It's a warm Friday evening at Red Bull's headquarters in Santa Monica, California, and Michael Johnson, the great Olympic sprinter, is talking about what he misses most from his days competing. It's not the gold medals he piled up, or the world records, or the fame and endorsement deals. It's the gut-churning sensation any ordinary mortal would probably dread.
"That's the actual thing I miss, the pressure," Johnson, who retired from competition in 2001, says. "Twenty minutes before a race, eight guys in a room, all of us know only of us will win. And it's probably going to be me."
The line gets a big laugh and appreciative nods from the small audience, whose members are mostly -- but not all -- professional athletes sponsored by the energy drink maker. They're here for a six-day clinic Red Bull is putting on under the aegis of its High Performance program. The topic: "Performing Under Pressure." Led by Andy Walshe, a former performance director of the U.S. Olympic ski team, the High Performance program brings together experts from a slew of different fields -- the arts, the military, neuroscience, meditation, some more exotic ones -- to share insights of tangible benefit to Red Bull's youthful army of freeskiers, skateboarders, motorcycle racers, surfers and BASE jumpers.
Rounding out this group of extreme athletes are several participants from a very different world: the technology industry. Walshe, who for years has done performance consulting for large companies and startups, is keen to show that Red Bull's mind-meets-body approach applies just as much to running a business as it does to riding giant waves or soloing up cliffs. "We just translate the whole program across," he told me before the start of the clinic. "You sit down and work on their mental game, their physical game, their nutritional game, creativity, spirituality and so on."
It's a message that finds a ready reception in Silicon Valley. Among software engineers, the idea that professional performance is just another code base to be hacked is an increasingly popular one. From meditation to transcranial stimulation to CrossFit to Soylent, the denizens of the tech industry will jump on any tool or trend that promises an edge in efficiency or effectiveness.
Alex Debelov, CEO of the video advertising platform Virool, is a self-professed biohacker who has tried most of it. He uses neurolinguistic programming to shape his habits and an oxygen-filtering mask to optimize his workouts. He owns a sleep pod and believes his meditation practice allows him to get the better of negotiations with investors. "I'm basically interested in increasing performance in the shortest amount of time," he says. Debelov is here as Walshe's guest. So is Jake Paul, a Vine and YouTube star who's aiming to augment his social media fame with entrepreneurial expertise. Then there's Will Weisman, executive director of conferences at Singularity University. He's interested in techniques that will help him stay physically youthful, test his limits and conquer the anxiety he sometimes feels before public speeches. "I want to push myself to the next level, see myself do more than I thought I could do," he says. He'll get that chance.
'We're all kind of competitive'
On Saturday, the morning after Johnson's talk, the athletes rise with the dawn for a rooftop yoga-and-meditation session led by a woman named Danielle. "We have 50,000 thoughts a day, and most of those are thoughts you had the day before," she says. "That doesn't leave a lot of room for creativity." Limbered up, the "athletes" -- as all the participants are addressed, including the techies -- are strapped up with heart-rate monitors, and samples of their blood and saliva are taken for analysis by researchers studying the effects of stress on hormone levels. Among the researchers is Greg Poliacik, a professional movie stuntman who parlayed his film work into an academic career studying the cognitive neuroscience of performance. His research focuses on "somatic wisdom" and whether attaining expertise in one field makes it easier to master another.
After breakfast, the athletes are ushered into a conference room for a talk by Perry Sasnett, an explosive-ordnance-disposal expert who served in the Navy, defusing booby traps for the SEALs. The key to defusing bombs in combat, he says, is being able to switch off emotional arousal on command. Sasnett then drops a bomb of his own: He has planted a simulated booby trap under the chair of D.K. Walsh, a big-wave surfer from Hawaii who's at the clinic with his brother, Shaun.
Suddenly, the room is a frenzy of activity and suggestions. The lone voice of reason is Weisman, who happens to be a decade older than any of the other athletes. "Respectfully, you have no idea how it's rigged, what's going to trigger it," he tells Debelov, who wants to cut the wires with a scissors.
Heeding Weisman, the athletes study the "bomb" and determine the triggering mechanism to be weight-sensitive. By stacking heavy objects on the back of Walsh's chair, they successfully allow him to escape. After that, Sasnett pairs off the athletes for more bomb-defusal practice. In each pair, one partner plays a hostage strapped with explosives. "Bad bomb makers don't last long in this world," Sasnett lectures. "They got them into that chair safely somehow. Figure out how and do that backward."
Attempting to disconnect a device, Weisman gets it half right, removing the explosive but detonating the blasting cap. "You survived, but you probably lost a hand, took some frag in the torso area," Sasnett tells him. The real penalty was less harsh: a beeping alarm. Still, a video board displaying the athletes' heart rates in real time shows them spiking during the activity. "We're all kind of competitive," ski jumper Sara Hendrickson says. "You don't want to be the one to set off the alarm."
Retired from the Navy, Sasnett now owns a company that does security consulting and product development. "I've been in three very stressful situations in my life," he tells me in an aside. "Two of those were bomb-related, but the most stressful thing was running a business."
'Slow is fast'
The athletes spend their afternoon learning how to hold their breath. The instructors are Kirk Krack and Mandy Rae Cruickshank, the husband-and-wife proprietors of Free Diving International and champion competitors in the sports of free diving and breath holding. Free diving involves diving underwater without scuba gear; breath holding is what it sounds like. The world record for a breath hold performed without breathing pure oxygen beforehand is 11 minutes, 35 seconds. Last year, Sean Hayes, a project manager for Red Bull High Performance, made it nearly eight minutes before exhaling.
"What we're going to show you is going to challenge your belief in what is possible not only for us as individuals but as a species," Krack says. Seated in a screening room, the athletes learn the breathing cycle used by free divers to purge carbon dioxide from their blood and slow their metabolisms. It involves a series of long, slow diaphragm breaths alternating with short-choppy ones from higher up in the chest. They next learn how to fill their lungs beyond their usual capacity by engaging the shoulders and throat. Then it's off to the pool and on with the wetsuits.
"I'm a little claustrophobic, so things with breathing kind of freak me out," Weisman tells me on the drive over to the pool. You wouldn't know it; in live action, on one of his first tries, he breaks the three-minute mark. Implementing a technique suggested by Krack, he compiled alphabetical lists of names to pass the time and stave off the diaphragm spasms. "Never in a million years would I have thought I could hold my breath for three minutes," he says afterward.
After the simple endurance part, it gets harder. The athletes are handed waterproof writing slates and given math problems they have to solve while submerged. Then there are physical challenges that involve assembling PVC structures at the bottom of the pool while working in teams. "Remember, slow is fast," Krack calls out, a mantra that will be repeated, in one form or another, throughout the clinic. The competitor who takes her time and gets it right on the first try will always defeat the one who rushes and has to start over.
At dinner that night, Debelov talks about the confidence boost that comes from taking on an entirely unfamiliar challenge and succeeding at it, or at least exorcising one's fear of it. "There are pretty few opportunities to discover this about yourself in business," he says. "It's not going to be a three-minute thing underwater."
'It's good to know there are still things that make me uncomfortable'
Sunday morning: After yoga and meditation, the athletes bus to Red Bull HQ for a session with two dancers from Cirque de Soleil. If the breath-holding challenge was about breaking through physical barriers, this one is about breaking through emotional restraints. "Before Cirque, I was an athlete," says Gregg Curtis, a former Olympic gymnast and one of the instructors. "I saw the world in a one-dimensional way." He starts the group off with an intense 10-minute kundalini meditation that includes guttural breathing and primal screaming. "The idea is you're finding your artist self, your truth and honesty," he says.
After that come improv exercises. The athletes are challenged to laugh and cry on command, to communicate their identities using only movement, to turn into babies. "If you overthink it, if you plan it, it's not real," says Benoit Potvin, the other instructor. "If you're fake, we'll all call you out."
You might expect the actual athletes, so in tune with their bodies, would have no trouble with exercises that are about movement and instinct, but for many of them, shedding their inhibitions proves all but impossible. Just watching their peers attempt to cry on command proves intensely stressful, according to their heart monitors. Kirsten Sweetland is a world-class triathlete, but every time she has to go before the group, her heart rate spikes through the roof. "I'm apparently a little bit shy," she says.
There are exceptions: Michelle Parker, a free-skier, and Aaron Colton, a motorcycle racer, turn out to be natural actors. Not surprisingly, Jake Paul, the Vine star, also takes to improv like a natural.
Mike "Flamesword" Chaves, a professional video gamer, turns out to have a weird talent: His heart rate exactly mirrors that of whoever is on stage. He's surprised the improv exercises proved so daunting. "I do a lot of on-camera stuff with people all around and I'm usually never uncomfortable," he says. "It's good to know there are still things that make me uncomfortable."
'It really does reset what you think you're capable of'
It's Monday morning, and it's about to get more uncomfortable. First, the athletes are blindfolded, handcuffed and bundled into a van, then driven around L.A. for an hour at top speed. They're ordered to remain silent, but Debelov, who's always sure there must be a hack for every problem, urges everyone else to try to escape. He's wrong; the point was only to soften them up for the next trial.
They arrive at their destination and are led into a dank, horror-movie-style basement. At one end is a wooden box, ten feet long and perhaps two feet high. It contains three nine-foot-long Burmese pythons. One by one, the athletes will have to crawl through it, blindfolded. An instructor warns them athletes that sudden movements inside the box could startle the snakes and make them bite. "I'm told it feels like a staple gun," he says. "The slower, more composed the individual, the less likely they are to get bitten."
The athletes are reminded that they're free to opt out, but they all go through with it, including the claustrophobic Weisman and Chaves, who has admitted to a phobia of snakes. Afterward, Chaves says he was calm going into the box, until he got far enough inside to hear the pythons' hissing. "That freaked me out," he says. To calm himself, he employed the breathing techniques from the free-diving lessons. Watching his heart rate on the video monitor, everyone else was able to see it skyrocket, then swiftly return to baseline.
Later in the week, there will be sprint-car racing and another blindfolded challenge on a booby-trapped obstacle course. But I have to head back to San Francisco. After the clinic ends, I hear from Weisman, who tells me the most striking takeaway was the intense group bonding between the athletes. Ultimately, he says, he got what he was looking for from the experience. "It really does reset what you feel like you're capable of."
Six weeks after the clinic, Debelov says several lessons he learned there have stayed with him and changed his approach to stressful situations. When he finds himself getting agitated now, he uses his breath-holding techniques to slow his heart rate and allow himself to make calm, unhurried decisions. A wearable device called Spire helps him detect changes in his breathing patterns.
In moments of uncertainty, he also remembers his experience as a "hostage" in the van, where everyone had a different opinion about what was going to happen to them. It's a reminder that stress is often less about the realities of a situation than about the interpretations we impose on those realities. "It's the same way that if you present to an investor and you don't hear back for two days, you make up all these different stories in your head," he says. "I can't overemphasize how important that was."
Photo credit: Cassy Athena/Red Bull Media House