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…
Peak performance really starts with ‘beginner’s luck’. If there’s nothing to compare ourselves with, we can forget all about results and just enjoy ourselves, like children. Even if we have only minimal technical ability, to use all of it unhindered can work better than having the skill but a blockage in how to access it. The jams begin as we improve and build up expectations, both our own and those we perceive in others.
Golf is a classic example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing: when I first picked up a club my only exposure came from watching the greats on television. Their expertise had wedged itself into my head and my swing was initially easy, the ball regularly sailing straight down the middle. What was all the fuss about? Then I had a few lessons – but not enough – and started thinking about grip and stance, inhibiting whatever natural flow I’d had. It was downhill all the way. After a literal low point where I could no longer get the ball off the ground, I gave up.
I’m not alone. A world champion from another sport put it beautifully: ‘I’d go round in 100 shots, of which 99 were crap and one was good. If 99 pints tasted awful and one tasted good you wouldn’t drink, would you?’ With perseverance I may have broken through to the other side – until the next stumble. Everyone endures such lows but the stars find the inner resources to force their way beyond all the moments when their ability seems to plateau or, worse, dip. No matter what, they never, ever quit.
In a world that worships winners, for the perfect storyline Hollywood might suggest a sportsman should save their day of days for the very end of their career, preferably a stunning victory out of nowhere on the day they retire. But that overlooks one minor plot detail: a couple of decades of torment as the universal acceptance that your chance has gone reaches a point where even friends and family look upon your continued efforts with the kind of bemused pity normally reserved for a caged animal determined to gnaw their way out.
As Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke limbered up for his 20th attempt to win golf’s Open Championship in 2011 – eight years ago today – he was about to surprise his doubters. In atrocious weather, the 150-1 shot walked calmly through the storms. He led into the final day and while others faltered he sauntered to glory by three shots – at the age of 42.
‘I still don’t know how I managed to do it,’ Clarke told me for In The Zone. ‘But that week I was very calm and collected. For that final round it was as if it was my time. I played well but also got a couple of good bounces and breaks. I’d served my apprenticeship and it was given to me. That’s the way sport goes, isn’t it? You need to get the breaks to win. But it’s not as if I came out of the blue. I’d won 20 times around the world including a tournament in Arizona two months earlier. It’s been a long road and it was great to be able to plough through, persevere, persevere, persevere… and I got here in the end. The support and love the people showed me walking down the 18th was even more special. It wasn’t just the roar, it was the compassion.’
Clarke had indeed been through way more than the average sportsman, having lost his wife Heather to breast cancer five years earlier. Hitting a ball into a hole pales into irrelevance by comparison. Nonetheless he’d already earned one early moment of redemption just six weeks later as he won all three of his matches in the Ryder Cup at the K Club. After that Clarke’s form disintegrated again and before his Open triumph he hadn’t finished in the top ten at a major for ten years. Even then his self-confidence never deserted him. It helped that top golf psychologist Bob Rotella kept reminding Clarke about what he terms ‘unconscious putting’. The key is to create a clear picture of the desired outcome, then let all fear of failure go and trust the natural skills honed over the years of practice. Don’t think, don’t fret, don’t try, just do. Sound familiar?
‘In my heart of hearts did I think I was good enough? Yes, of course I did,’ he adds. ‘I had no doubt in my mind and I knew 100 percent I had the game to win. Did I know I was going to win? No, but that’s slightly different. Still, I do scratch my head at how it has all turned out. The K Club was wonderful and the Open even more so. I’ve had a difficult time in my personal life but the world of sport gives and it takes. It’s taken from me in many different ways and it’s given me an awful lot back as well. I’ve got to be grateful for what the game has given me.
‘Challenges are in front of everybody, whatever walk of life they’re in. If you give in that’s not the way forward. You’ve got to battle on and sometimes good comes out of bad. I’m a good example of that. You have to get through the bad times to get to the good times. Certainly I went through the bad and eventually came to an awful lot of good that’s coming to me now.’
Tomorrow morning at 6.35am Clarke, now 50, will hit the first shot at Royal Portrush in the first Open championship to be held in Northern Ireland for 68 years. A victory might be even less likely this time, but something tells me he won’t care a jot.
This is an extract from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
I’m not in the habit of writing reviews of other books on this blog, but Will Buxton’s My Greatest Defeat makes for a worthy exception.
Over the last 20 years I’ve been hunting down the world’s greatest sportspeople in a bid to understand what goes through their minds when they find the magical state of peak performance. But it’s time to admit I may have been missing a trick, because it’s in our moments of despair that we learn the most – and the greats are not exempt.
Buxton has spoken to 20 of global motor sport’s all-time legends about their lowest points. As it happens I’ve been lucky enough to interview all but two of them myself, yet such is the quality of these exchanges I’ve learned something new about every single one of his subjects – from Alex Zanardi to Jimmie Johnson, Alain Prost to Sébastien Loeb.
Each of the drivers opens up about what they learned from their personal disaster, showing how willing they were to buy into this project – not to mention the author’s skills in putting them at ease to talk. And it’s not just about the racetrack, with the late Niki Lauda notably delving into his own darkest hour after one of his Lauda Air planes crashed in Thailand, killing everyone on board.
I’ll resist being the source of any spoilers, but there is plenty of wisdom to be found from Mika Hakkinen, Jeff Gordon et al, plus some surprising revelations along the way from the likes of Rick Mears. What becomes abundantly clear is that every one of these drivers is a human being like the rest of us. And it is a steady diet of defeat that sets each of them up for any eventual, hard-earned, oh-so-sweet taste of victory.
The best part is that Buxton lets them speak for themselves and allows the conversations to flow out onto the page. It’s a throwback to the extended form of interviewing that we could see even on TV chat shows back in the days before it was deemed that we don’t have the attention spans to cope.
Rest assured we do.
To be really picky, we might want to hear from more of the current crop of F1 megastars, because defeat is no stranger to any of us, young or old. But no doubt Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already being lined up for the sequel.
A final point: the book itself is a work of art thanks to the striking cover design and brooding individual portraits of each driver by DC and Marvel comic book artist Giuseppe ‘Cammo’ Camuncoli.
A man used to depicting superheroes with a dark tale to tell…
My Greatest Defeat by Will Buxton is out now
Given the pre-eminence of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners over the past 50 years, it still comes as a surprise that the all-time queen of the road is British.
Paula Radcliffe started running at the age of seven but she had her epiphany as an 11-year-old when she came to watch her father race at the 1985 London Marathon. That day Ingrid Kristiansen set a new world best time (2h 21m 06s, a mark that stood for 13 years) and the young Paula was instantly struck by the Norwegian’s power and fluidity as she saw off all but the very fastest men.
‘That London Marathon was a big inspiration for me,’ says Radcliffe. ‘First it was that smell of Deep Heat on the start at Blackheath. But when Ingrid came past that day, she was right in there not far behind the winning men. To see a woman that far up… I didn’t really have a lot of barriers in my head at 11 anyway but it broke down any barriers that remained.’
Thanks to asthma and anaemia Paula’s dream must nonetheless have seemed distant, yet such was her drive she was crowned World Junior Cross Country champion in 1992. Then within two years disaster struck as a doctor told her she would never run again due to a stress fracture to her left foot: ‘I remember coming home in tears and my Dad saying, “What’s the big deal? Loads of people go through life and they don’t run.” But I said I’m not “loads of people”, I’ve got lots of things I want to do. It has to get better. And it did.’
Radcliffe duly embarked on a meticulous training regime that strengthened the muscle in her head as much as those in her legs. Further cross country titles followed but she always seemed destined to be the ‘nearly woman’ of track racing because she lacked a kick over the final lap. Then it was time for her true destiny to kick in…
At her very first marathon at London in 2002 Paula set a world’s best for a women’s only race. Later that year she became the first woman to run under 2h 18m in Chicago but even that didn’t sate her appetite. At the 2003 London Marathon she used two Kenyan male pacemakers to take the record to the next level. Her 2h 15m 25s is a time so far out of reach of anyone else before or since – over a minute and a half – it could last for decades more.
‘The attraction and challenge of the marathon for so many people is that it’s you against the distance, against your body, against hitting the wall,’ smiles Radcliffe. ‘That’s the way I always like to run anyway, I never looked at split times too much, I just ran hard and strong. It’s only later you realise how much “in the Zone” you were and how much you ask your body and it delivers. You just trust it’s going to be there because it has been there in the training. It’s that “not fear” that you won’t be able maintain the pace or finish, you just trust you will be able to.
‘I don’t think I had more talent than anybody else. There are people around now who have more talent. I just had this stubbornness and a way of wanting to run as hard as I could; even if I had the race won, I wanted to see how fast I could go. So it was this mindset, combined with the luck that my body could withstand the amount of training it did in 2002 and 2003. It enabled me to get into really good shape and attack it.’
Radcliffe may not obsess about split times but when you spend your life at the front of a marathon with a camera truck ahead of you it’s unavoidable, notably for her historic run in London. The first lesson of marathon running is to stick to the same pace all the way round. The Englishwoman’s average mile rate from her Chicago record was 5m 13s, so she could tell if she was up from the split times flashing up. Alarmingly the third mile in London was below the five-minute mark, which she worried was far too fast. To most mortals yes, but Paula was on fire.
‘It was definitely close to a perfect day,’ says Radcliffe. ‘The preparation had gone really well; the only real hiccup was when I had an accident with a little girl on a bike who knocked me over a few weeks before. I spent a couple of weeks trying to get over the dislocated jaw and whiplash from that. But by that point most of the training was already in the bank. On race day conditions were good and I felt good.
‘Even so I did think I would go quicker afterwards but it never happened. I was in slightly better shape in training in 2004 but by the competition I got injured. That shows in the marathon you need to seize the opportunity. You put so much into the training cycle and so often that risk doesn’t pay off: conditions aren’t right on the day or you get a blister or an upset stomach and you can’t capitalise on everything. That’s why that day in London I felt it was really important just to keep running as hard as I could so the record had a chance of standing for as long as possible.’
The pain was worth it. 16 years and counting…
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...
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.
Monaco has been such an eternal, magical presence in Formula 1 it seems strange that the one thing the principality has always been missing is a bona fide top-line driver.
But amid all the mayhem of last weekend’s manic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, one of few indisputably positive stories was a young Monegasque driver taking the principality’s first points since Louis Chiron scored at home in 1950 in the second ever F1 race.
No motor sport fan was surprised by Charles Leclerc’s drive to an unlikely sixth place in the lowly Sauber. After romping to GP3 glory in 2016, his 2017 Formula 2 season was extraordinary: as dominant as the feeder series’ all-time greats including future F1 world champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. No wonder this long-time Ferrari Driver Academy protégé is a clear favourite to end up racing for Maranello.
But Leclerc’s stunning rise has been tinged with tragedy: first he lost his close friend and mentor Jules Bianchi. And there was added poignancy that Leclerc’s first ever F1 points should arrive at the same Baku track as his remarkable Formula 2 win in 2017, just days after the loss of his beloved father Hervé.
‘I’ve had two huge losses for my family and myself over these past three years with Jules and my father,’ Leclerc tells me. ‘It has definitely been hard but obviously it has made me a lot stronger.
‘The only thing I told myself before the Baku Formula 2 race is that I knew that from up there they wouldn’t want me to be completely devastated or do a very bad race. They would certainly want to see me happy and doing great things out on the track.
‘Once I arrived in Baku I just tried to focus 300 percent on Baku and try to think the least amount possible of all this while I was in the car. Somehow I believe they hear me every time I speak to them, that they are still somewhere here, trying to help me from up there…’
Mental strength is a key element of all success in sport and anywhere else, but it takes exceptional poise and determination to make a positive out of the worst things life can throw at us. Still only 20 years old, Leclerc has somehow taken everything in his stride.
Of course it helps that he has spent so much time lately honing the racer’s mentality…
‘I’ve grown quite a lot mentally over the last past four or five years,’ he adds. ‘There are many techniques that can be used. I personally like the one of picturing the perfect lap in my head – especially before qualifying.
‘I do this often because I really think it helps. Every time there is a break and I’m not in the car, this imagery helps me hugely to be fully concentrated. When I get back in the car it feels different but this visualisation helps you readapt quicker to the car.
‘Then for the race it’s about looking at previous races then picturing all the different scenarios to be ready for any of them – like where to be at the first corner because obviously that’s very important.’
Later this month Leclerc will have his first chance to take an F1 car around his home streets at the Monaco Grand Prix. This will be even more special as he grew up with tales from his father about what Ayrton Senna’s magic performances and watching them on video.
Ironically Monaco was the only race weekend where Leclerc failed to score last year, but that didn’t stop him taking a characteristic storming pole and leading until retiring with a tyre problem. So it would be no surprise if he comes away with another strong performance later this month.
‘I really like city tracks,’ he smiles. ‘Last year the speed was amazing at both Baku and Monaco: they take so much focus yet I felt very comfortable in both. Of the two pole laps it would be hard to choose – but maybe Monaco because it was the home race and it felt a bit more special.
‘Of course I can’t say I’ve ever felt something like Senna because that would be very cocky. All I can say is that every time you race in Monaco it’s a different feeling: you have so much concentration, you don’t think about anything else. To be honest when I got out of the car I couldn’t even remember anything about the race. Because we are just on it like in no other track. Yeah, it’s a great feeling…’
Monaco has been the scene for many of the world’s greatest ever sporting moments – in athletics, tennis, football and, of course, Formula 1.
This week it combined all the above and much more as it hosted the Laureus World Sports Awards – the premier global celebration of the sporting year – back where it was first held in 2000. It means Monaco has been swarming with the greatest names in the history of sport, not least the 200 Laureus Academy members and ambassadors, all bona fide legends who are now uniformly determined to give something back.
This event has long been the source of many of my most inspiring interviews, and this year has been no exception. Over the past two days I’ve had the privilege to speak to Olympic champions, Paralympic greats, World Cup winners, Wimbledon champions and stars of everything from rugby to rowing to ice skating to kitesurfing.
But the real star of the show is the work of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which uses sport as a power for good in some of the most deprived areas of the world. And this is summed up by one of the foundation’s newest ambassadors, Indian cricket legend Yuvraj Singh.
“It’s been a great experience to be part of Laureus,” says Singh. “The first time I came to the awards was in 2004 as an athlete, this time I’m here as an ambassador. I believe sport has the power to change the world and we share a common goal to improve lives and encourage underprivileged children to come out of whatever adversity they are going through.
"That’s also the aim of my own charity YouWeCan, which helps young cancer sufferers in India to get their lives back by giving them scholarships and getting them studying. So the common goal is great."
Singh has endured plenty of hardship of his own, having been diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after helping India win the Cricket World Cup in 2011. His eventual recovery gave him first-hand experience of what it takes to face one of the toughest battles of all.
“When you go through something like that, you have a lot of doubt about whether or not you will come through,” Singh tells me. “But if you can bounce back – in my case with the help of my family and friends – it makes you stronger and gives you belief. That was a big setback in my life and it has made me really strong as a person. If you can make it through this then nothing can ever put you down.
“So people need to identify through their own story how they can actually go through the downs, get their self-belief and let that story make them stronger. Especially in the case of kids it’s very important to be in the right environment of friends, parents and teachers, and to listen to what they say. If you have the right core system of people around you, I’m sure they’ll pull you through.”
The good news is that we don’t have to wait for such adversity to unearth the power we all have within. That’s why the legends associated with Laureus are so passionate about getting the rest of us dreaming too.
“I always say the power of the mind is the biggest, the most powerful tool,” adds Singh. “Your dreams are made of you. And I think it’s important to believe them until you achieve them. I’m sure that if you keep on believing and if you take the right path, you will live your dreams.”
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.’
From an early age we are led to believe the standard route to the ‘good life’ is via hard work and a steady well-paid job. But this path isn’t for everyone.
At the age of 34 Roz Savage was an Oxford graduate and a high-flying management consultant. She had all the established trappings including a nice house in London and a fast car. It was just on the inside that everything was falling apart, as she reveals in the book In The Zone.
The epiphany came when Savage sat down to write her own obituary. Twice. The first was the version she was heading for: all very comfortable and safe, but dull. Next she wrote a fantasy version, full of adventure. The attraction was such that to the alarm of her family and friends she made the first big independent decision of her life: she quit.
Still she had no vision of what to do instead – indeed it took years of casual work and drifting until lightning struck. To earn herself a platform to speak out on her passion for the environment, she would row single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean. Cue a thunderstorm in her emotional mind…
‘I can imagine my internal observer saying, “What the hell is she thinking? HQ we have a problem, she’s lost it,”’ smiles Savage. ‘But when you behave courageously it thinks, “OK, let’s see how this goes…” When I began my voyage, people posted nice comments on my blogs, saying they admired my courage and resourcefulness. At first I didn’t own those words. Courageous? Not me. Then I thought “Why not me?” I had a whiteboard in front of my rowing seat where I wrote the words, then I’d deliberately embody courage and resourcefulness. I made significant progress with that.’
Savage insists resilience isn’t something we either have or we don’t, it’s a character trait we learn along the way once we’ve made a big decision. She went on to become the only woman to row solo across the world’s three big oceans, completing her epic on October 4, 2011. Along the way she has taken five million rowing strokes, each a crucial step towards building up enough grit for her to take on the entire world.
The adventures have now given her an inner steel she could never dream of during her quest for conventional success – and an even deeper understanding of the flaws in the ambitions that are supposed to be vital for happiness.
‘We are not taught important life skills in school, like finding a purpose and having resilience,’ she adds. ‘In my teaching today I see wonderful undergraduates selling out and going for the money. So we need to change our idea of what success looks like – away from the materialistic model that, to paraphrase Gandhi, serves our greed instead of our need. It’s time to craft a new narrative, closer to the values and integrity of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. We need a new definition of success where we admire character, courage and taking action for a cause you believe in.’
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.