How do the world’s best athletes perform feats of unbelievable brilliance?by Amit Katwala / August 8, 2016 / Leave a comment
The level of physical ability in the world of sport is reaching a peak. Scientists don’t believe it is possible to shave too much time off Usain Bolt’s 100m world record, it is unlikely that football will be graced with another Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo for quite some time. Of course these people are exceptional athletes, but at one time they were just like many of the others in their field—until something changed. They were able to make a mental leap that pushed them into the sporting stratosphere. The change happened in their brains and now other athletes all over the world are scrambling to find the secret in the hope it will give them an edge over their rivals. By understanding and incorporating neuroscience into their training, many athletes may be able to make that change. For Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, it’s all about “flow.”
Lewis Hamilton is flying. Right foot hard on the floor, flicking through the gears, his Mercedes clips the kerbs of the famous Eau Rouge corner perfectly and flies up the hill as the track weaves through Belgian forest. It’s August 2015, and the double F1 champion is about to set his 10th pole position of the season at Spa, one of the fastest circuits on the calendar.
I catch up with him a couple of days later at Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey—a glass and chrome construction that’s part theme park, part car dealership. He’s in a good mood, having won the race to extend his lead in the 2015 F1 drivers’ championship, which he’ll go on to win. In between talking about his tattoos, his title ambitions and his background in racing, I’m keen to get a sense of how it feels inside his head when everything is going right, like it did in that qualifying lap at Spa.
“I don’t really know how to describe the feeling,” he tells me. “It’s all positive. It’s just positive energy. You plan for things to happen and when they happen the way you planned them to, it’s a good feeling.”
It’s a common phenomenon across sports and active pursuits. Football legend Pelé remembers “a strange calmness” during one of his best performances. “I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could almost pass through them [his opponents] physically. I felt I could not be hurt. It was a very strange feeling and one I had not felt before. Perhaps it was merely confidence, but I have felt confident many times without that strange feeling of invincibility.”
“You’re ahead of yourself really,” says former F1 driver Mark Webber. “You really are in slow motion. It’s almost being played out before you get there. It is just the ultimate feeling and the ultimate balance of you having the car on the limit, and you’re at one, basically. The grandstands could be empty, they could be full—that is not important. You’re just completely in a trance of having that car on a tightrope.”
I like these two complementary quotes, one from Ayrton Senna and another about him, showing what this feeling looks like from the outside and how it feels to the athlete. This is experienced F1 driver John Watson talking about what it was like to watch Senna in full flow, in Maurice Hamilton’s book McLaren: “I witnessed visibly and audibly something I had not seen anyone do before in a racing car. It was as if he had four hands and four legs. He was braking, changing down, steering, pumping the throttle and the car appeared to be on that knife edge of being in control and being out of control.
“The car was pitched in with an arrogance that made my eyes open wider. Then—hard on the throttle and the thing was driving through the corner. I mean, it was a master controlling a machine. I had never seen a turbo car driven like that. The ability of the brain to separate each component and put them back together with that rhythm and co-ordination—for me it was a remarkable experience; it was a privilege to see.”
And here’s Senna himself, talking about the unique sensation of control he felt at times. “I felt as though I was driving in a tunnel,” he said. “The whole circuit became a tunnel… I had reached such a high level of concentration that it was as if the car and I had become one. Together we were at the maximum. I was giving the car everything—and vice versa.”
This feeling has many names. Psychologists have called it “peak performance.” Athletes might call it “being in the zone.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow.”
Rijeka, a town on Croatia’s Adriatic coast, has also had many names and has changed hands many times. When Csikszentmihalyi was born in 1934, it was part of an Italy on the cusp of conflict. As it did for many, the Second World War caused upheaval for the son of a Hungarian diplomat—one brother was killed, another exiled, and Csikszentmihalyi ended up in an Italian prison camp at the age of seven. “I realised how few of the grown-ups that I knew were able to withstand the tragedies that were visited on them,” he remembered, speaking about his formative years in a TED talk. “How few of them could even resemble a contented, satisfied, happy life once their job, their home, their security was destroyed. So I became interested in understanding what contributed to a life worth living.”
After attending a talk by influential psychologist Carl Jung (completely by chance because he didn’t have enough money to go to the movies), Csikszentmihalyi emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, intent on studying the key components of happiness and answering the question: What makes life worth living?
To find out, he equipped a group of teenagers with beepers that would sound at random intervals during the day. Whenever a beep went off, they had to record their thoughts and feelings. He found that they were unhappy a lot of the time, as teenagers are, but that they tended to be happiest when they were focused on a challenging task. “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” he wrote. He called this phenomenon “flow,” and it shows up in all areas of life, including sport.
Flow has been reported by runners, musicians, surgeons and videogame players—an ancient Chinese text even describes the feeling in a skilled butcher carving up an ox. According to Csikszentmihalyi, who outlined the characteristics of flow, the state can be defined as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Flow is powerful. It can save lives, and it allows people to push the human body beyond the limits of what we thought was possible. In Bone Games, author and journalist Rob Schultheis describes it as an almost mystical experience, one he encountered while climbing Mount Neva in Colorado. “The person I became on Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life. No regrets, no hesitation; there were no false moves left in me. I really believe I could have hit a mosquito in the eye with a pine needle at 30 paces; I couldn’t miss because there was no such thing as a miss.”
People are better when they’re in flow. They seem to have more time. They make better decisions, and they make them faster. A study by management consultants McKinsey found that top executives in flow are 500 per cent more productive.
Flow can boost creativity for days. Outdoor retail company Patagonia, whose corporate headquarters are on the California coast, have a policy whereby employees are allowed to drop whatever they’re doing to go surfing if the conditions are right. The idea is that if they get into a flow state in the water, that productivity and creativity boost will carry over into their work.
Flow can do the same. Powerful experiences enhance learning, and flow is about as powerful an experience as you can get. Athletes in flow take in more data and process it more efficiently. Training in flow could “significantly shorten the learning curve towards expertise,” according to performance psychologist Michael Gervais.
Full flow is elusive in traditional sports. When it happens, it’s a special, few-times-in-a-career type thing. But it shows up all the time in adventure sports. Surfers, BASE jumpers, even kayakers report the strange sense of power you get when one false move could see you plummeting to your death. They need flow. “You’re immortal, when everything clicks and you’re feeling it,” says mountaineer Kenton Cool, who experienced the sensation when he was part of the first team to tackle three of the Himalayas’ highest peaks (Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse) in a single expedition. “Maybe the stars align or the planets align and it’s your day, and everything you touch turns to gold. It’s a great feeling—if only you could bottle it and bring it out when you need it.”
Flow happens when you’re totally absorbed and concentrated on a task with clear goals, which you have personal control over, which offers a good balance between your challenge and skill levels, and which also offers direct and immediate feedback. It could be driving an F1 car, skiing down a particularly tricky slope, writing a book, or even trying to crack a challenging level on your favourite video game. There are thought to be 17 triggers for flow in all, and each of them can be manipulated to enhance or prolong a flow state. The more triggers you hit, the deeper the state of flow.
We’ve become quite bad at hitting these triggers in certain environments. Take “focused attention” for example, a prerequisite for flow. As modern technology has made it easier than ever to multitask, we’ve forfeited some of the ability to lose ourselves in a task for hours at a time. Looking at my desk at the moment, I’ve got my laptop open, plus a smartphone, a Kindle and a couple of reference books all full of distractions. I have 32 tabs open in my web browser—I just counted them—and going through them is like a geologist digging through various strata of rock. I can see where I got distracted and by what. There’s a tab open on a two-hour broadcast of a StarCraft tournament (see below), of which I watched the first 30 seconds before opening a new tab to look up what time the nearest supermarket closes. There are several random BBC articles from today’s most-read stories column, and the Wikipedia article for the deer tick (which spreads Lyme disease—see below). Needless to say, this is not a productive way to work if you want to get into flow.
Once you’re knocked out of the zone, it can take 15 minutes to get back there, if you manage it at all. Open-plan offices are another disaster area if you want to create flow; they’re full of constant interruptions, from ringing phones to colleagues coming over to chat.
Athletes do find it a bit easier to focus their attention than office workers, particularly if they’re engaged in a dangerous activity. Two other important flow triggers—clear goals and immediate feedback—are also easier to hit in sport than in other settings. A snowboarder attempting something daring has a very clear goal and immediate feedback from their movements as to whether that goal is likely to be reached.
Another key prerequisite for flow is the challenge/skills ratio. The sweet spot is thought to be four per cent—that is, the challenge should be four per cent harder than your current skill level—difficult enough to keep you interested and improving, but also within reach so you don’t lose motivation, and don’t hurt yourself trying something beyond your capabilities. Flow is more than automaticity. It only happens when you push at the boundaries of your ability; a difficult challenge, but one that you can raise your game to meet.
The context also matters. For a full-flow state, it has to matter—something needs to be on the line, whether it’s an athlete’s life, their livelihood or simply their pride. They need to be in a rich, unpredictable environment where they don’t know what’s going to happen next, so they’re operating at the edge of their abilities. This leads to heightened attention; the brain’s processing system kicks up a gear, and you get deep embodiment—a kind of hypersensitivity to the world around that is one of the hallmarks of flow.