By Jay Root
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Seventeen days before his big race at the 2002 Olympics, U.S. sledder Jimmy Shea got word that his grandfather, a 1932 gold medal winner, had been killed by a drunk driver. Reeling and distraught, he turned to sports psychiatrist Michael Lardon for counsel. At Lardon’s suggestion, Shea taped a picture of Grandpa Jack into his helmet for the downhill race. Fifteen high-speed turns later, under driving snow, Shea won the gold with .05 of a second to spare, marking the memory of his grandfather by becoming the first third-generation winter Olympian the nation has ever had.

chargers-kicker-nate-kaedingFor Lardon, who has helped sports figures such as PGA champion Rich Beem and San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding reach for greatness, Shea’s win in Utah illustrates how even the most crippling distractions can be overcome – both in sports and in the game of life. Now Lardon, in a new book called Finding Your Zone, has boiled down the essential lessons and advice he dispenses to elite athletes. Those looking for some quick-fix, secret formula should stop reading now. As Lardon points out in the introduction, “The secret is there is no secret.”

“Allow yourself to dream, but realize there are no shortcuts,” he writes. “The Zone is not for sale for $19.99 or any price: It’s free …the Zone is within you.”

If it sounds like a Star Wars, new-age approach to peak athletic performance, the book’s spiritualistic undergirding is balanced with common-sense, practical steps to achieve it. Though some athletes have a physical edge over others, Lardon’s chief message is that anyone with the will and discipline can achieve greatness.

He helped his own brother, Brad Lardon – two-time Texas State Open Champion and 2007 Southern Texas PGA Player of the Year – achieve his dream of getting a fully exempt PGA Tour card.

Michael Lardon’s fascination with high-performance sports was nurtured by his own interest in table tennis. In 1976, at age 16, he was chosen by the United States Table Tennis Association as the country’s most outstanding junior. He won a gold medal in the 1980 U.S. Olympic Sports Festival.

A graduate of the University of Texas medical school, Lardon won the Judd Research Award at the University of California, San Diego for his work studying the brain waves of some of the world’s greatest athletes. The common link, he found, was their ability to perform at a “primitive, reflexive level while being fully engaged.”

Time slows down when you’re in the Zone, he observes, making a speeding fastball seem like it’s traveling in slow motion or allowing golfers like Tiger Woods to enter an almost trance-like state, ignoring distractions and fears to sink a high-pressure putt.

But everyone can’t be like Tiger, so how does the average Joe reach peak performance?

Lardon lays out 10 practical lessons for getting into the Zone, ranging from tips to good practicing habits to advice on letting go of negative thoughts and destructive behavior. Lesson No. 1 seems a bit odd – channeling the power of the subconscious mind – but Lardon points out that some of history’s greatest achievements were born as dreams.

Inspired by a college class given by Jonas Salk, who devised a cure for polio based in part on recurring dreams about it, Lardon advises his clients to keep a dream journal and even to consciously daydream as a way of visualizing success and peak performance. He dedicates another chapter to the power of concentration and the danger of “overthinking” athletic performance. For example, after observing that professional golfers often alter their preshot rituals during high-pressure moments – generally spending more prep time when the stakes were highest – Lardon used a stopwatch in 2004 to calculate how long Tiger Woods spent getting ready to hit the ball. “He always took the same amount of time with each shot, regardless of its importance,” Lardon writes.

He’s a psychiatrist, so people often come to Lardon when they’re in a slump, can’t seem to win or choke too much. Typically, he writes, it’s because they began to “care too much about the wrong things,” like critics in the media, fame or money. To recreate the magic, Lardon advises his clients to make an effort to remember what was most important when they had the most fun, and to be honest about what truly motivates them. “Falling into the Zone is not that different from falling in love,” Lardon writes. “They both come out of nowhere. They both can dissipate in a moment’s notice, and without passion they cease to survive.”