Updated: Aug 20, 2020
Having spent a great deal of time, around pro athletes in my 20’s in the NBA and MLB, and many others through my work since, there is one athlete that simply blows my mind. His sport is one that is erupting onto the Olympic scene and not one the weekend warrior becomes great at by any means.
I’ve watched and listened to well over twenty hours of interviews with Alex Honnold and only recently did I actually watch his famous climb and team’s Academy Award Winning documentary Free Solo.
Over my years as an athlete and many more listening to coaches and athletes: I often hear the phrases ‘Play Free’ or ‘Play Loose’. To really get there requires a degree of confidence, a preparation unlike others. This sensation of relaxation during competition is not easily achieved. Call it 'the Zone' or 'Flow State', it has identifiable physiological markers. It’s also often said preparation creates the confidence to step into these performance epicenters.
You see this play out with finger nail precision in Alex’s Free Solo journey. Not just in the actual ascent, but in the days, months, years leading up to that moment. As the days neared, the focus narrowed like the cracks in which he’d climb.
There’s even a scene as he looks up at that wall and admits the presence of fear. Alex acknowledges it and is later captured saying, “you work through it until it is not scary anymore.” Adding, “ when you start to panic a bit, and you have to reel it all back in.” He anticipates these moments, knowing exactly what’ll he’ll do upon their arrival.
His note taking is like a quarterbacks notebook, even with coded language like: cripple, side pole, dipple, dish, jugs, and thumb press. Tommy Caldwell, another distinguished climber gives the perspective that this Free Solo has, “no margin for error, it’s Gold medal or death.”
In the hours of questioning I’ve observed Alex answer about the quest, I believe it’s his humility and perspective that pairs harmonious with his preparation. In doing what most of us cannot fathom; Alex in completing this, describes it as feeling alive. Isn’t that what real competition should feel like? It can when you prepare with precision and care like your life depends on it.
Riding that feeling Alex went to hang board (like doing pull-ups with your fingers) following this enormous achievement. Stay in the flow, keep working. I think that is what I loved most about the documentary, to him, it was an accomplishment, but to others it was magnified by the mountains enormity.