Think Like A Winner
Great sports stars will talk of a mental state where they are ‘in the Zone’ – totally focussed and perfectly in tune with their body. Cyclist learns the secrets of a winning performance from some of the biggest names in sport
Maximising your sporting potential at any level is all about getting into ‘the Zone’
You can tell when a sports star is ‘in the Zone’. Whatever they touch turns to gold and unlucky opponents are dazzled by a spell of pure sporting alchemy that results in anything from a century in cricket to a 147 in snooker.
It’s not the preserve of the greats, either. This magic can kick in at every level, from a kickabout in the park – that day when everything you try just works – to the World Cup final. But the sensation amplifies in proportion to the number of hours of practice in the bank and the intensity of the occasion. Blend a visit to the Zone with supreme ability and a packed, expectant arena, and you get fireworks.
Still, no matter how spectacular the view is from the outside, it’s nothing compared to how it feels from the inside. When all the years of training come flooding back out, the hardest challenges can seem effortless, and sport’s finest exponents can suddenly find inner peace in the midst of outer mayhem. Bliss.
‘When you’re in the Zone you’re oblivious to everything going on around you,’ says Olympic track cycling legend Chris Hoy. ‘There are thousands of people screaming and all sorts of noise, but you’re purely focussed on what you’re doing. Nothing else matters. That’s when you get the best out of yourself.
‘Even though you’re exerting the most physical effort possible, you feel relaxed and in the moment. When you’re in that state of mind it feels easy. You can finish a race and not remember it at all because you’re in a kind of semi-trance. You don’t know what happened… but you know it worked out.’
Tactics and split-second timing are so vital in track cycling that a velodrome might seem the last place anyone should ever switch off, let alone at the most important moment of their lives. Yet somehow we shine brightest when we give our subconscious free rein to do its natural thing.
‘All the work you’ve done goes into an imaginary bag,’ says Nadia Comăneci, the first Olympic gymnast to earn a perfect 10 in 1976. ‘Then when you’re out there you have to focus to get the routine you’ve done over the years back out of the bag. When things go perfectly it feels magical.’
This is the home of ‘genius’ in sport and anywhere else: where artists are at their most creative, where musicians produce their most sublime performances, where scientists make their breakthroughs. Whether you’re a teacher, a chef, a nurse or an astronaut, if you’re taking an exam or cracking jokes in the pub, to find the Zone means you perform at your absolute best. You may not even recall how or why it went so right. Put simply, it all goes like a dream.
If only getting there was quite so easy.
School of thought
They don’t teach about this ‘magic’ in school. Modern education happily explains how and what to think, yet it doesn’t broach the subject of how to ‘not think’ when it matters. To understand that, you need to watch the best sporting superstars do their thing.
In qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Brazilian Formula 1 star Ayrton Senna lapped 1.5 seconds faster than a field featuring multiple World Champion Alain Prost in an identical Mclaren. Such supremacy is rare in sport, comparable to Usain Bolt’s 2008 Olympic sprint onslaught in Beijing.
Senna took his time to reveal how it felt, later admitting, ‘I suddenly realised I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. I was well beyond my conscious understanding.’
Talking to some of the world’s greatest competitors, this elusive blend of intense focus and release comes up time and again, provoking some surreal effects that in some cases even seem to bend the laws of physics.
Austrian skiing maestro Franz Klammer could enter a state of ‘slow-motion’, so ‘you have all the time in the world’, while Bolt himself insists, ‘I can tell you everything that goes through my mind from start to finish because I’m that focussed.’
At least Bolt only had to keep it up for less than 20 seconds. At the other end of the scale, in 2016 Germany’s Jan Frodeno completed a full Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile marathon) in 7 hours 35 minutes 39 seconds for a new world record. Yet even in this ultimate physical field, he’s adamant the secret is not in his muscles but in his head.
‘It’s much harder on the mind than the body,’ he insists. ‘Of course you have to be fit, but all the competitors are fit. So it’s in the mind that victory is won or lost. It’s less about strength than concentration.
‘You have a mental warmup strategy that becomes almost automatic when you reach competition’ Victoria Pendleton
‘When I’m in the Zone I call it “floating”, but no one can hold focus for eight hours – unless you’re the Dalai Lama. With fatigue you go through so many ups and downs you find yourself dipping in and out, so it’s a fine art to get back that focus.
‘You overweigh negative thoughts with positive thoughts, using self-talk to control your emotions and let them control your muscles. For weeks after an Ironman I find myself hearing voices because I’m mentally so exhausted.’
Believe it or not
Long-distance cyclists will recognise these problems, but it’s not just on the road that sporting endurance has recently reached new levels.
When Rafael Nadal led 4-2 in the final set of the 2012 Australian Open, everything seemed to be slipping away from Novak Djokovic. Then, like Frodeno, the Serbian tennis player found a way to drown out the negative thoughts that were swamping his head. After nearly six hours (the longest Grand Slam tennis final of all time) Djokovic clawed his way back to victory before ripping his shirt apart and slamming his chest in a somewhat extreme celebration.
‘In the fifth set of a Grand Slam final there is no more physical strength to rely on,’ Djokovic says. ‘It’s will-to-win that guides you to the end. Just believe and you find the mental push you need.
‘I’d been world number three for four years, behind Rafa and Roger Federer. It seems a small step from semi-finals to winning but it’s huge. Then suddenly, bang! In 2011 I started winning. It was about believing I could beat them in the majors.’
This belief is critical to performance in any field – even when it’s supposedly about brawn rather than brain.
‘The power of the mind and belief make all the difference,’ agrees five-time Olympic rowing gold medallist Steve Redgrave. ‘In these recent epic tennis matches, if it’s not going their way they hang in there, thinking, “He’s on a hot streak but it can’t last forever.” It’s the same in rowing. If you have any doubt in your mind you will fall down somewhere. It’s partly physical but more about the mental side, knowing you’ll do it.’
What a pity, then, that we all have an inner voice that is ever primed for selfsabotage. Of its many titles the most evocative is the ‘Monkey Mind’: how Chinese Buddhists described the nagging presence in our heads that flits from thought to thought, like a monkey swinging from tree to tree in the jungle.
This inner critic is what sports psychiatrist Steve Peters re-christened The Chimp as he helped Team GB’S cyclists including Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, who was far from your stereotypical athlete oozing selfbelief, despite gold in two Olympics.
‘Mental preparation is key to getting in the Zone,’ says Pendleton. ‘So you have a mental warm-up strategy that becomes almost automatic when you reach competition and your thoughts start flying everywhere: “Have I done enough?”, “Gosh, they look really fast,” and all the other doubts that are hard to avoid under pressure.
‘Steve helped us find strategies to address our personal mental weaknesses. For me it was about reassuring myself I’d done every training session to the best of my ability and couldn’t have done any more if I’d tried.
‘Like physical training, it’s a lifelong process that becomes easier with practice. Some people have a level of confidence that never falters. Others have insecurities. I’m one of those people. So I had to work hard on eliminating negativity to focus without any doubts or distractions.’
Since their retirement after the peak of London 2012, both Hoy and Pendleton have made switches to other sports, in his case
motor racing, while just one ‘horse power’ for her in National Hunt racing.
In 2015 Hoy was back at London’s Olympic Stadium, but this time wearing a crash helmet and racing overalls to face a field of international greats in the Race Of Champions. Talk about ‘in at the deep end’. Thankfully the Scotsman still benefits from the mental skills he learned on two wheels.
‘The work I did with Steve Peters is transferable to your whole life, it’s not just about sport,’ insists Hoy. ‘If you line up against Sebastian Vettel thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” or, “If I stick it in the wall I’ll look a right idiot,” you’ll do exactly that or just go really slowly. What I’ve carried over from cycling is an ability to focus on what I can control and what I need to do to be the best I can be.’
This is what it’s about for the likes of Hoy. It’s never just ‘winning gold’ but rather reaching your own best performance on the day. In cycling, years of graft armed Hoy with thighs the size of many waists, so that when he hit the Zone he could expect to win heavy metal. In motorsport his rivals obviously have far more experience but Hoy’s approach has already helped him to highs in his adopted sporting displicine when it all happens ‘instinctively’.
For things to go like a dream it helps if you dream big. Indeed throughout Hoy’s cycling career he kept meticulous records of his goals. In his teens he wrote he wanted to become Olympic Champion in 2004 – then still 13 years away. It worked, but only through a mix of short, medium and longterm goals crafted with painstaking care as stepping stones to turn the dream into reality.
The world’s most decorated Olympian, swimmer Michael Phelps, always dreamed big too – and in similarly intricate detail. From the age of 14 he specified target times to hundredths of a second, hitting them precisely. Twenty-three gold medals later he was still at it.
‘Visualisation is important so you don’t have any surprises,’ says Phelps. ‘You think how you want the race to go – and how you don’t – so you’re ready for anything. That was key, and starting at such a young age helped me throughout my career. It’s crazy when I look back because it feels like I’ve been living a dream come true. I wanted to change the sport of swimming and take it to a new level – and I have.’
All champions start out as dreamers. Whether in sport or elsewhere, they trust their intuition and hone it into a vision. Then they dream up the many smaller steps towards this picture-perfect future, the first of which usually involves sporting wannabes hitting the gym. Those who do make it all the way are later invariably desperate to share the magic, because they know the path to the Zone is available to everyone.
‘In general we all underestimate what we’re capable of,’ insists Hoy. ‘A lot of people look at champions and think they’re born that way, a different breed. But when I was small I didn’t stand out from the crowd.
‘What I learned over the years was that if you work at something, if you’re committed and you focus on one thing to the expense of everything else you can surprise yourself with how far you can go.’ Clyde Brolin is author of In The Zone (£8.99, Blink Publishing)
‘What I’ve carried over from cycling is an ability to focus on what I can control and what I need to do to be the best I can be’ Chris Hoy