Clyde Brolin finds out what gets Ben Ainslie 'In the Zone'
Sports journalist Clyde Brolin's new book ‘In the Zone’ looks at the inner workings of the minds of successful athletes across a range of sports; from childhood through to those pivotal career moments that require them to perform at the absolute top of their game.
In this excerpt from the book Brolin talks to Olympic sailing's most successful protagonist, Sir Ben Ainslie, about one such pivotal moment that happened during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
When a sporting great is ‘in the Zone’ it’s an experience of pure athletic alchemy. All the doubts thrown up by the conscious mind disappear, allowing all the long years of practice to soar back out in a blissful moment of apparent magic.
This is when things just work – indeed the outer world seems to cooperate with every inner whim. At extremes, time obliges by slowing down. Space can also flex as you become one with your equipment, your surroundings and even the entire universe.
It sounds other-worldly but this sensation invariably leads to results in the real world too. Whether you’re driving a racing car around Monaco or driving a little white ball down the 18th at Augusta, to find the Zone means you will be at your absolute best, making even the most complicated skill feel the most natural thing in the world.
No matter how pressured the occasion or how huge the crowds, it’s usually a peaceful experience too, hence the spread of techniques like meditation to help sportspeople find this elusive nirvana when it matters.
Over seven years of research for In The Zone I met hundreds of legends of everything from athletics to boxing, gymnastics to skydiving. For most, the secret is to find calm amid all the intensity. Yet there are exceptions, and the most high-profile of all comes from sailing.
‘They’ve made me angry and you don’t want to make me angry…’
These words, paraphrasing David Bruce Banner in 1970s television’s The Incredible Hulk, capture much of what makes the greatest sailor in Olympic history tick. Sir Ben Ainslie is a rare example of a sportsman who thrives on getting mad and usually even.
You’d imagine Denmark’s Jonas Høgh-Christensen might have known that. Six races into the Finn class of the 2012 Olympic sailing regatta, with Ainslie chasing a record fourth straight gold, the Dane had beaten him in every race. Then he ganged up with Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma to force the home hero into a precautionary penalty turn. Big mistake. After Ainslie threatened to turn green, he began another stunning run for gold. Maybe Høgh-Christensen should have listened in on my chat with the Briton a month earlier…
‘Normally when I’m under pressure or I get angered by something, it seems to bring out the best in me,’ Ainslie told me. ‘I don’t necessarily know why that is. But it’s a good trait to have because that’s what often happens. For some people, if they get put off their natural stride they just fall apart. But anger works as a trigger for me. It just makes me want to do better or try harder and normally that’s the case.’
Ainslie first got ‘angry’ when he was herded to the back by Brazil’s Robert Scheidt in the penultimate race of the 1996 Olympics. Then something ‘clicked’ in the young debutant, who started flying as he seethed, gaining 15 places but falling short of gold – for the only time, as it turned out. Ainslie received death threats when he returned the favour four years later but ‘from then on the gloves were off…’
Anger management course? No thanks… it is Ainslie’s preferred route to the Zone. Competitive sailing is so tactical it is rarely about just getting as quickly as possible from A to B by sea, yet even this game of maritime chess doesn’t stop the magic.
‘That peak performance comes when everything comes together at the same time, when you’re really at one with the boat, the conditions and yourself,’ adds Ainslie. ‘It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s a great feeling. It’s definitely possible to get in the Zone in a tactical battle too.
That’s when the training comes in and you sail the boat on autopilot because your mind is so focused on the tactical ramifications of what you need to do next. You might not sail at 100 per cent but you can be at a very high level even without thinking about it.’
Having sparked one of sport’s all-time great comebacks as tactician for Oracle Team USA in 2013, Ainslie is now bidding to bring the America’s Cup home at the helm of his own Land Rover BAR team. The first battle in the Qualifiers – on Friday May 26 in Bermuda – will be with Ainslie’s lifelong friend Iain Percy, Artemis Racing’s team manager and tactician, who takes a different mental approach.
‘It’s funny how people tend to go one way or another: some want to fire up and others want to calm down,’ smiles Percy. ‘You need to know yourself quite well to know where you sit in that spectrum. Personally I like to be quite calm going into a race because the aggression tends to take care of itself when it starts…’
By contrast, Ainslie is known for his placid personality that turns shark as soon as he touches water – even if he claims age and experience have blurred the edges between his Jekyll and Hyde.
‘When I was younger I was a bit of a hothead on the water,’ adds Ainslie, ‘but on land I was so shy I wouldn’t speak to anyone – partly because of the problems I had at school, where I was bullied. That had a marked effect on me: I felt I needed to prove myself and it made me fiercely determined to be successful. As I’ve got older the two personalities have merged. Now I’m more confident on land and I’m calmer on the water, which helps.’
After decades of sailing solo, Ainslie acknowledges the biggest challenge in the team environment is getting everyone to peak at the same time.
‘It’s no good an individual trying to do one thing on this own ten times better than the rest,’ he adds. ‘It’s a collective output so it’s about getting everyone working together to a similar level where they can all operate. Then you start getting somewhere.’
One final piece of advice for Land Rover BAR’s rivals: try not to make them angry.
In The Zone by Clyde Brolin out 20th April RRP £18.99 (Blink Publishing)