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.”