When it comes to athletes being ‘in the zone’, few have ever put it as eloquently as the late, great Ayrton Senna. His qualifying session at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix has gone down in Formula 1 folklore and several years later he was persuaded by Canadian journalist Gerald Donaldson to discuss the day when he lapped a second and a half quicker than his McLaren teammate, Alain Prost.
By John Portch
Senna said of the moment:
‘I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker, and quicker, and quicker, and I suddenly realised I wasn’t driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. I was just going, going – more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something kicked just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove back slowly to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.’
Future Formula 1 reporter Clyde Brolin was listening and became so enchanted with this notion of being in the zone that it inspired him to write two books on the subject, 2010’s Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone and 2017’s In the Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, which has just been released in paperback and presents the results from interviews conducted with over 100 world-class athletes.
The Leaders Performance Institute sat down with Brolin to discuss his latest work, as well as some of the common traits reported by athletes from their visits to the zone. He explains that while the zone may seem elusive or illusory, anyone can reach the limits of their abilities and elite athletes in particular take a series of mental steps to ensure they are performing at peak level.
The ultimate nirvana
Brolin describes being in the zone as, “the ultimate nirvana for a sportsperson”. ‘The zone arrives when a life of practice is allowed to do its job uncluttered by the stream of superfluous information, doubt and worries dreamt up by the conscious mind,’ he writes in his book In The Zone. We see the results in performances such as gymnast Nadia Comăneci’s perfect ten at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games or tennis player Novak Djokovic sweeping all before him in 2011. ‘This sensation is paradoxical in that it is about total concentration, while at the same time letting go to allow your natural ability to take over.’
Brolin’s research led him to surmise that luck is less significant in helping athletes reach the zone than one might think. He says: “Most of the time people did just fall into the zone, particularly in Formula 1, but having said that, you can put yourself in the zone by becoming an expert in something or other.”
He also refers to athletes’ “extreme self-knowledge,” adding, “people are finding ways to make it more likely to happen and if you’re going for an Olympic final it doesn’t matter how you were ten minutes before or ten minutes after – you’ve got to nail it there. I spoke to Nadia Comăneci and she described all the work she’d ever done as going into this big bag and the important thing for her was to find a way to open that bag at the precise moment when it mattered. You don’t get to choose that moment as an athlete but she was well coached by the Romanian team in the practice of blocking out all the distractions; they even brought people in off the streets sometimes to create a row in their training sessions so that they got used to distractions and finding ways to block them out.”
In the pages of In The Zone, Comăneci tells Brolin: ‘You have to be in the zone, but everybody has their own way of getting there. In my case I’d stay in a room by myself to go through every routine and skill piece and remember how to make it right. In gymnastics it’s easy to get out of the zone as there are distractions, perhaps if there is music playing or someone else is performing. So you have to prepare for that in advance.’
“It’s a very precarious state,” says Brolin. “If you start noticing something going wrong you’ll slip out of it; if you notice it and starting thinking ‘wow, I’m in the zone’ that’s another sure-fire way of letting it disappear. It’s hard because the conscious mind drives so much of what we do in the rest of our lives and it’s that inner-voice that has been given various names. One that came up repeatedly in my research was a particularly evocative name going back to Chinese Buddhism: ‘the monkey mind’. It evokes the image of a monkey swinging from tree to tree and that’s how our thoughts go; we have this constant barrage of thoughts and they’re often negative.”
Taming the ‘monkey mind’
While Brolin discovered that athletes had numerous ways of taming their monkey mind, visualisation was a theme that came up time and again. “Visualisation has different levels,” he explains. “It starts with the big dream itself; you have to aim and you first have to dream about doing some of these amazing things. I’m sure we’ve all dreamed of scoring the winner in the FA Cup final or something like that, but these people don’t go back to their PlayStation – they stick at it and start hunting down individual, little goals that turn into little dreams along the way.
“Michael Phelps is a great example. His big dream was to change the entire sport of swimming, which he ended up doing; but he was actually taught very specifically how to visualise when he was a teenager by his coach Bob Bowman. This involved narrowing down target split times for all his practice sessions and races to a hundredth of a second; and he was hitting those precisely. With these goals and visions firmly in mind, they act as a guiding system to reach them. You hear this so often with sportspeople; they can see the future and can steer their future to how they want it to be; their ideal version of their future.
“The more they visualise it, the more intensely they can picture it. And it’s not just the picture: they can work in hearing or a touch – even a smell. When Novak Djokovic was first dreaming of winning Wimbledon he didn’t just picture lifting the trophy, he even had visions of eating the Centre Court grass; he found a way to incorporate taste into his grand vision, when he then found a way to pursue step by step.” True enough, when Djokovic claimed his first Wimbledon title in 2011, he took a nibble of the grass in front of a bemused crowd before accepting the trophy.
Conceive, believe, achieve
If the likes of Comăneci and Djokovic are living their dreams, then Brolin uses In The Zone to explain that he has found the dream machine and its three components. ‘The three crucial stages of the dream machine can be summed up as Conceive, Believe, Achieve. It’s as simple as CBA – easy to say, but much harder to bring into play when each letter is shorthand for an epic battle with our own minds.
‘Of those who get as far as C, the vast majority won’t make it past B. It takes a special mind control to manage even a shot at A, which is the process of following a dream – the real victory – not its completion. Even greater trickery is required to get beyond CBA to the big Z, daring to go find the zone when all you’ve ever worked for is on the line.’
There are numerous examples of winners reaching the big Z but we were curious to ask Brolin if there is a psychological toll to be paid for such commitment. “That is the challenge,” he admits. “We hear some horrific things that sportspeople go through; to obsess over an all-encompassing goal with the whole world watching you is not an easy place to be. I don’t think there’s a single way that’s going to help every human being find the perfect mental state, especially if they’re going through a big challenge. I’ve spoken to some athletes who came close and fell short and there’s pain. If you dedicate yourself to a life of sport you’re not going to guarantee yourself a life free from troubles.”
Our conversation eventually turned to the future. “We’re not at a level yet where science can understand everything that’s going on in the brain despite considerable research and investment,” says Brolin. He is optimistic about the gains being made but sounds one note of caution: “If they do manage to produce a drug or electrical method of increasing your chances of getting in the zone then I suppose, ethically speaking, you’ve got to start thinking this is akin to doping. But it can’t be done yet.”
For now, athletes will continue their search for the Holy Grail.
To learn more about world class athletes and their efforts to reach the zone of peak performance read In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, Clyde Brolin’s exploration of mental performance in elite sport. Widely available from Blink Publishing.