‘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
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…’
‘The last second is what’s most special and addictive: when you stand on the edge, you look down and you still have the chance to turn around and walk away. That last particular second when you step off. Then you know you are on the way. You cannot return. You pick up speed and you accelerate so fast. A couple of moments later you pull your parachute, you land, you look back up at that big mountain and you’re still alive. For me this is total freedom.’
Some people really do seem born to fly. When Felix Baumgartner was just five years old, he drew a picture of himself parachuting to Earth with his mother Eva watching on from ground level. Felix gave Eva the drawing, only for her to hand it back to him when he did his first real skydive, aged 17, at a club in his home city of Salzburg.
Felix then spent five years in the Austrian Army’s parachute exhibition team, building up his mastery of freefall. It was when he switched to BASE jumping that the haul of records began. His 1999 leap from Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers was the highest from a building and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue was the lowest. This constant quest for greater challenges led to his big finale: the world’s highest ever freefall – from 24 miles up – in a bid to become the first human to break the sound barrier without an engine.
This one wouldn’t come easy. Five long years of preparation for Baumgartner and his Red Bull Stratos team may seem excessive for a mere ‘stunt’ but this is the discipline required to go to the limit and beyond. The Austrian worked his way up with practice runs from 15 and 18 miles. Most crucially he was busy breaking the sound barrier over and over again – away from the public gaze.
‘I visualised this jump from the moment I heard about it,’ Baumgartner tells me in an interview for In The Zone. ‘I did it a thousand times in my mind – just like every other jump I’ve ever done. I lie in my bed and come up with a proper game plan.
‘I’m really good at pre-programming my mind and I always do this. I think about how it will feel, what it will look like. The more I think about it, the more it becomes reality. When I finally do it for real, 99 percent of the time it works exactly like I’d visualised and it feels the same way it felt in my mind.’
The aim of visualisation is more than just preparation; it’s about taking control of the future and tailoring it to our liking. By continually dreaming of his freefall from the edge of space Baumgartner painted a vivid picture and created a momentum in his mind that made success all but an inevitable consequence when he finally took one small step out onto his capsule’s external platform on October 14, 2012.
‘It’s the power of will and the focus you have,’ he adds. ‘When I was standing out on the exterior step it felt almost how I expected. This is the key. The more you can turn thoughts into reality, the better you are. Mental preparation is crucial: you have to ensure you find the right mindset for that moment. Then when you are finally in that position there will be no surprises. You pre-program your mind and it works exactly the way you expect. Most of the time…’
Pity the question Baumgartner is most often asked is: ‘What it was like up there?’ because the view was the last thing on his mind. He was in the Zone…
‘You’re so focused and determined you don’t see or hear anything around you,’ says Baumgartner. ‘In the first part of the jump I spun five times anticlockwise and 22 times clockwise. I didn’t think about anything else because I was so focused on stopping that spin. It was a lot of work and took almost a minute. For the rest of the flight I was more relaxed. At 5,000 feet (1.5km) I had to pull my parachute. Then I realised I’d broken the speed of sound.’
Ready for your own big one? The good news is Baumgartner insists we all have the ability to rise to any challenge, as long as we can silence the doubters: ‘I’ve met Neil Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Sir Edmund Hillary – and it wasn’t easy for any of them. When they came up with their idea everybody looked at them like “What the hell is wrong with you? This is impossible. You can’t climb the highest mountain in the world…” So you have to focus on one goal and make the judgement: “Am I willing to go the extra mile and invest all the blood, sweat and tears to reach that goal?” If the answer is yes, go for it. That’s what I did and this is where it brought me. Everyone said I could not break the speed of sound. But I proved them wrong…’
To find out much more about how Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump – including how he conquered his fears and coped with his mental demons along the way – read In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
It was a pleasure to record a podcast with Adrian Evans of the Enterprise Sales Club in which we talk about many of In The Zone's themes - not least techniques like visualisation - and how they apply to the rest of us.
We discuss the Zone, how sports stars live the dream through the three stages of Conceive, Believe and Achieve to find the right mental state to perform when it matters. We touch on my interviews with everyone from Michael Phelps to Nadia Comaneci to Franz Klammer to Jessica Ennis-Hill - and many more...
Most important of all, we explore how the rest of us can take their wisdom to transform our own performance, whether in business or elsewhere.
Click here to hear the podcast on SoundCloud...
Click here to read Adrian's blog on LinkedIn
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.