The loss of boxing legend Marvin Hagler has capped off a sad weekend for sports lovers.
It was a huge privilege to meet the great man several times, most recently a year ago at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin, where I gave him a copy of In The Zone to thank him for the interview he gave me for the book. I couldn't resist grabbing the chance to have another short chat, and I'm so glad I did. Thank you Champ. Here is what he told me…
How powerful is failure on the route to success?
I don’t think you think about failure. What you do is you feed the faith and you starve the doubt. That’s how you don’t fail. If you feel as though you are a winner, you are a winner. Nobody likes the fact of losing but sometimes by losing it can help you grow. The thing is that you have to learn from your mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes you’re not going to learn.
A lot of people feel that they fail a lot more than they succeed in life, I’m one of them…
You’ve got to realise one thing: it’s never too late. That’s what life is all about. You have another opportunity and it’s what you make of it. Life is what you make of it. That’s basically what I try to do every day.
Have you taken the attitude you had as a boxer to everything you’ve done since?
My boxing has been my best education in the world. I learned from my mistakes. A lot of times we make mistakes but one thing you don’t want to do is make a mistake in that ring… In boxing if you get knocked down, you’re going to have to get straight back up or you’re going to have to start all over again. Sometimes it’s a long road coming back.
On the way up, before turned pro, did you ever allow doubts into your mind?
I don’t think so. Again, you have to starve the doubt and feed the faith. I learned that young. But what helps is when you’ve got people like your family surrounding you who help and support you. Then when you feel down, family can help build you back up before you really hurt yourself or have any doubts about yourself. Family plays a really big part in growing up.
Did you have any specific mentor that helped you along the way?
I had my manager and trainer. They have both passed away but I think about them a lot. They were the ones who guided me in the right direction. That’s basically where you want to keep it. They’re the ones who really gave me the strength to keep going and be the person I am – because they gave me the faith.
And have you since passed on that faith to others?
Yes, this is the reason I’m here at Laureus right now. Because of all the things that I learned at the early part of my career, what you want to do is to be able to return something to someone else and see them grow in the right direction. So they are not living in fear but giving them hope, and saying that if I made it, you can make it too. What does it take? It takes hard work. It’s giving something back to the young kids – and hopefully one day you’re going to see them grow up.
When you give like that, does that give you something back too?
It does. It makes you feel good. I’ve given to a lot of kids – just a bit of a boxing lesson or something. What is a great feeling is if you see the kid again in the future. You never know if you will see them again but if you do bump into them and they say: ‘Do you remember me?’ And I say: ‘No, who are you, kid?’ And they say: ‘Well, you showed me a couple of punches. I used that – and you know what’s happening now? I’m getting ready to go for the Olympics.’ I say: ‘No…’ and they say: ‘Yes it was thanks to you. You really gave me that inspiration.’ That’s what makes me feel proud.
If you can get one kid off the streets, it’s a blessing…
This will be old news to many of you but I just wanted to give a shout-out to Simon Mundie's outstanding BBC Radio 4 show and podcast Don't Tell Me The Score.
This is an incredible resource, full of insightful interviews with the greats of sport about what they do and how they do it. There is such a range of material that it's hard to pick out favourites, but two episodes have particularly stood out in recent weeks.
Multiple major golf winner Nick Faldo's insights into his mental approach make for a masterclass, particularly regarding how he used visualisation to reach the top of the world.
Then there is a fascinating interview with legendary Formula 1 journalist Maurice Hamilton about his unlikely arrival in the sport. His story is amazing in itself, and beautifully told, but it also makes for a compelling case for how anyone can live their dreams - as long as they refuse to give up regardless of the odds.
Maurice talks about the early mentoring he received from New Zealand journalist Eoin Young. I can vouch for the fact that he has passed his wisdom and kindness forward to many younger writers, as one of the many who owe him a huge debt of gratitude. I still remember picking up a copy of the Observer ten years ago to see this very generous review of Overdrive - which was entirely unprompted, came as a complete surprise and mercifully ensured my venture into self-publishing didn't sink without trace.
If you have a challenge of your own and you want to find out how to make it happen, I heartily recommend checking out this podcast. Then you can start work on the entire Don't Tell Me The Score back catalogue, which features everyone from Jonny Wilkinson to Caitlyn Jenner to Wim Hof...
Given the events of the last few months it’s no surprise that anxiety and other mental health problems are skyrocketing all over the world. Yet for those who feel helpless to fight back against this relentless diet of fear and gloom, help is at hand in the form of a new book due out in January 2021: How to Master Your Monkey Mind.
The Monkey Mind is how Chinese Buddhists have long described the nagging voice in our heads that flits from thought to thought, like a monkey swinging from tree to tree in the jungle. It is also the speciality of this book’s author, a very wise man who it has been my pleasure to get to know over the last ten years: Don MacPherson.
Based on the outskirts of the British city of Bath, MacPherson (aka ‘the Monkey Whisperer’) is a mind coach and hypnotherapist who routinely hosts young hopefuls in sports ranging from rugby to snooker – including champions in everything from Formula 1 to Wimbledon. There’s no purple cloak or swinging watch but there is a reclining chair where he puts on soothing music and sets out to tame their Monkeys and put their subconscious minds back on track. Even so, rather than implanting sinister ways of thinking into vulnerable heads, MacPherson insists hypnotherapists tend to be called upon to rectify the effects of a life of hypnosis from another source entirely.
‘Ask my wife Jane to play tennis and she will politely decline,’ MacPherson told me when I spoke to him for In The Zone. ‘She’ll say: “I can’t play tennis! I don’t have an eye for the ball or any hand-eye coordination.” But if you gently pry as to why she holds such a view, she’ll say it must be true because: “Everybody has always told me I am hopeless at tennis.”
‘If you dare to go any further you might enquire who this “everybody” is. You may know a few: mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, teachers, vicars, politicians, policemen, lawyers, doctors. They are Jane’s “everybody” and probably yours: all are hypnotists who were in action from her first attempt to hit a ball. No doubt she missed or mishit it, at which point I doubt she received much encouragement, more like “Oh dear, it doesn’t look like little Jane has much of an eye for a ball, shame...” from a well-meaning parent who didn’t realise the effect their negative comments can have on a young child hanging onto their every word.
‘Who was next? Other friends, all hypnotists joining in, compounding and confirming Jane is no good at tennis. Unless somebody interrupts this hypnotic trance, she is well on the way to believing it. Finally, whenever tennis is brought up, you will hear her unequivocally state: “I am hopeless at tennis”. This is as close as you can get to self-hypnosis but she has already been a victim of “accidental hypnosis”. It is now so deeply rooted in her subconscious that to shift it she would need a mind expert to try to reprogram her into “can-do” Jane.’
I’m sure we all have similar examples of pursuits we long ago abandoned as far beyond our puny capabilities – whether it’s sport, art, music, languages, maths or anything else. If we were to work our way back through time there would no doubt be a similar cast list of hypnotists. But few of them realise they were ever in our lives at all, just as we live in blissful ignorance of the similar effects we’ve had on countless, faceless others. We now live lives so complex in terms of interactions, from good old face-to-face contact to television, internet and social media, we face a daily onslaught of more swaying watches than Switzerland in an earthquake.
Some situations can make people especially vulnerable to hypnosis, according to MacPherson: ‘You are in your Doctor’s surgery, about to hear the results of some tests,’ he adds. ‘Your conscious mind freezes whenever something important, exciting or scary is happening to you. At this point your GP is a full-blown hypnotist because they now have direct access to your subconscious mind, the real you. So they had better be very careful what they say… because you’re about to become another victim of accidental hypnosis.
‘If it’s bad news your first question is likely to be: “How long have I got?” If the reply is “six months” it is uncanny how accurate this forecast turns out to be. Have the patients been hypnotised, their brains programmed to believe it must be so without question? If the GP clicked his fingers just before giving the results would the patient suddenly cluck like a chicken or sing an Elvis song if they suggested it?’
Something tells me the whole world is under the effects of similar mass hypnosis right now, quivering with fear and clucking like chickens at the slightest suggestion from our all-powerful rulers.
Yet before we start blaming anyone else we have to remember there is only one true leading light in our production: ourselves. No matter what anyone says it is only when our subconscious minds choose to believe it that a plot twist is written in stone. To quote parents everywhere: ‘If we ignore it, it will go away.’ The problem is that our deepest selves are not easy to control, no matter if we’re trying to ascertain whether or not to believe a news story, whether or not to believe we can hit a tennis ball over a net or even whether or not to believe we will live to see another Christmas.
Now MacPherson is promising to give us everything we need to take back control, thanks to ‘ten simple tools to tune your brain.’ These are likely to include many of the mind secrets he has used with the stars over the years, everything from meditation and visualisation to ‘Zen Breathing’ which slows the heart rate with a simple deep breath, exhaling for longer than we inhale.
This is the one toolbox we all need right now. So if you are heartily sick of 2020 and you fancy starting 2021 afresh I can only urge you to pre-order MacPherson’s book and prepare to start mastering your Monkey Mind.
Thank you very much to Ted Kravitz for having me on Sky Sports F1 earlier this month to talk about Lewis Hamilton’s recent visits to the Zone.
Hamilton is in the form of his life with six wins out of the last eight races – a run that gives him a chance of equalling Michael Schumacher’s all-time Formula 1 record of 91 grand prix wins this weekend in Russia.
Even considering the continued dominance of Mercedes that is a mighty achievement, not least in a year when he has had plenty of off-track distractions, as Ted illustrated in his insightful feature. Somehow Lewis has managed to channel everything into generating ever greater performances – and it reached a peak at last month’s Spanish GP…
‘I was just in a daze out there,’ he smiled afterwards. ‘We all try for perfection and it’s not always easy to deliver like that but today I didn’t realise it was the last lap, I was going to keep going. In my mind, I was like a horse with blinkers on. Today I was fully in the zone and it is right up there with some of the best races I’ve felt I’ve done.
‘There is immense pressure on all of us to perform weekend in, weekend out and the goal is always to chase for perfection and be in that zone. But today it was a clear zone. I don’t even know how to really get into that zone or what helps you get into that space but honestly I felt fantastic in the car. I was in a perfect zone and that’s the zone that I dream of being in.’
Sound familiar? Understanding this state has been my life’s work for 20 years writing In The Zone and Overdrive – during which I’ve been lucky to speak to Lewis about this magical subject a few times. As far back as 2007, a few weeks ahead of his Formula 1 debut, when I brought up Ayrton Senna’s famous 1988 pole lap at Monaco he described it as ‘something else – beyond the Zone. That’s heaven…’
It sounds like Lewis is now increasingly finding this heaven too. To the outsider this doesn’t always make for the most entertaining sport - we need two or more competitors to find the Zone for that, as in the recent golden era of men's tennis - but that’s hardly his fault. And I very much doubt he cares.
Any more visits to this ‘heaven’ and Lewis Hamilton will officially be Formula 1’s all-time number one.
Of all the interviews I collected for In The Zone from hundreds of world class sportsmen, the above quote from South Africa’s Pieter du Preez was honestly not the one I expected to go out of date.
Du Preez was an aspiring triathlete competing for South Africa at Under-23 level – until he was hit by a car while cycling in 2003. The crash broke his neck and left him paralysed from the chest down. But what he has achieved since is nothing short of sensational.
Because du Preez has no finger movement, when he first tried getting dressed it took him 15 minutes to put on a single sock. That’s when the ‘can-do’ instincts of life in sport kicked in, and he began setting himself unrealistic challenges in his quest for a regular life.
He started timing himself every day, aiming for an ‘impossible’ world record time of seven minutes to get fully dressed. At first he would stop after 15 minutes and let others help, but after several months of effort he eventually made it to the magical seven-minute mark.
His current record? Two minutes 41 seconds.
Then, once he had started to conquer everyday life, why stop there? The unfeasible idea soon hit: to be the first quadriplegic to do an Ironman. He tells the story in the book, and I’d urge anyone to dig it up because Pieter Du Preez is one of the most beautiful spirits it has ever been my joy to meet.
But it was what he said about the rest of us that brought tears to my eyes – because it sums up everything I’ve been trying to achieve with my writing.
‘It’s important to realise we all have the power to inspire, able-bodied or not,’ he insists. ‘Everyone tells me how inspirational I am but they don’t realise how much they inspire and motivate me by coming up and telling me that. So we all have that power.
‘People think they need to be a world champion to inspire when it’s really about being nice to the person at the supermarket till. Everyone’s tired and in a hurry but for that moment you give them a smile. You may not think it’s inspiration but it changes their day. Being nice to people is a simple thing. So you don’t need to be a superhero to inspire. You can be a normal person with a smile…’
Or at least we could. Somehow we’ve been persuaded that we should now cover our faces in public, and with it any hope of offering this most powerful kind of inspiration to others.
I don’t care how much fear has been rammed down our throats over the past few months, it’s nothing compared to the fear I have of the damage this will do. If this doesn’t cause you any anxiety, it should. And if it does, fear no more. You are officially exempt from the madness.
For all our sakes, please take off the damned mask...
Time to smile again.
It is always a joy to be contacted by people via this website, and recently I was delighted to hear from 18-year-old Canadian climber Madison Fischer (pictured in action above).
Hailing from Ontario, Fischer was introduced to climbing at her local gym at the age of 11. She was soon hooked, winning the Youth Nationals within three years and now representing Canada in Open competitions all over the world.
Climbing isn't Fischer's only speciality, however. She is also a keen student of everything to do with the sporting mind, and she has already written an impressive series of thought-provoking posts on her website. Her blog features insights into everything from what it takes to be a champion to body image to the considerable benefits of giving up social media - and it comes highly recommended.
One of her latest articles compares the chances of making it to the top in sport to the odds of winning the race to be selected as an astronaut. Is it realistic? No. Is it worth going for it? Of course. But the only way to pull it off is to ignore all the doubters - many of them well-meaning family and friends - along the way.
This is what success is really about in any field, and Fischer rightly concludes that the highest echelons are populated by what she beautifully terms this 'ignorant few' who are able to cast a blind eye to all logic and good sense... simply in order to chase their dreams.
Something tells me Madison Fischer is well on her way to joining them.
While half the world's population is still ordered to 'stay home and save lives' the above is a gentle reminder of what life is really supposed to be about, courtesy of motocross stunt legend Robbie Maddison.
I'm not about to suggest anyone has to go out and jump over a canyon on a motorbike to feel alive, but the Australian's point is that there is no such thing as total 'safety'. We are ALL going to die. Indeed, simply by being born we sign our own death sentence. That applies whether we spend our lives BASE jumping or watching TV on the couch.
Twenty years ago the seven-time Formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher summed this up to me in similar terms: ‘We all know there is danger involved in motor racing. Unfortunately we will never find total security, not only in F1 but life as a whole. That’s pretty much a disaster for all of us but we all have to live with this somehow.’
Schumacher's amiable irony was clear: we live our entire lives facing daily dangers, everything from getting on a plane to crossing the street to, yes, getting ill. That's life, and we accept the risks because overall it's worth it. If we were to imagine everything that could go wrong in an average day we would never leave the safety of our beds.
Ridiculous? You bet. Yet that's effectively what half the world is being forced to do right now in accordance with yet another external threat. Keep calm and carry on? Not this time. Now we have to panic and stop everything.
All in the name of 'safety'.
Hmmm... or are we missing the whole point?
Of course we all like to feel safe, particularly at a time of so much trauma in everything we read and watch. But no matter how warm and cosy our bed might feel, without access to ALL the information who's to know whether or not that bed is really located in a block of flats that's on fire, or a ship that's sinking? This is why the urge for safety should never trump an even more primary human need: freedom.
If we give up our freedom - hard won for us by earlier generations, many of whom paid with their own lives - for some misplaced idea of temporary 'safety' we will, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, deserve neither. Instead we are merely guaranteeing that not only will we die, we won't even have the chance to live first.
For further details please check out my blog below on fear and dreams. In the meantime, you might be interested in this article from the new official F1 magazine, now also published on the F1 website. I only wrote it a couple of months ago, but it already feels like something from another planet...
The world is drowning in fear right now.
Whether we are most afraid of a virus or the draconian global response to it, there is plenty to be scared of – and, thanks to relentless fearmongering everywhere we look, no escape. Hell, we’re not even allowed out.
While we wait for some unspecified knight in shining armour to set us free, it’s pretty clear that we are supposed to be sitting here quaking in our boots. This is the message reinforced with every new statistic, every news broadcast: be afraid, be very afraid.
But there is a critical life lesson nobody ever told us in school, one they aren’t telling us now either…
What we fear, we attract.
That’s because our thoughts have power.
This is the principle underlying everything I’ve ever written about visualisation. Elite athletes have been using the positive side of this for 50 years. But it works both ways, good and bad. When we worry about anything – whether it’s running out of money or getting ill – we massively increase the chances that it will happen to us.
Worse yet we have the ability to infect others – loved ones, friends, neighbours – with our fear, ensnaring them in our nightmare. And we don’t need to be within two metres of anyone to pass it on: we can do it over the phone, through Skype, Zoom, Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, radio, TV, anything.
As such it’s no wonder this fear has gone viral far quicker than any illness. Within the space of two weeks we have accepted being ordered to stay away from our fellow human beings lest we infect them, to the point that a high five is now an unthinkable act, let alone a hug. This is how we have been persuaded that in order to preserve life for some, the best response is to stop life altogether. For everyone.
Now that really is a tragedy.
There’s a reason why incarceration is a punishment – and why solitary confinement is the most brutal of all. Yet that is precisely what we have just inflicted on some of our most vulnerable people, not least the elderly who this is all supposed to be protecting. Then there are the millions who have suddenly been left without jobs or income, with all backup rapidly disappearing.
But even on a less desperate, more trivial level we are all being robbed of life – and everything that makes it meaningful.
Within sport alone we’ve seen the dreams of a planet of Olympic hopefuls evaporate, along with everyone else who has dedicated decades of their lives towards a big event in 2020. It’s not just the competitors; half the population of Liverpool have waited 30 years for a title their team richly deserves but is now irreversibly tainted.
No doubt that’s funny to many, and Bill Shankly’s view of the relative importance of football, life and death may indeed be flawed. But what of the millions of needy kids all over the world for whom football (or basketball or skateboarding or boxing) was their only highlight amid the daily gloom? They really have lost their lifeline.
Make no mistake: dreams matter. Whatever we do in life, we all have dreams – from wanting to be a pop star to starting our own business to taking the family on holiday – but we are currently watching helplessly as they are sucked into this vortex of fear.
Individual fear is damaging but collective fear is catastrophic, dragging everyone in. Finally along comes institutionalised fear, which is a one-way street to dystopia. And this month’s events sadly show it can happen in the blink of an eye. Snooping on our neighbours? Seriously?
So it’s time to change the record. Mercifully it’s not (quite) too late. But no, there is no knight on the way to rescue us. We can only do this for ourselves, and it starts with ditching ALL the fear and dreaming as big – and as free – as we possibly can.
To illustrate let’s go back half a century. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics British 400m hurdler David Hemery went into the final with only the seventh fastest time. Yet he somehow had an unshakable belief in his head that he would break the world record. That’s exactly what he did, taking gold by almost a full second.
It was only when Hemery headed to Munich four years later – this time as the clear favourite – that he discovered the full power the mind has to dictate events. Ahead of his race he just couldn’t shake an image of blasting off at world record pace for 300m before running out of energy on the final straight. Yes, that’s precisely what happened. By filling his mind with negative imagery he now reckons he pre-programmed the outcome. And most of us are doing just that all day long.
‘We have the power to affect our own futures almost entirely,’ insists Hemery. ‘With our mental focus we get what we expect to get. The mind is key; the mind is our gift. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
‘People say, “Oh well, it’s luck.” But to a certain extent we make our own luck. If we visualise and rehearse the best we can do and prepare for that, we’re more likely to have it happen. It doesn’t mean living in a fool’s paradise, it just means: “What is the best I can do under this circumstance?” If you prepare for the worst it’s more likely to happen. If we dwell on the negative or on sickness, that’s probably what we’ll get.
‘It was Virgil who said: “They can if they think they can.” It’s absolutely true. We prove ourselves right. If you think you can’t then you will prove yourself right too.’
Think you can? I know you can. To help, here’s how another one-lap legend did it…
Whatever future you dream of – whether it’s for yourself, your kids or your grandkids – it’s time to picture it. Get your loved ones to do the same. It can be anything, but the bigger the better. If nothing comes to mind right now, how about peace and freedom? Dream of it first thing every morning, dream of it last thing at night. It need only take a minute, but it sets the universe in motion on your behalf, and ours.
Together we can dream this whole nightmare into submission.
Only by dreaming can we wake up.
South Africa’s victory at the 2019 Rugby World Cup is one of those occasions when sport’s script really does seem written by higher forces.
Led by inspirational captain Siya Kolisi, the Springboks arrived in Japan on the back of a rough few years – in rugby terms. But they had a secret strength that bonded them together: playing to unite a nation that had endured a rough few decades.
The speeches coach Rassie Erasmus gave in the build-up to the final against England sum up this approach. What is pressure? It’s not having a job, or not knowing where the next meal is coming from. Rugby pales into insignificance by comparison. Those were the people this team was playing for – and it led to a unity rare in sport.
At this month’s Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin, where the Springboks earned the Team of the Year award, it was a huge privilege to quiz Kolisi about how his team generated such collective belief ahead of the biggest day of their lives.
‘We had a coach who believed in us,’ Kolisi told me. ‘Coach Rassie knew what we wanted to achieve, as did all the management, the physios, everyone. All we had to do was work as hard we could to make sure we played the best game on Saturday. We watched tapes every day so we saw every player on the opposition and knew how they played. Doing that over and over again makes you start believing in yourself. Then you don’t have to worry about anything… By Thursday you’re already psyching yourself up mentally – because we’d prepared throughout the whole week. That gave us a lot of confidence, so we went into the game without fear. We just wanted to focus on doing our best.’
The result was one of the most dominant ever World Cup Final performances. Indeed such was the physicality of the first 15 minutes that scrum-half Faf de Klerk recalls feeling such ‘intensity’ from the team – even when things weren’t going right – that he was already convinced they could pull it off.
Did it feel written? Not quite. Kolisi offered me the gentle reminder that: ‘We still had to play’. But by midway through the second half they were running riot.
If you want a good laugh, check out Francois Louw’s answer to my press conference question about how that really felt on the pitch in the YouTube video below. Then gain some perspective from Schalk Brits on what the eventual result meant to the nation of South Africa…
As the world reels from the sudden loss of one of the greatest sportspeople of all time, I wanted to share what has long been my favourite story about Kobe Bryant. It is retold here by an emotional Jay Williams, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, who once found himself practising on the same court as the LA Lakers legend. It starts three minutes in and it sums up EVERYTHING about the work ethic it takes to reach the very, very top.
The level of expertise needed to be ‘in the Zone’ is not limited to sport. When Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s Airbus struck a flock of Canada geese after take-off in January 2009, he made the apparently snap decision to land on New York’s Hudson River. He later declared he’d spent 42 years making small deposits in a bank of experience; that day his balance was sufficient to make a ‘very large withdrawal’. This led Sully straight to the Zone when it mattered, saving 155 lives.
No one is born able to fly an aeroplane, just as no one is born driving a car. To get good at either requires long hours as the brain gradually learns how to interpret the sensations sent in from all over the body as the vehicle rolls and yaws, converting this mass of data into instructions to send back to the limbs perched on the controls. This eventually crafts an ability to complete even the hardest tasks without thinking. Still, the proficiency of a lifetime of practice will be no use if you can’t access it on the one day, the one second when it really matters. If you ever suddenly find yourself having to think about what you’re doing, it’s a one-way street to remembering in vivid detail how staggeringly complex your skills were in the first place.
Some professionals have an even bigger bank to draw on – such as British Airways 747 captain Paul Bonhomme, who doubles as a triple world champion in the Red Bull Air Race. Since 2003 this event has claimed the title of the world’s fastest motor sport as its single-seater planes twist, spin and loop, speeding at up to 250mph between a series of pylons just 25 metres above land and sea. Far from the crazy daredevils they appear, pilots are invited to compete only after proving they are among the world’s finest aerobatics aces. Bonhomme’s 19 career wins rank him as the all-time best of the best.
‘Whatever you’re flying, you have to be in the right mood,’ says Bonhomme, who retired from racing after his third title in 2015. ‘It varies if it’s an air race, an aerobatic display or just a flight from A to B. You’re supposed to fly a jumbo jet so far within safety levels it should be relaxing. But depending on how extremely you’re operating an aeroplane, you have to be in a better mood or, yes, “in the Zone”.
‘In air racing the challenge is getting out of a tricky situation. For that you need years of tumbling, flicking, stalling and spinning. That once saved my bacon in an air race and I know others who had similar situations. You need a heap of experience before you go air racing, just as you would want the best stick and rudder pilot flying an airliner. Ironically in both cases if you’ve got it hopefully you won’t need it.
‘Air racing is extraordinary because everything else in aviation is super-safe whereas this is suddenly using motor racing ethics. So there are two fears: the fear of not doing very well and the fear of frightening yourself – or worse. You need to get the mix in clear proportion. It doesn’t really matter if you come fifth instead of first but it really does matter if you’re not around at the next race…’
Australian ace Matt Hall nearly got that balance wrong during a 2010 race in Canada when he skimmed the water with his wingtips. He has since become one of the sport’s all-time greats by learning to manage his self-belief to be ready to peak – including an elaborate mental build-up over the course of a race weekend.
Hall approaches his mental groundwork with the rigour you might expect of a former Wing Commander in the Royal Australian Air Force. His countdown increases in rigidity as take-off time approaches, starting with a stretch first thing and a walk to clear his mind. Media interviews fit into the morning before the daily pilots’ briefing. Within the final hour he lies down in his hangar for precisely 21 minutes, with music building to a crescendo to wake him up with half an hour left. Then comes another set of mind flying, a last look at notes and video before he gets ‘suited and booted’ to be in his plane with twenty minutes left – all with an ongoing musical soundtrack until he swaps his headphones for his helmet six minutes before take-off.
‘I have set times for visualising the track, otherwise you end up over-preparing and you become stale,’ Hall tells me in the book In The Zone. ‘In the hours leading up to a race, on the hour I spend five minutes thinking about it. Then with one hour to go I’m in a formal routine where everything is planned by the minute so I’m not distracted and I have zero stress. The stress only comes when you start looking too far ahead.
‘Music works for me and I always listen to the same set of songs in a row. Every song represents something to me. There’s a song to pump me up when I’m getting dressed, then more relaxing songs as I visualise the track. When I’m strapped into the plane it’s rock – not hard rock but happy rock: “I’m happy to be doing this, my life’s not depending on it, I’m just here having fun and racing planes.”
‘That’s the last thing I do so when I start the engine so I know I’ve done everything I can, I’m confident and really happy to be here. Then it should go well. If you’re too pumped up you’ll just smash it. If you go out hoping you don’t make a mistake it won’t work because you won’t fly aggressively enough or you’ll be really tentative. You have to go in saying “How good is this? I can win this, let’s have a crack at it...”’
Despite everything Hall has long been the pretender, finishing second in the Red Bull Air Race world championship three times. When it was announced the series would not be continuing after 2019 it seemed his time was up. Yet in one of sport's great stories of redemption he somehow pulled it off, finally fulfilling his long-held dream in Japan last month (pictured above). The Australian may now be ‘reigning’ Red Bull Air Race World Champion forever, but something tells me there is one sensation he’ll miss most of all….
‘On the best runs you don’t think about two gates time,’ he smiles. ‘You think about this gate coming up right now and the feel of the aircraft. That’s all. That’s when I know I’m on a really good run – because there’s not a single thought of doubt in my mind and not a single thought of the future. They talk about being “in the Zone” and when I have a good run, I definitely know. It’s a euphoric feeling. I can’t hear the engine any more, I’m just a passenger in the aircraft, just riding this magic carpet through the track.’
This is an adapted extract from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
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…
Known by the enchanting title of the ‘man-killer’, the 400 metre hurdles is one of the most brutal disciplines in track and field, requiring a mix of raw speed, endurance and technical ability. Yet one man found a way to dominate the event so completely in the Seventies and Eighties, he went on a run of 122 straight wins against the (next) best in the world. For nine years, nine months and nine days, he killed off the man-killer. His name was Edwin Moses.
Far from your ‘average’ champion, Moses started off as an engineer, earning a degree in physics. The American made his 400m hurdles debut only months before he took Olympic gold at Montreal in 1976 with a new world record. Even then he didn’t focus on athletics full-time, coupling his work in aerospace with a punishing regime – up to eight hours of training before his working day even began.
Moses made the most of his scientific knowledge, becoming a pioneer in applying the field of biodynamics as he sought every possible sporting improvement. Back when computers had just 16K of memory he used them to measure everything from respiration to heartbeat patterns. He developed a pattern of 13 strides (of 9 feet 9 inches each) between each hurdle for the whole race while his rivals could only keep that up for half the lap.
I was so intrigued that I was soon chasing Moses myself – round Asia, South America and Europe – in a bid to hear more. Some people really are worth the effort. It turns out the secret to his run of glory was not in his body or his legs. When I asked if he had been ahead of his competitors on a mental level, he nodded. What he said next made my heart hurdle several beats.
‘I lived in the Zone,’ says Moses. ‘It’s more than just trying to get there for a race or a day, it’s a state of mind. Your whole life is in the Zone, everything that you do. All the time…’
The Zone is typically associated with the peak experience, a brief moment of magic where everything goes perfectly, often under the most extreme pressure. The idea of making a home at that level seems less human and more, well, Jedi. Then you start to assess the full extent of what Moses has achieved both on and off the track – as long-time chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy global charity foundation – and it all starts to fit. Check out In The Zone for a fuller explanation of what makes a man like this tick. But even a Zone lifer gets to peak.
Ahead of his home Olympic final at Los Angeles on August 5th 1984, an enduring image saw Moses lying next to his blocks as his rivals contemplated the silver that would be the limit of their ambitions. Yet even the laid-back American was taken aback by what went through his mind as he raced, as I discovered when I asked if he’d experienced any surreal Senna-esque sensations.
‘I had something similar in the Los Angeles final,’ reveals Moses. ‘There were almost 100,000 people and it was very, very loud. I’ve never heard that kind of screaming. Because there were Americans running at home, when the gun went off they just went crazy. But after the third hurdle all of a sudden everything went quiet. I could hear the footsteps of the guys on the track behind me above all the crowd noise. All that just went away and amongst it all I could hear guys taking hurdles, I could hear their step patterns and everything. I could hear every one of them when they took off and every one of them when they came back down on the ground.
‘Then around the eighth hurdle I said, “There’s no more point worrying about what’s behind.” You look at the next three hurdles and just make sure you don’t trip up over those. I took the last hurdle real high. I didn’t take a chance or do anything I would normally do in a race. I made sure I went over it. I jumped up into the air and came down. They even closed me down by half a metre but by then it was too late. When I hit the ground after that I felt there was not much that could stop me except someone running out on the track. When I crossed the line the first thing was relief, the elation came later. That was my experience. I’ve never had anything else happen like that but it happened that day.’
Check out the video below for a sense of the noise Moses filtered out en route to his most treasured triumph of all…
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
Thank you very much to Autosport Grand Prix Editor Edd Straw for having me as a guest on this week's Autosport Podcast to discuss my books In The Zone and Overdrive.
We had a very enjoyable hour of chatting about how the greats of Formula 1 find the Zone - and some of the surreal effects that happen when they get there, from time slowing down to heightened senses to the out-of-body experience.
Along the way we talked about Ayrton Senna and two of his biggest fans, who both happened to win the world's two biggest motor races last weekend: Monaco Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton (pictured above) and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud,
We also discussed Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc, Nico Rosberg, Jarno Trulli, Jackie Stewart and more. The podcast ends with a special treat for race fans: an exclusive clip from my interview with the late Dan Wheldon which opens the prologue to In The Zone.
Finally, if you can read Italian click here to find my recent article from Italy's Cyclist magazine featuring interviews with Chris Hoy, Nadia Comaneci, Franz Klammer and more...
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.