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…
Ever since I read Ayrton Senna’s words describing his surreal out-of-body experience during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, I’ve been on a quest to find others who have found the same magical place.
Over the years I’ve met many great sports stars who have been there too: moments in the Zone that bend time and space and transcend reality as we know it. Occasionally I get really lucky and the human being telling me the story is still at the absolute top of their game, and the world.
After Novak Djokovic collected his fourth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award last week, I grabbed my chance to enquire about his description of going into ‘another dimension’ during his near-perfect Australian Open semi-final in January.
Appropriately we were in Monaco so I brought up the similarity with Senna’s words. The Serbian superstar’s reply was as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from one of sport’s true class acts – and definitely, unmistakably Senna-esque. Here it is in full…
‘I actually watched Ayrton Senna’s documentary so I did hear him speaking about that,’ smiled Djokovic. ‘In my case there were several matches where you just feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. One of them was in the final of the Australian Open in 2012 against Nadal when we played almost six hours. It’s really hard to explain when you feel like you’re present but somehow you’re also not present – because the physical pain is so big that you don’t feel your body any more, but you’re operating on some kind of autopilot that is taking you to your desired places, which you determine mentally.
‘It was one of those experiences where you just feel like there is a higher force that is driving you forward. I’m also a big believer in that, and I always rely on my faith and try to be grateful and understanding of a creator and a greater power and a universal help that we always see. So I try to remind myself of that, of how blessed I am and not to take things for granted because ego is a strange opposition at times, and it can play with your mind.
‘In this process of evolution as a human being I’ve learned a lot more about these things because I’ve become more aware of them. Before it was just… I hit a tennis ball and it was in or out, and I won a tennis match. But throughout the years it became much more than that. It became a spiritual journey. And because the tennis court is a place where I’m probably most vulnerable but also very confident and strong, a tennis court is a school of life for me: where I get triggered most and where I can understand myself on a deeper level. That’s because everything I maybe suppress outside of a tennis court surfaces there.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing tennis. I don’t see too many different places where I can actually evolve as a human being better than on a tennis court.’
Wow. To learn more about Djokovic’s approach to his art, read my earlier interview with him about his 2012 epic against Nadal which is a highlight of In The Zone - or check out the wonderful speech he gave while collecting last week’s Laureus award…
Austria’s Franz Klammer prevailed over a golden era for skiing, sealing a record five World Cup titles plus gold in the blue riband men’s downhill at the 1976 Olympics – 43 years ago today – after a truly wild ride (see video below…)
The secret to ‘The Kaiser’s’ success, which included one matchless run of ten straight wins, was that he didn’t consider his opponents to be his rivals. No, his main adversary was about a thousand times taller.
‘I won every race in one season – except one when I lost my ski,’ he gleefully recalls in the book In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big. ‘That means you have to be better than the best one of the others. You always know one of these guys will have a very good run because they’re all after you. But I’m not racing against any person, I’m racing the mountain.
‘When I was winning all the races, I just knew I was ahead of everything. So you’re the boss in the ring. You know how you want to do it and you can just conquer the mountain. Then you get into the Zone. This happened to me a lot, and those moments almost always led to victory because you’re the leader. It’s not the skis or the mountain telling you what to do. You’re mastering the mountain.’
It takes a big man to take on nature but Klammer offered his mighty rival the highest respect imaginable. He didn’t just show up on the day and expect mastery to fall into his lap; instead it was a steady build-up that began in the privacy of his mind.
‘The most important thing is to figure out what you have to do to perform,’ he says. ‘It’s not up to you when you have to race so you have to be totally consistent. If the race is at midday on Saturday you cannot afford not to be on form then. You have to be spot on. So I had a mental build-up during the week, like gradually pulling back a bow and arrow. When I arrived for the course inspections on Wednesday I started pulling the bow back, building up the tension more and more until you are ready to go. Then on Saturday I let the arrow fly.
‘I always used to visualise the course too. When I went to bed I lay down and went through the downhill, then again the next morning, visualising what I was going to do. You learn that as you go through your career. Once you really have the feel the hard bit isn’t the turns, because you’re always in action, but the flat. If a flat section takes 20 seconds you don’t know how long that takes without a clock. Still, when I was really in my heyday I could imagine the whole course within three or four tenths of my actual racing time. Then when I got to the start I’d do it all different because if you stick to the line you are too slow…’
If a relaxed attitude sounds like a chink in the armour for the other competitors to exploit, they will be sorely disappointed. Such a playful mindset allows the legends to set their subconscious free. That’s when they really start to fly.
‘For me being “in the Zone” is when everything is in slow motion so you have all the time in the world,’ adds Klammer. ‘In skiing you have certain crucial sections of the course when you really have to get it right. Afterwards it is flat so if you make a mistake you will lose a lot of time and you won’t win the race. But when you’re in the Zone, you have a very clear picture ahead of you and you see all these little details. So you can go for it. It’s a special feeling when you’re in full flow…’
This is an exclusive extract from the book In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
We are pleased to report that as of January 2019 In The Zone is now available as an audiobook for the first time. Read by Tim Dickinson, it lasts nine hours and features 100 interviews with the all-time greats of sport talking about how they live their dreams. You can find it on Audible or Amazon.
Click here to listen to a sample clip from the section featuring legendary TT motorbike racer John McGuinness...
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...
On October 15, 1997 Britain’s Andy Green became the first man to break the speed of sound on the ground, clocking an average 763mph over two timed miles in opposite directions at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in Thrust SSC (Super Sonic Car). Green remains the world land speed record holder but he is not ready to slow down yet. Now into his fifties, he is collaborating with the Bloodhound SSC Project - currently engaged in a will-they-won't-they chase for funding - in a bid to pass the next big milestone: 1,000mph.
Wing Commander Green is used to such extreme speed from his day job as a fighter pilot – but the fundamental principle remains that people don’t kill themselves in the air; it’s the ground that does the damage. That’s why in any land speed record bid the load on the spinning wheels, which will reach 10,000rpm at full speed, is matched by the load on the spinning mind of the human inside.
‘Getting into the Zone fairly common for anyone who does high performance racing or flying,’ says Green in an interview for In The Zone. ‘The way your brain works at apparently abnormal speed is to remove uncertainty. For a Formula 1 driver, it’s about doing the same lap thousands of times. In flying you do enormous amounts of study, simulation and practice. It doesn’t happen on your first sortie, it happens when you’ve got a thousand hours.
‘The tricky bit for a land speed record driver is that the car may only run 50 times over the course of two years. So my practice will be very limited.’
Twenty years on from Green's record-breaking run, Bloodhound SSC ran in anger for the very first time at Newquay’s Cornwall Airport last October: ‘low-speed’ initial test runs up to 200mph. But with real-life physical preparation in such short supply ahead of the full-blown record attempt itself, Green has to settle for the next best thing: watching endless rehearsals in the comfort of his own imaginary movie theatre.
‘If you go to the cinema, when you haven’t read the script and don’t know the story, you’ve got to grasp all that the first time,’ he smiles. ‘Normally it’s the third time you watch a film that you start to see the details. I need to see them first time. So it’s about trying to see the film before you go into the cinema.
‘I’ll go through the profile in detail so I know it, including the specifics of when I’ll press each button. Years ahead I’m already visualising: “What will it be like? What can help me?” It’s picturing every aspect so when you get to the cinema the seat fits you, you’re sitting in a nice place and the popcorn is ready to go.’
The timed mile itself lasts a mere 3.5 seconds but that is just one part of a brutal two-minute acceleration and deceleration. During that time Green is not just holding on for grim life but monitoring a bewildering range of systems, any of which could suddenly destabilise the car. As he builds up speed, he must also build up his mental capacity to a point where time apparently runs slower than normal.
‘I need to break the run up almost second by second,’ adds Green. ‘That’s to see how it is constructed, work out what I need to do in each moment and minimise the things I don’t have to do. Do I have to watch the engine oil temperatures or all the pressure sensors? No, the car can monitor those and find out if there’s a problem. There might be a critical moment 15 seconds in when it becomes relevant but until then I can turn my attention elsewhere.
‘It’s all about working out a sequence so I appear to be doing 15 things at a time when I’m really doing one thing at a time, very quickly one after another…’
Read In The Zone to find out what happens when things go wrong (as they did when Green first broke through the speed of sound) plus why the project’s primary aim is to inspire the next generation of engineers… and learn how the whole Bloodhound SSC crew is in countdown mode towards their bid to take the record out of sight.
‘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
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.
We are delighted that In The Zone has been selected as one of the titles available on Bookchoice's books of the month for September 2018.
This also means it is now available as an audiobook for the first time, read by Tim Dickinson.
Head here to find out more...
Today marks two years 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.
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
Life as a football fan can have its surreal moments. In February 2017 I happened to watch two matches in the space of a week. Both drew crowds of about 5,000 people. Both cost me about £15 to get in.
One was an English League Two match featuring the might of Grimsby Town. The other was a French Ligue 1 match between AS Monaco and Metz that I only caught because I was on the Riviera collecting the last couple of interviews for In The Zone, notably a certain Usain Bolt.
The setting was the gloriously picturesque Stade Louis II, though the tiny crowd gave it all the atmosphere of a pre-season friendly – despite the fact that Monaco were busy running away with the Ligue 1 title.
The home line-up featured the likes of Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho, Fabinho (now with Liverpool), Tiémoué Bakayoko (now with Chelsea) plus Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva (both now with Manchester City). Thomas Lemar (now with Atletico Madrid) was there too, but he didn’t even make it off the bench.
Have I forgotten anyone? Oh yeah, the Monaco keeper was Danijel Subasic, who now has a busy Sunday lined up keeping goal for Croatia in the World Cup Final.
Then there was a young lad who also has his plans for Sunday sorted: Kylian Mbappé.
You might just have heard of him by now. But I’m prepared to admit that as I looked at the team sheets, his wasn’t the name that stood out. His £160million move to Paris St Germain may have been just months away, but this match came before Monaco set the Champions League on fire en route to the semi-finals.
It didn’t take the 18-year-old long to make his mark. As early as the seventh minute Mbappé latched onto a lay-off from Falcao and swept it home first time. By the 20th minute he’d added a second. In the second half he completed his first ever Ligue 1 hat-trick as part of a 5-0 romp. Given the pitiful crowd, something tells me this might be an ‘I was there’ moment that will give me bragging rights for a while…
Fast forward 17 months and – with the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar Jr coming up short – Mbappé is being hailed as the undisputed star of the 2018 World Cup after lighting up game after game in front of slightly bigger crowds. Now France’s golden child has the chance to seal that status, with his nation and much of the world willing him to take Sunday’s World Cup Final by storm.
This French team is loaded up with great players, not least an impressive defence and the midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, who would walk into any team in the world. But never underestimate the effect of a genius, particularly when it comes to getting a group of players into the Zone en masse.
No matter how motivated and well drilled a team is, in fast-flowing ball sports the difference often stems from a flash of brilliance. It seems the Zone is contagious and team-mates can catch greatness from each other. That’s according to Marcel Desailly, of the French football team that was the first to hold both World Cup and European Championship, starting with their glorious triumph at home in Paris 20 years ago today.
‘France didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup but in 1996 we started to build that new generation,’ Desailly told me for In The Zone. ‘We had natural leaders who showed they could perform at a higher level. We were professional players, focused and dedicated to the game. On top of that we had Zidane.
‘When Zidane was there it was different, even in a training session. A star like that brings direct motivation and more responsibility for the others. You want to keep the ball correctly, your attention is higher and you are more focused. The concentration and consistency we showed were what allowed us to last at the top.
‘From 1998 to 2001 we were the world’s best team. Luckily we were able to deliver collective performances. A collective link in a team is very important in football and makes the difference every single time.’
Mbappé is not even 20 years old yet, but if he can inspire his team in the same way we could be in for something special. Of course France still have to overcome a team in Croatia that is high on national pride and has its own talisman in Luka Modric, 13 years Mbappé’s senior.
Both teams have shown grit, skill and outstanding team spirit to make it this far, but something tells me Monday’s headlines will mention a magic moment from a man whose name begins with M…
Either way, it was the best £15 I’ve ever spent. (No, not the Grimsby game...)
Thank you so much to all the media outlets who have taken In The Zone to their hearts and helped spread the word over the past months all over the world.
The latest publication to feature the work is the June issue of Ukraine's Megapolis magazine, which carried out an extensive and very well researched interview about the mind of sportspeople and how we can all learn from what they are able to achieve. If you don't happen to be travelling through Kiev this month (whyever not?) and your Russian is up to scratch you can see some of it in the above picture and find the entire magazine online by clicking here.
This week I also enjoyed a rare TV appearance on the Motorsport Show hosted by Peter Windsor. We discussed solutions for the widely-criticised 'boring' 2018 Monaco Grand Prix before moving onto a race that is always exciting, the Indianapolis 500, won this year by the aptly-named Will Power (see clip below).
Triple world champion Nelson Piquet likened driving a Formula 1 car round Monaco to “flying a helicopter around your living room” (an extension of his famous line comparing it to riding a bicycle indoors) - and it's 30 years today since one of Piquet’s countrymen became the greatest indoor pilot of all.
It was on Saturday 14 May 1988 that Ayrton Senna went into overdrive, blitzing the F1 field including his great rival Alain Prost in an identical McLaren. In a classic interview with Gerald Donaldson, Senna revealed: “I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
Most professional racers can switch off their conscious mind – letting their autopilot control the minutiae of driving if they’re in a busy race. But Senna’s experience was something else altogether. This was not easing off but going beyond concentration to the other side. No wonder that as Senna recounted what happened he was shaking, his voice wavered and his eyes misted over – sure signs of his passion for any subject.
Hollywood’s modern classic The Matrix came out after Senna’s death but fans will recognise this kind of experience. “Detached from anything else”, he had unlocked an all-new level of hyper-ability that rendered Earthly pursuits easy. He described the sensation as “between two worlds”. It sounds fanciful, but this was no movie. It was very real and witnessed by millions around the world.
Of those, one had a clearer view of the magic than most. Switzerland’s Alain Menu, who went on to touring car glory, was competing in the F3 race that weekend so his pitpass let him stand on the inside of the chicane, looking back up towards the tunnel exit. What came next remains etched into his memory, as I discovered decades later.
We were talking about Menu’s own career when, unprompted, his mind drifted back to that Saturday in 1988: “There weren’t many people around because it was a private area but I’m so glad I was there. Ayrton Senna was visibly braking eight metres later than anybody else but it was his car that was amazing. All the other cars were a bit unbalanced and you could hear them banging around under braking. For him, nothing. As he braked the whole car just shook. You could hear nothing except for a noise that sounded like phphphphph.”
Menu’s exclamation is reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter recalling his favourite meal in The Silence of the Lambs, but breathing out rather than in. Spine tingling? You bet: “It made an immediate impression on me,” he adds. “It gives me goose pimples to talk about it and I’m so glad I saw it. I’m sure people who didn’t see that lap would have heard what Ayrton said and thought, ‘He’s crazy.’
“If I hadn’t seen it and I’d heard what he said, I’d have said, ‘Okay, whatever, it was just a fantastic lap, that’s it.’ But something definitely happened that day and I believe it was special because I’ve never seen a racing car do this. Never, ever, ever. And I have no doubt it was the same the whole way round the lap. Ayrton was one and a half seconds quicker than team-mate Alain Prost and two and a half seconds clear of the next guy. Alain was a great driver but when he saw the lap times and the printouts he couldn’t have believed it because it was so far ahead of what he could do.
“I’m very down to Earth and I generally don’t believe in this kind of thing. In my own career I’ve had some very good qualifying sessions but never anything like that, where you almost forget what you’ve done. Later I heard Ayrton had to come into the pits because he was looking down on himself from above the car. That was all so hard to believe but now I believe it because I saw it and I heard it.”
Ready for the next Hollywood twist? During my research for In The Zone I spoke about this sensation to Formula 1 world champions including Lewis Hamilton, Mika Hakkinen and Emerson Fittipaldi plus greats of the Indianapolis 500 and the world rally championship. But it was Prost himself who surprised me when he revealed he underwent a similar experience around the very same Monaco streets, two years before Senna: “I was really flying and I could not see the speed. To me it felt like I was driving at 30mph. The whole weekend was like this. Your mind is still focused but it’s really happiness. It's happiness. And you are fast...”
It was 25 years ago today that Ayrton Senna passed four cars on lap one of the 1993 European Grand Prix at a drenched Donington Park, ending up in the lead. Legendary commentator Murray Walker classes it as the best lap he ever saw and few disagree.
Senna’s former race engineer James Robinson recalls: ‘Everyone quotes Donington in the rain, but you only have to watch classic examples like that to see what Senna was made of. Even with such self-belief you just don’t overtake four cars on the opening lap of a grand prix in the pouring rain at a track where there are guys who have driven more laps than you.
‘But while the rest were thinking, “If I go any faster I’m going to fall off because I haven’t been round here for fifteen minutes and it’s rained heavily since then,” Ayrton could judge the grip level on the outside. He would say: “I’ve driven Donington in the wet so many times in earlier formulae I know where the grip is. It’s not on the racing line when it’s raining. In this corner it’s here, in this corner they resurfaced it two years ago and it’s here.” He’d just put that information together. That’s what made him special.’
Senna’s explanation was simpler still. That Easter Sunday, hours before golfer Bernhard Langer declared his US Masters victory was extra special, coming as it did ‘on the day my Lord arose,’ Senna nipped in first. When Brazilian TV asked him how he’d managed to destroy the Donington field, he said: ‘God is great and powerful and when he wants nobody can say anything different.’
Einstein was right. God doesn’t play dice; he drives fast cars and plays golf. Moreover Senna had enjoyed another intervention from above a couple of years earlier, as the Brazilian maestro finally took his first ever win at his beloved home circuit of Interlagos…
‘Ayrton finished the last seven laps with only sixth gear,’ adds Robinson. ‘Riccardo Patrese’s Williams was chasing us and they didn’t know. Over the radio I heard a couple of comments in Portuguese and Ayrton was sitting in the car praying.
‘That was a new experience for me but you soon understand that’s him. His thought process led him to conclude somebody could help him through this and sort it out. That’s what set him apart – his sheer belief in his own ability, that he could do what other people couldn’t do. And, though he’d probably hate me for saying it, the belief that somebody else was looking after him. I’ve never experienced that with any other driver.’
This is an adapted extract from Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone
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.