I love great performance stories – not just racing – but stories of human achievement from all endeavors. They are all stories of our human experience. The heroes have their day, the goats get their place in history, and everyone else provides the context against which such things are measured. I also enjoy the way, over time, that factual aspects of such stories start to blur and take on aspects of urban legend even if they’re perfectly true.
Over the last few years while reading about car setup theory and racing history I’ve followed countless links and have come across quotes illustrating a some of this narrative relating to individuals from the racing world. Here’s a very tiny sample:
- The Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, who during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix explained: “I was already on pole, [...] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.”
- [Jim Clark] was the quickest man in the team and yet his car would have less tyre wear, less brake wear and more fuel left at the end of the race than any of the others. He was light on the cars and he had a mechanical sympathy for things. – Bob Dance (Chief Racing Mechanic, Team Lotus)
- He [Clark] was so unpunishing with his car. Take brake pads. We used to replace them after four or five races on his car because it was embarrassing. Graham (Hill) might go through two sets per meeting. - Alan McCall
- During the extremely wet Friday practice session for the season-ending United States Grand Prix, [Gilles] Villeneuve set a time variously reported to be either 9 or 11 seconds faster than any other driver. His team-mate Jody Scheckter, who was second fastest, recalled that “I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles’s time and I still don’t really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds!”
Quotes like these give glimpses of talent and singular achievement far beyond the average everyday performance; certainly beyond their peers but also beyond themselves. How are performances like these possible? A clue might be that the Senna quote I found in the Wikipedia section on flow, and again here.
I think there’s a parallel between the experiences encountered in the western idea of flow and those actively sought by Zen practitioners. In 1924, a German philosopher named Eugen Herrigel traveled to Japan to teach and being enthralled with the notion of Zen mysticism, he enrolled in archery classes hoping to gain a physical and practical appreciation for Zen, about which he found the existing literature maddeningly vague. He wrote a book called “Zen in the Art of Archery,” and it’s his story of his personal journey through six years of archery practice in this pursuit.
“there exist a plethora of Zen texts regarded as sacred. They have the peculiarity of disclosing their life-giving meaning only to those who have shown themselves worthy of the crucial experiences and who can therefore extract from these texts confirmation of what they themselves already possess and are.”
I haven’t experienced flow while driving, but I had (what I think was) a similar experience playing volleyball on an under-18 team for the province of Alberta. We played in a tournament against several provinces and states in the northwest US. The play would certainly have been at a high level but I don’t remember much of the day. We played so much that summer with selection processes, preparation tournaments, a full high school schedule over the winter, and the tournament itself that I reached a level of ability that didn’t require much active mental intervention.
How this played out on the day of the tournament is difficult to describe. Surely some thought was necessary, but I fell into a rhythm with my body doing what I had practiced for 10 years without much conscious meddling by my troublesome self. Even the day after the tournament I couldn’t recall the exact goings on of some of the matches. This lack of memory is similar to other accounts of flow that I’ve read, of suddenly becoming aware that some amount of time has passed without an active accounting of one’s actions possible.
To get to his state of mastery, to paraphrase Herrigel, he found that he first had to adopt the correct physical practice. His inability to draw the bow was due to lack of physical strength (which he eventually developed) coupled with inappropriate breathing:
I cannot think back to those days without recalling, over and over, how difficult I found it, in the beginning, to get my breathing to work out right. Though I breathed in technically the right way, whenever I tried to keep my arm and shoulder muscles relaxed while drawing the bow, the muscles of my legs stiffened all the more violently, as though my life depended on a firm foothold and stance [...] When, to excuse myself, I once remarked that I was conscientiously making an effort to keep relaxed, he replied: “That’s just the trouble, you make an effort to think about it. Concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do!”
The correct method he was eventually shown after some frustration:
“In talking it over with Mr. Komachiya, I once asked him why the Master has looked on so long at my futile efforts to draw the bow “spiritually,” why had he not insisted in the correct breathing right from the start.” [...] Had he begun the lessons with breathing exercises, he would never be able to convince you that you owe them anything decisive. You had to suffer shipwreck through your own efforts before you were ready to seize the lifebelt he threw you”
Then came the far higher hurdle of loosing the shot in the appropriate way. He describes the difference between his loosing a shot and the Master’s way thus:
“When I had loosed hitherto, the shot had never gone off without a powerful jerk, which made itself felt in a visible shaking of my whole body and affected the bow and arrow as well.”
“Only now, when expressly watching out for it, did I observe that though the right hand of the Master, suddenly opened and released by the tension, flew back with a jerk, it did not cause the least shaking of the body. The right arm, which before the shot had formed an acute angle, was jerked open, but ran gently back into full extension. [...] If the force of the discharge did not betray itself in the sharp “thump” of the quivering bowstring and in the penetrative power of the arrow, one would never suspect is existence. At least in the case of the Master the loose looked so simple and undemanding that it might have been child’s play.”
What he would eventually uncover was the need to remove his conscious will from the process of shooting. This is a contradiction in Western modes of thought and this theme is the central difficulty described in the book. Eventually, it seems to me, his body learned the muscle memory needed to perform the action at about the time his active mind’s interest in the problem was waning, and one day, quite by surprise the master stopped him:
“What I have said,” the Master told me severely, “was not praise, only a statement that ought not to touch you. Nor was my bow meant for you, for you are entirely innocent of this shot. You remained this time absolutely self-oblivious and without purpose in the highest tension, so that the shot fell from you like a ripe fruit. Now go on practicing as if nothing had happened.”
Only after a considerable time did more right shots occasionally come off [...] How it happened that they loosed themselves without my doing anything, how it came about that my tightly closed right hand suddenly flew back wide open, I could not explain then and I cannot explain today. The fact remains that it did happen.”
Both the article on running and Herrigel’s book talk about the role of practice in achieving expert performance:
[...] deliberate practice, that “dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion – repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician – the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding.”
And from Herrigel:
If everything depends on the archer’s becoming purposeless and effacing himself in the event, then its outward realization must occur automatically, in no further need of the controlling or reflecting intelligence. [...] Practice, repetition, and repetition of the repeated with ever increasing intensity are its distinctive features for long stretches of the way.”
To paraphrase for a golfer, right practice would entail a physical routine for approaching a practice putt (for example) that involves establishing a repeatable rhythm of breathing and address that allows the mind to focus on the routine, while the body handles the putt. Of course, doing this when the US Open is on the line is hard, but that’s precisely the point. The physical routine, the practice, and the mental rehearsal during training would be undertaken with the goal of making a putt at the US Open no different from one done on the practice green.
Doubt it? Nick O’Hern is the only golfer to beat Tiger Woods twice in match play. To paraphrase, (Sadly Yahoo no longer hosts the interview) he said that when playing Tiger, he has to stay within himself because a person can get wrapped up in the circus surrounding Woods. He has to be honest with himself and try not to hit shots as good as Tiger, but hit shots only as well as he is able.
He mentioned being able to get into his own rhythm and routine that insulates him from the chaos surrounding him. Should he get caught up into trying to play impressive golf to match the situation or to impress the onlookers, the outlook would undoubtedly be bleak. Instead he’s able to play a quiet, seemingly effortless game with tremendous success. What’s most impressive is that he ranks in the top 70 golfers in only one major statistical category. On paper, he should not be winning these matches, yet he does.
Now, what all this means for the Nordschleife is that all I can do is keep pulling the deer hair out of the grill and to keep practicing. One thing of which I’m certain is that glancing at the clock while I’m part-way through a lap to get a rough idea of where I am in relation to a ‘fast time’ is diametrically opposed to the concept of flow. Sadly, I’m no Senna, and I’m guilty of this little indulgence.
This round, I’ve set two new fast times in quick succession. A 7:13.707 and a 7:12.922. That’s a 2.5 second improvement over last time and I’m quite pleased. A tiny change to the rear wing setting helped traction in the corners without a top end speed penalty coupled with a little experimentation in avoiding over-braking before the corners made all the difference. I have to say the thirteen seconds still outstanding seem rather daunting at this point but that’s just my active seeking Western mind clamoring for immediate results.
I also have to report that Herrigel’s work is now subject to refutation and dispute. The conversations that seemed to him to hold so much mystical wisdom apparently were just a result of mistranslation, and the master archer he studied with wasn’t interested in Zen at all, but rather in starting his own religion. Perhaps the whole thing really is an urban legend. I’m still a believer though, if only for one day long ago that I can barely remember.