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

Cyclist - - Contents - WORDS Clyde Brolin IL­LUS­TRA­TION Rob Mil­ton

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.’

Dream on

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.’

One vi­sion

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

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