unglamorous category of Italian GTs when he won a regional qualifying event for the Race Of Champions. That’s when he grabbed his chance.
‘It just felt like my day,’ he beams. ‘I was happy to have a chance to compare my speed with the best guys in the world. I felt good in every car and I nailed it. The races were like qualifying laps. I had many corners when I said this was just perfect, going right up to the wall and sweeping down. I was braking very late but not too late, turning in and flicking the car just right. Of course I made some small mistakes during the event because it’s not possible to do ten races with no mistakes. But you need to make a judgement about how many risks to take.
‘For the final against Sébastien Loeb I just went in thinking I’d do my best and try to perform like I’d pictured in my mind. Then let’s see how my speed compares to him with my perfect lap. He was on it, too. I beat him by a hundredth in the first heat of the final, then made a small mistake in heat two and he beat me by two hundredths. In the decider I pushed very hard, almost crashing all the time, but made no mistakes. So my perfect lap was enough to beat him and everyone in the Race Of Champions.’
Nine-time world rally champion Loeb confirms he was beaten fair and square by this relative unknown: ‘I gave everything and did a good race but he was just a bit faster. He was just flying…’
This extract is from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big. Out now…
Today marks a year 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.
Mindfulness. Pure focus. Total concentration. That magical sensation of quieting the mind and living in the now…
These concepts have only recently breached mainstream Western consciousness, yet over the last decade they have gained ever greater prominence. But it’s not just about sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop, or even staring at a candle in the living room. The path to ultimate inner peace can appear anywhere – and a shortcut is often found in conditions that are diametrically opposed to any idea of ‘calm’.
Sport is a classic example, especially those involving extremes of speed – such as the world’s fastest form of motorsport, the Red Bull Air Race, where single-seater planes twist, spin and loop just metres above land and sea.
In the new book In The Zone, Germany’s reigning air race world champion Matthias Dolderer insists: ‘You’re so focused and concentrated there is nothing else that can distract you. You don’t have time and you are fully 100 percent concentrated on what you’re doing. When you fly, whatever happened before this is gone. Actually, to fly in the racetrack is the best way to get rid of all distractions.’
Mindful? Focused? Concentrated? Check. This clutter-free mind is crucial for sport, hence why techniques to induce this state of mind are now commonplace. Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson used this approach to mould his successful Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers teams, while Nico Rosberg admits he turned to meditation to find the mental strength to beat Lewis Hamilton to the 2016 F1 world championship.
But really there’s nothing new about this hunt; ‘Zen’ Buddhism is a derivation of the Indian Sanskrit ‘dhanya’ meaning meditative concentration. Today Japanese air racer Yoshihide Muroya makes for a good example as a practitioner of zazen, which translates as ‘sitting meditation’.
‘Meditation helps me because it’s mental training,’ Muroya tells me for In The Zone. ‘At an air race I do it every morning. I use it to focus on myself, just to calm down and take away the extraneous thoughts that have been going through my head. In racing there’s no time to think so you need to be focused and automatic.’
Something must have paid off: Muroya heads to his home race in Japan’s Chiba this weekend looking for a repeat of his debut win at the same venue last year. He also won this year’s latest race in San Diego to raise hopes of a Japanese motorsport double in a week following Takuma Sato's Indy 500 win. Best of all, Muroya insists we can all reap the rewards of ‘looking inside’ even if our own office moves rather slower.
‘Meditation is good for flying and it’s a big help for life too,’ he smiles. ‘Everyone can benefit from it. We all have so much going round our brains all the time and we normally look outside so it’s quite difficult to look deep inside. But it’s really good to calm down and looking inside helps make life easier for anyone.’
Read In The Zone to hear more from British Red Bull Air Race world champions Paul Bonhomme and Nigel Lamb plus Canadian racer Pete McLeod, among 100 exclusive interviews with stars of world sport
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.