Known by the enchanting title of the ‘man-killer’, the 400 metre hurdles is one of the most brutal disciplines in track and field, requiring a mix of raw speed, endurance and technical ability. Yet one man found a way to dominate the event so completely in the Seventies and Eighties, he went on a run of 122 straight wins against the (next) best in the world. For nine years, nine months and nine days, he killed off the man-killer. His name was Edwin Moses.
Far from your ‘average’ champion, Moses started off as an engineer, earning a degree in physics. The American made his 400m hurdles debut only months before he took Olympic gold at Montreal in 1976 with a new world record. Even then he didn’t focus on athletics full-time, coupling his work in aerospace with a punishing regime – up to eight hours of training before his working day even began.
Moses made the most of his scientific knowledge, becoming a pioneer in applying the field of biodynamics as he sought every possible sporting improvement. Back when computers had just 16K of memory he used them to measure everything from respiration to heartbeat patterns. He developed a pattern of 13 strides (of 9 feet 9 inches each) between each hurdle for the whole race while his rivals could only keep that up for half the lap.
I was so intrigued that I was soon chasing Moses myself – round Asia, South America and Europe – in a bid to hear more. Some people really are worth the effort. It turns out the secret to his run of glory was not in his body or his legs. When I asked if he had been ahead of his competitors on a mental level, he nodded. What he said next made my heart hurdle several beats.
‘I lived in the Zone,’ says Moses. ‘It’s more than just trying to get there for a race or a day, it’s a state of mind. Your whole life is in the Zone, everything that you do. All the time…’
The Zone is typically associated with the peak experience, a brief moment of magic where everything goes perfectly, often under the most extreme pressure. The idea of making a home at that level seems less human and more, well, Jedi. Then you start to assess the full extent of what Moses has achieved both on and off the track – as long-time chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy global charity foundation – and it all starts to fit. Check out In The Zone for a fuller explanation of what makes a man like this tick. But even a Zone lifer gets to peak.
Ahead of his home Olympic final at Los Angeles on August 5th 1984, an enduring image saw Moses lying next to his blocks as his rivals contemplated the silver that would be the limit of their ambitions. Yet even the laid-back American was taken aback by what went through his mind as he raced, as I discovered when I asked if he’d experienced any surreal Senna-esque sensations.
‘I had something similar in the Los Angeles final,’ reveals Moses. ‘There were almost 100,000 people and it was very, very loud. I’ve never heard that kind of screaming. Because there were Americans running at home, when the gun went off they just went crazy. But after the third hurdle all of a sudden everything went quiet. I could hear the footsteps of the guys on the track behind me above all the crowd noise. All that just went away and amongst it all I could hear guys taking hurdles, I could hear their step patterns and everything. I could hear every one of them when they took off and every one of them when they came back down on the ground.
‘Then around the eighth hurdle I said, “There’s no more point worrying about what’s behind.” You look at the next three hurdles and just make sure you don’t trip up over those. I took the last hurdle real high. I didn’t take a chance or do anything I would normally do in a race. I made sure I went over it. I jumped up into the air and came down. They even closed me down by half a metre but by then it was too late. When I hit the ground after that I felt there was not much that could stop me except someone running out on the track. When I crossed the line the first thing was relief, the elation came later. That was my experience. I’ve never had anything else happen like that but it happened that day.’
Check out the video below for a sense of the noise Moses filtered out en route to his most treasured triumph of all…
‘There is so much untapped potential in people it’s just incredible. It’s almost beyond belief, really. I feel it and I sense it through what I’ve experienced in my own journey. I’m from a humble beginning but the message of my story is that great things grow from small things.
'The magic lives inside every one of us, despite our environment, our struggles and our doubts. It takes courage to realise what that magic is, then to actually go out and try to achieve it. It’s the power of loving yourself, I suppose, and giving yourself a chance.’
In my years of researching the human being at the limit for In The Zone I’ve been privileged to meet over a hundred of the world’s biggest sports stars. But every now and again one of them sends me away with my head swimming. This time it is Australia’s national treasure Cathy Freeman, who has just summed up this entire book in a hundred words.
The magic of elite performance is that it always starts out small: with a dream. By nurturing it, crafting it and loving it, sport’s champions show us all the untapped power of the human mind. When we believe in what we conceive, the Zone can guide any of us to achieve anything. And it’s not just about sport.
More than simply a cliché, the Zone is the mental state required to perform at our own absolute limit in any field. This is the home of ‘genius’: where artists are at their most creative, where musicians produce their most sublime performances, where scientists make their breakthroughs. This doesn’t stop with the stars. Whether you’re a teacher, a chef, a nurse or an astronaut, if you’re taking an exam or cracking jokes in a pub, to find the Zone guarantees you hit your absolute best. You may not even recall how or why it went so right. Put simply, it all goes like a dream.
The Zone can kick in at every level from a kickabout in the park to the World Cup Final. It is just a blissful state where all internal chatter disappears and we truly go with the flow. We assume conscious thoughts drive us on, but it is when we give our subconscious free rein to do its natural thing that we truly shine. That often leads to a performance at the maximum of our potential, albeit beyond what our conscious minds ever imagined possible. This limit rises in proportion to the hours of practice in the bank and the intensity of the occasion. Blend the Zone with supreme ability and a packed, expectant arena and you get fireworks. This book features plenty of those but the good news is that we all have enough spark to match any of them, if only we take the trouble to live the dream.
‘The great achievers, winners, inventors, musicians and painters have all been great dreamers,’ says mind coach Don MacPherson. ‘What’s exciting is that anyone can visualise. We can use it in life’s everyday challenges like school exams or a driving test. If you have to make a best man’s speech, first picture your audience in as much detail as possible, using all your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch. See yourself delivering your speech feeling relaxed and confident. Hear the audience laughing and clapping, then coming up to congratulate you.
‘These mind movies turbo-charge your confidence because the subconscious doesn’t know the difference between the real thing and something imaginary. Like all skills, the more you practise the better you get. But your brain loves a target so give it a big one like a great success. When you have it burned into your subconscious mind, switch focus to the process by visualising how you’re going to get there, step by step.’
This book draws on the testimony of the cream of the world’s brightest dreamers and most focused schemers to show we all have a chance to be a magician. Anyone with a dream can follow these greats all the way to the top of the world by setting their mind unflinchingly on their own specific quest.
How do champions think? They don’t. The original dream comes not from the head but the heart: conceive. No matter how long it takes, they don’t think they can, they know they can: believe. Finally, to truly peak they stop thinking at all: achieve.
We all have this potential if we can stop suppressing it ourselves or believing others who haven’t yet learned this universal truth. When we finally pay dreams the attention they deserve, the payback is a sea change in everything from self-belief to self-discipline, self-knowledge to self-esteem. Then a realisation dawns that buried within each of us is the power to make any dream come true, even if the process may initially seem more of a nightmare…
This extract is from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, out now
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
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.