The Olympics start tomorrow and elite athletes all over the world are dreaming big. For five long years they have dedicated their entire existence to Tokyo, regularly picturing the view as their national anthem sings out to a packed arena.
This is the justification for decades of focus on a single target: every early morning, every mile run through wind, hail and snow, every vomit-inducing gym session. All the pain will make sense when they reach the top of the world. Right?
Pity few enjoy this golden pay-off. The rest will fail – very publicly – in full view of their family, friends, nation and planet. That is guaranteed to hurt more than anything they’ve ever felt before.
“To fail to make a goal is one thing. To do it in front of two billion people is another. It’s heart-wrenching. When you work so hard and sacrifice so much… I literally felt my soul was being shattered.”
These are the words of Missy Franklin: the darling of the Aquatics Centre at the 2012 London Olympics, this ever-smiling 17-year-old American swam to four gold medals and charmed fans with her happy-go-lucky personality.
Cut to Rio in 2016 and it was a different story: she failed to reach the final of either of her individual events. Ouch. When I meet Franklin years later the humiliation remains etched in her mind.
“Throughout my life everything made sense to me: you work really hard, you make the sacrifices, you do everything you can, then you get faster and achieve your goals,” says Franklin. “That’s why Rio made no sense. I was in my best shape ever, I had my best trainer… and I had the most disappointing meet of my life.
“How does that work? It showed me the importance of mentality. Physically I might have been incredibly healthy, but mentally and emotionally I was in terrible health. That makes a huge difference. At 17 I was new; I didn’t have expectations. But now people knew what I did, and I started listening to their expectations. That was so hard, because before the Games started I felt I’d already failed. Even if I took home three gold medals it still wouldn’t be good enough: ‘Oh well, you got four in London…’
“I always swim my best when I’m enjoying myself, but that took all the fun away. I felt so heavy going in; so much pressure. They were the most miserable eight days of my life. It broke my heart to feel like that, because I was at my second Olympics and I wanted to enjoy every bit of the experience. But I’d rather have been anywhere else.”
Of course Franklin was not alone. The full scale of the mental health epidemic facing sport has only become apparent in recent years, as athletes come out with stories they may once have kept hidden. It’s not even limited to ‘losers’; the greats have their own demons to face, both before and after any fleeting euphoric high.
Franklin didn’t leave Rio empty-handed either, but she returned home with ‘only’ one gold medal – earned for helping her relay team through the heats; she wasn’t entrusted with a place for the final. This would be most people’s pride and joy but it serves only as a reminder of the week Missy’s world fell apart. She used to smile routinely before every race – partly to generate the positive attitude essential to performance, partly to remind herself ‘fun’ was key to everything she did. Now the smiles dried up.
The gloom was briefly lifted when she arrived home to find a sea of paper hearts on her front yard. They were covered in messages from local kids saying why Missy was their role model and why they still loved her. She began ‘hysterically sobbing’ out of gratitude to the people who stayed by her side. But it would not be the last time tears flowed as the magnitude of her failure hit home.
“The low went on for a while as I dealt with the confusion and pain,” admits Franklin. “I was so humbled by the whole experience, and it takes a long, long time. After that I went through bilateral shoulder surgery so I had to take time away from the water. I’d always been good at swimming, and it always worked out well, so it was easy to say: ‘My identity isn’t based in this.’ Now, for the first time, swimming was taken away – and I realised how much of my self-worth I put into the sport.
“When it doesn’t work out, how does that change your view of yourself? I had to take time to sit down with different people and work through: ‘Who am I? What do I value about myself?’ That was unrelated to what I did in the pool, but it takes a long time to grasp that. Now my relationship with swimming will never be the same. So it’s about accepting that; and that non-judgmental attitude towards myself is the most important thing I’ve been working on.”
It’s easy to see how an Olympian’s self-image can become so intertwined with what they achieve. Elite athletes live in a bubble where everything is measured, from every training session to every final. That’s fine when things are going swimmingly. When they’re not, self-esteem can sink as fast as their results. Sometimes it takes time away – enforced or otherwise – to regain any perspective.
In Franklin’s case her background studying psychology at the University of California gave her some backup. But there is no more brutally effective teacher than life itself. We all find this out at some point, but few of us honestly know how to treat triumph and disaster just the same. That’s why we look to learn from anyone who has already endured hardship and come out stronger on the other side.
This is where Missy Franklin has found her silver lining.
“My faith is important and one thing that stuck with me for the entire journey was that with God your pain has a purpose,” smiles Franklin. “There are times when you think: ‘This will never be worth it. Why am I having to deal with this? Will I ever get out?’ But everything I went through was moulding me into the woman I was supposed to become. It’s crazy to see how this has changed me. I’m a totally different person to what I was eight, four or two years ago; I’ve learned so much and I feel so strong.
“I now realise one of the main reasons we go through what we do is so we can help other people. Now I can talk to friends, athletes or strangers experiencing something similar, and share how I got through it. To see their gratitude and appreciation makes everything worth it.”
Still just 26 years old, Franklin made her official retirement from swimming late in 2018. She has since married fellow swimmer Hayes Johnson (and is now known as Missy Franklin Johnson) with their first child due next month. She is as bubbly as ever – but armed with uncommon wisdom for one so young. As such she can expect a full inbox over the coming weeks as her fellow ‘failures’ make their own tearful return from Japan.
But why stop there? Let’s face it: we all fail. Often. And it hurts every time. Indeed this modern life of screens has taken things to a new level. It means we can all ingest a daily overdose of apparent ‘good times’ not just courtesy of the rich and famous, but our own friends and family. That’s all we ever show in public too, but Franklin knows it’s when things are falling apart that we really need help.
“The main thing I can do is be open about my failures,” she adds. “As elite athletes we feel we have to be composed, confident and tough all the time; especially with social media, people only post the best aspects of their lives. People go on and think: ‘My life isn’t anything like that.’ But nobody’s life is like that. You’re only seeing the good, and nobody’s life is only the good.
“We have to recognise it’s not real. If we want to follow an athlete or celebrity, fine, but it’s crucial to realise their lives are not exciting and wonderful all the time. This feeling that we have to constantly compare ourselves is dangerous. Comparison and judgement are two of the most harmful practices a human can do, yet it’s what social media is all about. And what we see can often be so skewed and wrong. It’s OK to be exactly who we are and not this ideal self we post to everyone else.
“When we are vulnerable and share the hard times; the bad, the shame, guilt, anxiety and depression, that’s when we impact people. Lots of athletes say to me: ‘I had no idea you experienced anxiety attacks before you raced. I have anxiety attacks, but I can’t believe YOU had them!’ That’s what they can relate to, and where they really need help. We don’t need to help someone get through a good time, right?”
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…
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.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow spent his life exploring what makes us human beings tick. His quest is most famous for his ‘hierarchy of needs’, a simple diagram of a pyramid (see above) that categorises our every requirement and craving in order of importance.
The bottom layer features raw essentials including food, water, sleep and sex – all of which apply to every animal on the planet. The next level is ‘safety’: health, employment, shelter and general resources. Then comes ‘love and belonging’ such as family and friends. Only once those basics are in place can we start to exploit the areas that set humans apart, notably ‘self-esteem’, plus achievements and respect for and by others. Rising even higher we can explore the aesthetics of our environment, stimulating ourselves intellectually and fulfilling our need for harmony, order and beauty.
The top of the pyramid is reserved for ‘self-actualisation’, where we ditch all prejudice and find morality, creativity, spontaneity plus an ability to solve problems. This is where humans achieve our full potential and chase our dreams, life becomes playful yet honest, individual yet integrated, honourable yet effortless, rich yet simple. This summit is where we are most likely to find ‘peak experiences’, those profound moments of love, happiness or insight where we feel most alive and connected with the universe. This is as good as it gets. The Zone.
Given that we have to build up a solid foundation of all the other layers first, it’s no surprise that the Zone is so hard to reach and most experiences are so fleeting. Much of the world’s population is stuck in a daily battle for the essentials for survival. It is possible to peak in such circumstances, but it’s at the level of an animal.
Maslow was adamant it shouldn’t be like this. The top should be the norm not the exception: not about having something ‘extra’, rather having nothing taken away. He reckoned our ultimate goal is to attain personal growth; indeed this very process is the path to true happiness. Yet to reach these higher peaks, he understood certain conditions must be in place, such as the freedom to seek new knowledge and to express ourselves without constraint. That rules out dictatorships and other subtler forms of oppression.
Over the past three months billions more of us have been dragged back down the pyramid to level two: safety. Last month’s blog details the futility of this endeavour, yet the world’s media and governments continue to insist this is a rational way to live our lives.
Still convinced they’re right? If so are you prepared to give up everything it really means to be a human being? Something tells me it's time to rise back up...
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.
I’ve made no secret of my love of action sports, interviewing everyone from skydivers to surfers and skateboarders for In The Zone to find out what goes on in their heads as they head into the unknown. The magic of these pursuits is that they can often be started young, at little or no expense. That means its stars come from the most unlikely sources.
Danny MacAskill certainly doesn’t come across as your average internet sensation; having grown up on Scotland’s picturesque Isle of Skye he speaks with the region’s soft lilt. Yet the wide open spaces of his childhood allowed him to start his odyssey sooner than most, spending his early years playing around on his BMX.
By sticking with it he has now made it to the top of the world. His videos get millions of YouTube hits – including the below return to his home island – but his skills didn’t arrive overnight. They are stored in a mental saddlebag that he has meticulously filled over time, one he continues to cram with new material with every new jump.
‘I’ve built up very slowly so I’m not taking huge leaps,’ says MacAskill. ‘I’ve been riding a trials bike for 25 years, starting on kerbs where you take a long time to learn. Then you gradually build up your confidence. Now I definitely get in the Zone. Sometimes you can turn up for the biggest trick you’ve ever done and you feel really comfortable. You know you’ve got it. On other days you can try something you know is well within your ability but either due to lack of sleep or fatigue from filming you find it hard to get in the right mental state. Sometimes you can get quite frustrated. As long as you’re stubborn enough you can always push through it and do it.’
What marks out the great action sports stars is this constant quest to seek out the new and venture outside their comfort zone. They take the phrase ‘try, try again’ to new extremes, often having to persevere through hundreds of failed attempts in order to break new ground. The drawback? They must find a permanent solution to silence their Monkey Minds – the nagging voice we all carry with us that tells us whether or not what we are attempting might mean leaving in an ambulance.
‘Now I know what I can do,’ adds MacAskill. ‘But when I come to film I always push right at that 100 percent. I’m doing things I have never actually tried before so what I’m doing is always just out of reach. Or it is within reach but I’ve got to try for hours or sometimes days to actually achieve it. So you’ve definitely got to flick a switch in your brain: “do or don’t”. The survival part of your brain is telling you: “That’s really not a good idea.” But the other part goes: “You know you can do it. You’re completely capable of it if you just manage to flick your switch and get over the edge.” It shows just how much power the brain has.
‘I look at trials like a calculated risk. You know what you’re capable of but if you really want to learn something new you’ve got to go outside your comfort zone. I don’t tend to think: “There’s no way I’m going to throw myself off the edge.” That’s crucial. In my head I know I’m going to land it. I might not, I might crash. But when I’m doing it I’m 100 percent committed that I’m going to do it…’
It’s only when you reach MacAskill’s level of mastery that the world changes and you start to see things the rest of us miss out on entirely. When you know Skye’s the limit, that’s when you really get creative – indeed the Scotsman is now one of the elite who really do see the whole world as just one giant obstacle to master.
‘That’s the beauty of trials,’ he smiles. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s grass or logs, rocks or water, you can ride on anything. I visualise stuff all the time. Even now while I’m talking to you I’m looking at the roof up there and imagining what I would do. It’s a natural thing – and to be honest it’s always come naturally.
‘On Skye I grew up spending a lot of time riding by myself, riding the same walls. You naturally think of slightly different ways to ride that wall. Now I have the chance to go anywhere in the world, I can think on a really huge scale. It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to do this for a living. I just wish I could take someone for a wild ride…’
Brad Snyder remembers the beautiful sunrise over Afghanistan on September 7, 2011 with crystal clarity. That’s because it was the last one he ever saw.
Within hours the US Navy bomb disposal expert lost his sight when he stepped on an IED. As he lay in darkness, he was convinced he’d died. So when a doctor told him he was blind, the message Snyder heard was surprisingly upbeat: “You’re alive…” Three weeks of intensive care later, he began the laborious process of learning to do daily tasks all over again – without vision.
“The biggest barrier to success was mobility,” he tells me. “I had the capability, I had the right mental attitude. But at that point I didn’t know how to get out of bed or cross the room, let alone leave the hospital.
“So the way forward was to make sure every step was better than the one before, adopting the approach known in Japan as ‘kaizen’ (continuous improvement). At first I didn’t even know what a cane does, so I learned to use that to cross the room. That’s better than yesterday. Next I reached the nurses’ station outside my ward: better still.
“Within five weeks I was transferred into a rehab ward where I was outside walking. I ran 5km at the eight-week mark. After 12 months I was competing at the Paralympics in London. So it was a quick process. But with that kaizen mentality, within 365 days even a goal medal is possible…”
No kidding. Having swum for his Naval Academy, Snyder was ushered back into the swimming pool while he was still an inpatient. In a plot twist that sounds scripted, he took his first Paralympic gold medal – in the 100m freestyle – on the first anniversary of his life-changing accident: September 7, 2012.
Never one to shirk a challenge, Snyder then readopted this “kaizen” mentality to start four years of work towards his next “impossible”: the world record.
“The London race was a spiritual victory but Rio was another level,” smiles Snyder. “When I said I wanted the world record I didn’t think it was possible. I still doubted it until I dived in, when I felt like magic the whole way. I had the energy, I was moving super fast and when I hit that wall I knew it was mine.”
While this timely visit to the Zone crowned Snyder as king of the Paralympic pool, he insists he’s “one of the worst blind guys there” in daily life because it’s still relatively new to him. Eight years on he has learned to click his fingers as he walks, using echoes to judge where walls are, yet he admits each new environment is an adventure.
That’s why Snyder is so excited by Paralympic partner Toyota’s global “mobility for all” campaign. He recently made a pilgrimage to the Olympic movement’s spiritual home in Athens for the Toyota Mobility Summit, sharing tales with Paralympic greats including wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden and British runner Richard Whitehead. These champions of the human spirit have all benefited from technology and Snyder is passionate that everyone should have similar access.
“What we’re talking about is human rights, valuing each person equally,” he declares. “It’s about enabling the world’s population to move, regardless of disability, creed or ethnicity. The social implication of that is very powerful…”
As for Snyder it’s onwards and predictably upwards. His next challenge is the mother of all events, the paratriathlon. Roll on Tokyo 2020…
Peak performance really starts with ‘beginner’s luck’. If there’s nothing to compare ourselves with, we can forget all about results and just enjoy ourselves, like children. Even if we have only minimal technical ability, to use all of it unhindered can work better than having the skill but a blockage in how to access it. The jams begin as we improve and build up expectations, both our own and those we perceive in others.
Golf is a classic example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing: when I first picked up a club my only exposure came from watching the greats on television. Their expertise had wedged itself into my head and my swing was initially easy, the ball regularly sailing straight down the middle. What was all the fuss about? Then I had a few lessons – but not enough – and started thinking about grip and stance, inhibiting whatever natural flow I’d had. It was downhill all the way. After a literal low point where I could no longer get the ball off the ground, I gave up.
I’m not alone. A world champion from another sport put it beautifully: ‘I’d go round in 100 shots, of which 99 were crap and one was good. If 99 pints tasted awful and one tasted good you wouldn’t drink, would you?’ With perseverance I may have broken through to the other side – until the next stumble. Everyone endures such lows but the stars find the inner resources to force their way beyond all the moments when their ability seems to plateau or, worse, dip. No matter what, they never, ever quit.
In a world that worships winners, for the perfect storyline Hollywood might suggest a sportsman should save their day of days for the very end of their career, preferably a stunning victory out of nowhere on the day they retire. But that overlooks one minor plot detail: a couple of decades of torment as the universal acceptance that your chance has gone reaches a point where even friends and family look upon your continued efforts with the kind of bemused pity normally reserved for a caged animal determined to gnaw their way out.
As Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke limbered up for his 20th attempt to win golf’s Open Championship in 2011 – eight years ago today – he was about to surprise his doubters. In atrocious weather, the 150-1 shot walked calmly through the storms. He led into the final day and while others faltered he sauntered to glory by three shots – at the age of 42.
‘I still don’t know how I managed to do it,’ Clarke told me for In The Zone. ‘But that week I was very calm and collected. For that final round it was as if it was my time. I played well but also got a couple of good bounces and breaks. I’d served my apprenticeship and it was given to me. That’s the way sport goes, isn’t it? You need to get the breaks to win. But it’s not as if I came out of the blue. I’d won 20 times around the world including a tournament in Arizona two months earlier. It’s been a long road and it was great to be able to plough through, persevere, persevere, persevere… and I got here in the end. The support and love the people showed me walking down the 18th was even more special. It wasn’t just the roar, it was the compassion.’
Clarke had indeed been through way more than the average sportsman, having lost his wife Heather to breast cancer five years earlier. Hitting a ball into a hole pales into irrelevance by comparison. Nonetheless he’d already earned one early moment of redemption just six weeks later as he won all three of his matches in the Ryder Cup at the K Club. After that Clarke’s form disintegrated again and before his Open triumph he hadn’t finished in the top ten at a major for ten years. Even then his self-confidence never deserted him. It helped that top golf psychologist Bob Rotella kept reminding Clarke about what he terms ‘unconscious putting’. The key is to create a clear picture of the desired outcome, then let all fear of failure go and trust the natural skills honed over the years of practice. Don’t think, don’t fret, don’t try, just do. Sound familiar?
‘In my heart of hearts did I think I was good enough? Yes, of course I did,’ he adds. ‘I had no doubt in my mind and I knew 100 percent I had the game to win. Did I know I was going to win? No, but that’s slightly different. Still, I do scratch my head at how it has all turned out. The K Club was wonderful and the Open even more so. I’ve had a difficult time in my personal life but the world of sport gives and it takes. It’s taken from me in many different ways and it’s given me an awful lot back as well. I’ve got to be grateful for what the game has given me.
‘Challenges are in front of everybody, whatever walk of life they’re in. If you give in that’s not the way forward. You’ve got to battle on and sometimes good comes out of bad. I’m a good example of that. You have to get through the bad times to get to the good times. Certainly I went through the bad and eventually came to an awful lot of good that’s coming to me now.’
Tomorrow morning at 6.35am Clarke, now 50, will hit the first shot at Royal Portrush in the first Open championship to be held in Northern Ireland for 68 years. A victory might be even less likely this time, but something tells me he won’t care a jot.
This is an extract from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
I’m not in the habit of writing reviews of other books on this blog, but Will Buxton’s My Greatest Defeat makes for a worthy exception.
Over the last 20 years I’ve been hunting down the world’s greatest sportspeople in a bid to understand what goes through their minds when they find the magical state of peak performance. But it’s time to admit I may have been missing a trick, because it’s in our moments of despair that we learn the most – and the greats are not exempt.
Buxton has spoken to 20 of global motor sport’s all-time legends about their lowest points. As it happens I’ve been lucky enough to interview all but two of them myself, yet such is the quality of these exchanges I’ve learned something new about every single one of his subjects – from Alex Zanardi to Jimmie Johnson, Alain Prost to Sébastien Loeb.
Each of the drivers opens up about what they learned from their personal disaster, showing how willing they were to buy into this project – not to mention the author’s skills in putting them at ease to talk. And it’s not just about the racetrack, with the late Niki Lauda notably delving into his own darkest hour after one of his Lauda Air planes crashed in Thailand, killing everyone on board.
I’ll resist being the source of any spoilers, but there is plenty of wisdom to be found from Mika Hakkinen, Jeff Gordon et al, plus some surprising revelations along the way from the likes of Rick Mears. What becomes abundantly clear is that every one of these drivers is a human being like the rest of us. And it is a steady diet of defeat that sets each of them up for any eventual, hard-earned, oh-so-sweet taste of victory.
The best part is that Buxton lets them speak for themselves and allows the conversations to flow out onto the page. It’s a throwback to the extended form of interviewing that we could see even on TV chat shows back in the days before it was deemed that we don’t have the attention spans to cope.
Rest assured we do.
To be really picky, we might want to hear from more of the current crop of F1 megastars, because defeat is no stranger to any of us, young or old. But no doubt Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already being lined up for the sequel.
A final point: the book itself is a work of art thanks to the striking cover design and brooding individual portraits of each driver by DC and Marvel comic book artist Giuseppe ‘Cammo’ Camuncoli.
A man used to depicting superheroes with a dark tale to tell…
My Greatest Defeat by Will Buxton is out now
Given the pre-eminence of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners over the past 50 years, it still comes as a surprise that the all-time queen of the road is British.
Paula Radcliffe started running at the age of seven but she had her epiphany as an 11-year-old when she came to watch her father race at the 1985 London Marathon. That day Ingrid Kristiansen set a new world best time (2h 21m 06s, a mark that stood for 13 years) and the young Paula was instantly struck by the Norwegian’s power and fluidity as she saw off all but the very fastest men.
‘That London Marathon was a big inspiration for me,’ says Radcliffe. ‘First it was that smell of Deep Heat on the start at Blackheath. But when Ingrid came past that day, she was right in there not far behind the winning men. To see a woman that far up… I didn’t really have a lot of barriers in my head at 11 anyway but it broke down any barriers that remained.’
Thanks to asthma and anaemia Paula’s dream must nonetheless have seemed distant, yet such was her drive she was crowned World Junior Cross Country champion in 1992. Then within two years disaster struck as a doctor told her she would never run again due to a stress fracture to her left foot: ‘I remember coming home in tears and my Dad saying, “What’s the big deal? Loads of people go through life and they don’t run.” But I said I’m not “loads of people”, I’ve got lots of things I want to do. It has to get better. And it did.’
Radcliffe duly embarked on a meticulous training regime that strengthened the muscle in her head as much as those in her legs. Further cross country titles followed but she always seemed destined to be the ‘nearly woman’ of track racing because she lacked a kick over the final lap. Then it was time for her true destiny to kick in…
At her very first marathon at London in 2002 Paula set a world’s best for a women’s only race. Later that year she became the first woman to run under 2h 18m in Chicago but even that didn’t sate her appetite. At the 2003 London Marathon she used two Kenyan male pacemakers to take the record to the next level. Her 2h 15m 25s is a time so far out of reach of anyone else before or since – over a minute and a half – it could last for decades more.
‘The attraction and challenge of the marathon for so many people is that it’s you against the distance, against your body, against hitting the wall,’ smiles Radcliffe. ‘That’s the way I always like to run anyway, I never looked at split times too much, I just ran hard and strong. It’s only later you realise how much “in the Zone” you were and how much you ask your body and it delivers. You just trust it’s going to be there because it has been there in the training. It’s that “not fear” that you won’t be able maintain the pace or finish, you just trust you will be able to.
‘I don’t think I had more talent than anybody else. There are people around now who have more talent. I just had this stubbornness and a way of wanting to run as hard as I could; even if I had the race won, I wanted to see how fast I could go. So it was this mindset, combined with the luck that my body could withstand the amount of training it did in 2002 and 2003. It enabled me to get into really good shape and attack it.’
Radcliffe may not obsess about split times but when you spend your life at the front of a marathon with a camera truck ahead of you it’s unavoidable, notably for her historic run in London. The first lesson of marathon running is to stick to the same pace all the way round. The Englishwoman’s average mile rate from her Chicago record was 5m 13s, so she could tell if she was up from the split times flashing up. Alarmingly the third mile in London was below the five-minute mark, which she worried was far too fast. To most mortals yes, but Paula was on fire.
‘It was definitely close to a perfect day,’ says Radcliffe. ‘The preparation had gone really well; the only real hiccup was when I had an accident with a little girl on a bike who knocked me over a few weeks before. I spent a couple of weeks trying to get over the dislocated jaw and whiplash from that. But by that point most of the training was already in the bank. On race day conditions were good and I felt good.
‘Even so I did think I would go quicker afterwards but it never happened. I was in slightly better shape in training in 2004 but by the competition I got injured. That shows in the marathon you need to seize the opportunity. You put so much into the training cycle and so often that risk doesn’t pay off: conditions aren’t right on the day or you get a blister or an upset stomach and you can’t capitalise on everything. That’s why that day in London I felt it was really important just to keep running as hard as I could so the record had a chance of standing for as long as possible.’
The pain was worth it. 16 years and counting…
To celebrate today's publication of the paperback version of In The Zone in the USA, here is an exclusive extract from the book featuring my interview with Robby Naish, windsurfing and kitesurfing's most famous son - and its greatest ever competitor...
Few fields have the lines between success and failure marked out as clearly as sport. It may be hard to treat these two imposters just the same (as Rudyard Kipling suggests) but regardless of any outer glory or defeat that comes our way, the trick is to trump it with the pure passion for doing what we love.
In 1976, a thirteen-year-old Robby Naish won the world windsurfing championship. The American was still winning titles decades later, before switching to kiteboarding in the Nineties and dominating that too. For those who battle waves and wind Naish is a legend. But to him it’s not about glory. The key to retaining the motivation to scale peak after peak is very human. You can set up home at the top of your field only if there is nothing on Earth you would rather be doing.
‘A lot of athletes are goal-oriented: they reach their goal, then they’re ready to move on to something else in their lives,’ Naish tells me. ‘I was never goal-oriented, it was the experience that I always loved. I was never trying to achieve any single thing. I didn’t want to become world champion then go and become a chef or take up golf. I realised this was what I wanted to do more than anything, and for as long as possible. It’s about the process and the enjoyment of everything that goes with it.
‘I’m lucky that my sport puts me in this pretty pleasant environment – but not always. Our events can be in miserable places like the North Sea when it’s bitter cold. But it’s taking that and enjoying it for what it is. I did that better than a lot of athletes. They’d be standing on the beach miserable and I’d just think: “Give it to me!” I loved being there. I’ve always been really appreciative that someone was actually paying me to do this so I’ve been able to make a living. That realisation helped me continue to push myself to stay in the Zone for all those years. It’s still going: people still pay me to go surfing. I’m not competing any more but in my eyes I’m still a professional athlete. I realise the whole life of being a sportsman is profoundly lucky.’
Before we start painting any picture of Naish as a happy-go-lucky type just out for a good time, there are familiar factors leading to his ability to maintain the heights. He started with a childhood of practice in the sunny Hawaiian surf, before an adulthood of total commitment.
‘In our sport the build-up to competitions starts before you get to the beach,’ says Naish. ‘You have a lot of equipment so you get your gear together and drive to the beach, then there’s the lead-up to a race. Throughout my career I was always the kind of guy who would go to bed early to prepare. Then I’d want to be at the beach before everyone else so when they showed up they’d see me and think: “Oh no, he’s already here.” All those elements helped me know I was ready mentally, physically and equipment-wise – and that I’d done everything better than everybody else.
‘I was lucky that personality-wise I was drawn that way. I hated losing so badly that I wanted to do everything possible to make sure I didn’t lose. It wasn’t so much the thrill of winning, it was doing everything I could to avoid that feeling of losing. For me competition was everything. It was mind, body, spirit, 100 percent focused. The enjoyment of that feeling was worth sacrificing any other things in life. Whether it was partying with my friends or whatever, it was no issue to sacrifice that to be as prepared as I could possibly be for competition.’
Naish sure doesn’t sound like your archetypal chilled-out surfer dude. But the Zone is so special it is worth any such sacrifice. Moreover if you find yourself facing anyone who finds this magical state, that would be a good time to start scrabbling for ‘luck’. While Naish similarly demoralised his opposition, that wasn’t the main point behind his painstaking work ethic before his events. The biggest effect was that it combined to put him into the right mental state to compete, turning Naish into one of the elite who found a way to access the Zone at will.
‘Different athletes have different ways to put themselves into that Zone: little rituals they need to bring them to that point,’ says Naish. ‘I never figured that out as I didn’t have to count crows to put my mind into that space. It would come naturally. But I’ve always been really nervous, internalising it, to the point that knowing I was nervous meant I really wanted it. If it is comfortable and natural, someone who wants it more will beat you. If I was lackadaisical it would be time to do something else.
‘So I never had to think about it – until the times I wasn’t there and I’d realise what it feels like not to be in the Zone. Fortunately it didn’t happen often: through my entire career I was there 99 percent of the time. But it was profoundly obvious when I wasn’t. When it didn’t come together you’d sit there knowing you weren’t quite there. You’d never figure out what happened or why. Occasionally you could click yourself back into the right state but when you couldn’t, you’d have a bad day.
‘Part of being in the Zone for an athlete is being able to put all your baggage aside. Whatever is going on in your life that morning, yesterday or last week, or that injury that is nagging you, you have to put it completely out of your mind. It’s about cutting everything else out so you can focus 100 percent on the job in that second – or the eight minutes of the heat or the half-hour, whatever the contest is. Everything else in the world disappears for that moment in time...’
This is an extract from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big - out now in paperback...
Many thanks to the Euronews website LivingIt for featuring a selection of new articles - based on In The Zone - exploring the mental side of performing at the absolute limit in some of the most extreme sports out there.
Ahead of this weekend's Ironman World Championship at Hawaii's Kailua-Kona, hear from the 2015 and 2016 world champion Jan Frodeno (pictured above). The German is clearly one of the fittest human beings on the planet but you can find out why he considers that even in the ultimate physical challenge, the difference between the best and the rest is always about mental strength.
Click here to read all about it...
It is now seven years since Roz Savage completed the final leg of a truly epic adventure, becoming the first woman to row single-handed across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. She told me she didn't feel strong mentally at first, but over the course the experience of taking on such a huge challenge she learned all about the true meaning of resilience.
Click here to find out more...
Finally, in an exclusive interview big wave surf legend Garrett McNamara describes the spiritual experience involved in taking on the most violent experiences nature can throw at us: 'I look at the tallest tree, the mountains, the ocean and the universe, attract it and breathe it all in...'
If you want to feel the force, read on.
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.