It’s moments after champions Arsenal and, more specifically, Thierry Henry have put troubled Leeds United to the sword in a Friday spectacular at Highbury. The Frenchman is dutifully collecting another man of the match award, and seems slightly distant and pre-occupied.
Sky’s Clare Tomlinson is asking the questions and wants to know if the Player of the Year is experiencing the best form of his career. ‘I don’t know and I don’t want to know’ snaps the Frenchman. It is as if to dare to be self-analytical, for a moment even, would somehow pierce the sheath of perfection he has gathered around himself.
Henry’s dilemma is not unusual for the sporting greats. Very few have been willing, or able, to take us into their secret inner world, to describe the white moments of sporting excellence. It is the place which, in the modern patois, is called the Zone.
It is understood, but it defies explanation. It is only when Henry is forced outside his flawless world, that it becomes clear how deeply uncompromising he is in his search for perfection.
If he had been able to elucidate his experience, Henry might have found accord with Pele, who in his book, My Life and the Beautiful Game, recalls a day when he experienced a strange calmness unlike any he had ever experienced before.
He describes it as a type of euphoria; ‘I felt that I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could pass through them almost physically. I felt that 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 before without that feeling of invincibility’.
This may have been akin to what Leeds United witnessed as Henry plundered his four goals. In his state of euphoria, the game may be heated, yet somehow, for this peak performer, there is only chilling coolness.
In these moments the game seems transformed as the opposition appears to collude in lifting the play to new levels. It’s that elusive symbiosis between player, game and public. It’s the mark of respect shown between Moore and Pele in the 1970 World Cup. It’s why the Leeds United players were keen to shake Henry’s hand; it’s why Ronaldo was applauded off at Old Trafford last year.
Also, in this peak state, Henry could be experiencing enhancements of perception, such as elongated time, whereby fast moving events are seen in slow motion, a phenomenon appreciated by racing drivers like Michael Schumacher.
Thus, it becomes possible to anticipate what might happen, to foresee moves and movement. It’s about being perfectly in the moment, in a space where maximum effort and successful outcome are as one. No doubt. No worry. No trying. It is, simply, acute intuition in action.
However this quality of experience doesn’t come instantly or on demand. In fact, the more you want it, desire it, urge it, the less chance there is of attracting it. Putting pressure on oneself is sure to disrupt the flow state. It can be lost in an instant, never to return.
These moments are a result of dedication and devotion to the game and its standards, allied to a capacity to be internally quiet, to trust oneself and be utterly in the now. They can happen upon an amateur as much as a highly paid professional. Status is irrelevant. Humility is everything. Its no wonder Henry can’t explain what is happening to him. It’s not ot be explained. It’s to be felt.