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.
Thank you so much to South Africa's Xola Debe for putting together the below video review of In The Zone. It features her favourite five lessons from the book - on visualisation, hard work, enjoyment, gratitude and courage - plus accompanying quotes that sum these up.
If you can find a happier, more engaging face anywhere on YouTube please let us know...
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…’
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
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
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...
If you prefer listening to reading, In The Zone is now available as an audiobook - and Google Play are selling it at the special price of £2.99 until May 30. You can find the deal by clicking here...
Earlier this month coach, author and flow expert Stuart Haden of the Storm Beach Authentic Leadership organisation kindly took the time to put up a video about In The Zone. Check out his thoughts on how the insights of the featured athletes (he counted 148 of them in 27 different sports...) can be used in the business world and beyond.
Given the pre-eminence of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners over the past 50 years, it still comes as a surprise that the all-time queen of the road is British.
Paula Radcliffe started running at the age of seven but she had her epiphany as an 11-year-old when she came to watch her father race at the 1985 London Marathon. That day Ingrid Kristiansen set a new world best time (2h 21m 06s, a mark that stood for 13 years) and the young Paula was instantly struck by the Norwegian’s power and fluidity as she saw off all but the very fastest men.
‘That London Marathon was a big inspiration for me,’ says Radcliffe. ‘First it was that smell of Deep Heat on the start at Blackheath. But when Ingrid came past that day, she was right in there not far behind the winning men. To see a woman that far up… I didn’t really have a lot of barriers in my head at 11 anyway but it broke down any barriers that remained.’
Thanks to asthma and anaemia Paula’s dream must nonetheless have seemed distant, yet such was her drive she was crowned World Junior Cross Country champion in 1992. Then within two years disaster struck as a doctor told her she would never run again due to a stress fracture to her left foot: ‘I remember coming home in tears and my Dad saying, “What’s the big deal? Loads of people go through life and they don’t run.” But I said I’m not “loads of people”, I’ve got lots of things I want to do. It has to get better. And it did.’
Radcliffe duly embarked on a meticulous training regime that strengthened the muscle in her head as much as those in her legs. Further cross country titles followed but she always seemed destined to be the ‘nearly woman’ of track racing because she lacked a kick over the final lap. Then it was time for her true destiny to kick in…
At her very first marathon at London in 2002 Paula set a world’s best for a women’s only race. Later that year she became the first woman to run under 2h 18m in Chicago but even that didn’t sate her appetite. At the 2003 London Marathon she used two Kenyan male pacemakers to take the record to the next level. Her 2h 15m 25s is a time so far out of reach of anyone else before or since – over a minute and a half – it could last for decades more.
‘The attraction and challenge of the marathon for so many people is that it’s you against the distance, against your body, against hitting the wall,’ smiles Radcliffe. ‘That’s the way I always like to run anyway, I never looked at split times too much, I just ran hard and strong. It’s only later you realise how much “in the Zone” you were and how much you ask your body and it delivers. You just trust it’s going to be there because it has been there in the training. It’s that “not fear” that you won’t be able maintain the pace or finish, you just trust you will be able to.
‘I don’t think I had more talent than anybody else. There are people around now who have more talent. I just had this stubbornness and a way of wanting to run as hard as I could; even if I had the race won, I wanted to see how fast I could go. So it was this mindset, combined with the luck that my body could withstand the amount of training it did in 2002 and 2003. It enabled me to get into really good shape and attack it.’
Radcliffe may not obsess about split times but when you spend your life at the front of a marathon with a camera truck ahead of you it’s unavoidable, notably for her historic run in London. The first lesson of marathon running is to stick to the same pace all the way round. The Englishwoman’s average mile rate from her Chicago record was 5m 13s, so she could tell if she was up from the split times flashing up. Alarmingly the third mile in London was below the five-minute mark, which she worried was far too fast. To most mortals yes, but Paula was on fire.
‘It was definitely close to a perfect day,’ says Radcliffe. ‘The preparation had gone really well; the only real hiccup was when I had an accident with a little girl on a bike who knocked me over a few weeks before. I spent a couple of weeks trying to get over the dislocated jaw and whiplash from that. But by that point most of the training was already in the bank. On race day conditions were good and I felt good.
‘Even so I did think I would go quicker afterwards but it never happened. I was in slightly better shape in training in 2004 but by the competition I got injured. That shows in the marathon you need to seize the opportunity. You put so much into the training cycle and so often that risk doesn’t pay off: conditions aren’t right on the day or you get a blister or an upset stomach and you can’t capitalise on everything. That’s why that day in London I felt it was really important just to keep running as hard as I could so the record had a chance of standing for as long as possible.’
The pain was worth it. 16 years and counting…
Ever since I read Ayrton Senna’s words describing his surreal out-of-body experience during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, I’ve been on a quest to find others who have found the same magical place.
Over the years I’ve met many great sports stars who have been there too: moments in the Zone that bend time and space and transcend reality as we know it. Occasionally I get really lucky and the human being telling me the story is still at the absolute top of their game, and the world.
After Novak Djokovic collected his fourth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award last week, I grabbed my chance to enquire about his description of going into ‘another dimension’ during his near-perfect Australian Open semi-final in January.
Appropriately we were in Monaco so I brought up the similarity with Senna’s words. The Serbian superstar’s reply was as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from one of sport’s true class acts – and definitely, unmistakably Senna-esque. Here it is in full…
‘I actually watched Ayrton Senna’s documentary so I did hear him speaking about that,’ smiled Djokovic. ‘In my case there were several matches where you just feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. One of them was in the final of the Australian Open in 2012 against Nadal when we played almost six hours. It’s really hard to explain when you feel like you’re present but somehow you’re also not present – because the physical pain is so big that you don’t feel your body any more, but you’re operating on some kind of autopilot that is taking you to your desired places, which you determine mentally.
‘It was one of those experiences where you just feel like there is a higher force that is driving you forward. I’m also a big believer in that, and I always rely on my faith and try to be grateful and understanding of a creator and a greater power and a universal help that we always see. So I try to remind myself of that, of how blessed I am and not to take things for granted because ego is a strange opposition at times, and it can play with your mind.
‘In this process of evolution as a human being I’ve learned a lot more about these things because I’ve become more aware of them. Before it was just… I hit a tennis ball and it was in or out, and I won a tennis match. But throughout the years it became much more than that. It became a spiritual journey. And because the tennis court is a place where I’m probably most vulnerable but also very confident and strong, a tennis court is a school of life for me: where I get triggered most and where I can understand myself on a deeper level. That’s because everything I maybe suppress outside of a tennis court surfaces there.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing tennis. I don’t see too many different places where I can actually evolve as a human being better than on a tennis court.’
Wow. To learn more about Djokovic’s approach to his art, read my earlier interview with him about his 2012 epic against Nadal which is a highlight of In The Zone - or check out the wonderful speech he gave while collecting last week’s Laureus award…
Austria’s Franz Klammer prevailed over a golden era for skiing, sealing a record five World Cup titles plus gold in the blue riband men’s downhill at the 1976 Olympics – 43 years ago today – after a truly wild ride (see video below…)
The secret to ‘The Kaiser’s’ success, which included one matchless run of ten straight wins, was that he didn’t consider his opponents to be his rivals. No, his main adversary was about a thousand times taller.
‘I won every race in one season – except one when I lost my ski,’ he gleefully recalls in the book In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big. ‘That means you have to be better than the best one of the others. You always know one of these guys will have a very good run because they’re all after you. But I’m not racing against any person, I’m racing the mountain.
‘When I was winning all the races, I just knew I was ahead of everything. So you’re the boss in the ring. You know how you want to do it and you can just conquer the mountain. Then you get into the Zone. This happened to me a lot, and those moments almost always led to victory because you’re the leader. It’s not the skis or the mountain telling you what to do. You’re mastering the mountain.’
It takes a big man to take on nature but Klammer offered his mighty rival the highest respect imaginable. He didn’t just show up on the day and expect mastery to fall into his lap; instead it was a steady build-up that began in the privacy of his mind.
‘The most important thing is to figure out what you have to do to perform,’ he says. ‘It’s not up to you when you have to race so you have to be totally consistent. If the race is at midday on Saturday you cannot afford not to be on form then. You have to be spot on. So I had a mental build-up during the week, like gradually pulling back a bow and arrow. When I arrived for the course inspections on Wednesday I started pulling the bow back, building up the tension more and more until you are ready to go. Then on Saturday I let the arrow fly.
‘I always used to visualise the course too. When I went to bed I lay down and went through the downhill, then again the next morning, visualising what I was going to do. You learn that as you go through your career. Once you really have the feel the hard bit isn’t the turns, because you’re always in action, but the flat. If a flat section takes 20 seconds you don’t know how long that takes without a clock. Still, when I was really in my heyday I could imagine the whole course within three or four tenths of my actual racing time. Then when I got to the start I’d do it all different because if you stick to the line you are too slow…’
If a relaxed attitude sounds like a chink in the armour for the other competitors to exploit, they will be sorely disappointed. Such a playful mindset allows the legends to set their subconscious free. That’s when they really start to fly.
‘For me being “in the Zone” is when everything is in slow motion so you have all the time in the world,’ adds Klammer. ‘In skiing you have certain crucial sections of the course when you really have to get it right. Afterwards it is flat so if you make a mistake you will lose a lot of time and you won’t win the race. But when you’re in the Zone, you have a very clear picture ahead of you and you see all these little details. So you can go for it. It’s a special feeling when you’re in full flow…’
This is an exclusive extract from the book In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big
We are pleased to report that as of January 2019 In The Zone is now available as an audiobook for the first time. Read by Tim Dickinson, it lasts nine hours and features 100 interviews with the all-time greats of sport talking about how they live their dreams. You can find it on Audible or Amazon.
Click here to listen to a sample clip from the section featuring legendary TT motorbike racer John McGuinness...
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.