I was driving back from a race with a couple of friends recently and the conversation turned to what the difference was between success in an event and disappointment. In the context of this conversation we acknowledged that success can take on many forms. For some success is as black or white as a win, for others it’s improving upon a personal best, beating an age group rival or simply making it to the finish line. And while many conversations I have about success in endurance sports has to do with fundamental training and physiological principles, this chat quickly graduated to the intangibles. How some athletes seem to embrace the heat of battle, can suffer innumerable small defeats in a race while continuing to subject themselves to pain comparable to a non-anesthetized root canal, and, even more these are the athletes that find themselves successful more often than not. What’s going on in the head of these athletes that drives them to suffer an extra 4 seconds to bridge that gap or hold that wheel, stave off a charging sprint or fight tooth and nail for every last second over the last few kilometers of a run? What is it they are channeling and what can we all learn from them?

Let’s back up a moment and start with the title of this post. Demonstration of competence, risk taking and the willingness to suffer. What does that all mean, and couldn’t I have simply titled this sports psychology 101? Well yes, I could have, but between all of the graduate sports psychology, sports sociology and human behavior classes I’ve ever taken I believe that competition boils down to one thing. The Demonstration of Competence. And there can be no demonstration of competence if one is not willing to suffer and take a risk.

You see demonstration of competence is just as it sounds. We, the athlete, are demonstrating to ourselves, teammates, parents, coaches, sponsors, spectators, etc. that we can effectively achieve a level of success within our sport or more precisely an acceptable level of mastery of our skill. Like many things this level of mastery is dynamic and can be influenced by any number of internal and external variables or motivations. But just because we accomplish perceived mastery in an activity, it does not necessarily mean that we have fully demonstrated competence. And this is where the aforementioned athlete comes into the picture, the athlete that is willing to take risks, suffer endlessly and battle their way to success. For without the struggle there can be no victory, and unless you put yourself in an environment whereby the potential for failure is at least 50/50 then have you really accomplished success or were the odds stacked in your favor all along? Sure, we’ll try to improve those odds with training, equipment, nutrition and the such but if it’s so probable that you’ll succeed then should you maybe readjust your expectations and goals?

Many that I’ve coached have heard me compare this to Michael Jordan playing one on one with a middle school basketball player. MJ wins, but did he demonstrate competence? No, because the odds were always in his favor. Now if we get MJ and Magic Johnson playing one on one in their prime, then the winner can certainly feel as if they’ve shown mastery in the skill.

Or an example that’s a little closer to home. I go to a local 5k running race and win by 45 sec but still run 60 sec slower than my own PR. Can I truly walk away from that with the bravado of having demonstrated competence as a middle distance runner? Absolutely not; I can feel good about a win, but that effort does not show mastery as it was obvious the odds were stacked in my favor…now had I PR’d then it would be a  different story. The circumstances shift just enough in which I would have been forced to take a risk to hit that PR and undoubtedly suffer to get there.

And this brings us right back to the athlete we spoke of in the introduction. Why and how, we ask,  can these athletes push that much harder, suffer that much more and be willing to put their ego on the line week after week even though they know they will not be successful 100% of the time? Because they understand nothing else and see it no other way; success for them lies deeper than a simple finish line. Over the years I’ve observed that these athletes tend to have a handful of similar qualities, not the hackneyed qualities folks like to regurgitate like he’s a “genetic freak”, or “wow, she’s such a hard worker” but the intangibles we alluded to earlier. By no means is this list comprehensive, but hopefully you’ll read through and it will shift your thought processes both in preparation and within the heat of competition to define for yourself what success is and to make sure you are taking every step to achieve it.

  1. Refusal to feel sorry for themselves for the situation they are in.  These are the athletes that can fight tooth and nail for every inch and never ever allow themselves to feel bad about the situation they are in. They see it for what it’s worth, analyze Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and then capitalize as they see fit. Champions have the ability to focus without hesitation on controllable variables and capitalize on those. As soon as an athlete feels sorry for themself they are subconsciously acknowledging that the situation is out of their immediate control, and you’ll never succeed in anything that you have no control over.
  2. A guarded respect for their competitors. This means neither arrogant nor submissive, cocky nor defeatist; it simply means there are others out there sizing you up just the way you are sizing them up. Channel this knowledge and identify who those competitors are so that you can begin to understand how you’ll use your fitness and your strengths to out maneuver them. Additionally realize that good competition is what makes something a worthwhile goal. Too many athletes get into a race and believe it should feel “easy” or that they are “having to work harder” than they think they should to maintain position, as soon as you do that it’s over. Instead think about merely the next swim stroke, pedal stroke or step. Think about how you can perform just that next movement and then do it over and over, you might be surprised at how quickly this gets you past your competitors.
  3. Performance optimism.  This ties into point 1. Those that demonstrate competence and are ultimately successful maintain performance optimism. Many athletes start an event believing that whatever their goal is for a given day is reasonably achievable through a bit of hard work and determination. But, it’s the athlete that still believes it’s achievable even after the worst case scenario seems to have played out that will salvage the most successes: e.g. Pro female Chrissie Wellington at Ironman Hawaii several years ago flatted and lost 10 min to 2nd place! After finally getting it changed she still believed she was in the race and charged on the bike to win by more than 15 min. At no point did she feel sorry for herself and at no point did she loose optimism that her performance would suffer. She accepted the situation and adjusted effectively.
  4. An unwillingness to self handicap.  We’ve all been around the athlete that has an excuse for everything. Before the gun even goes off they’re talking about how they probably won’t do all that well because they haven’t been training much, or they are just training through the event. Self handicapping draws attention to specific obstacles that may or may not exist but that permit the athlete to justify a less than optimal performance or effort. Athletes do this to protect the ego and build a false sense of control, but as soon as you let it happen once, it will happen again and again and again. This represents at its core an aversion to risk and the opportunity to remove oneself from even the remote idea of suffering. Avoid the tendency to self handicap by focusing on process goals vs. outcome goals, by setting small objectives within competition to reach a greater goal. You are more likely to see those small goals as achievable and less likely to talk yourself out of what at the time may seem truly intimidating.
  5. A conscious understanding of Risk, Reward and Consequence.  A successful athlete understands that rewards are paid out to those that are willing to take the risk, and no one ever reached the top of their game without making a few mistakes. Wayne Gretzky said “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Until you’re ready to take a risk and try to get up to a break, back onto the peloton, chase down the age group runner in front of you, push the pace on an Ironman or instigate an attack you’ll indeed never bear the consequence, but you’ll never make the shot. Accept that with risk comes reward, focus on that and use any consequences along the way as a learning opportunity, not discouragement.
  6. Resiliency and adaptability. The final observation I’ve made is that successful athletes show an unwavering resiliency and flexibility when in an event. They understand that a race plan is just that and when the plan doesn’t pan out they respond to the present situation, quickly analyze what it is they have control over and adapt without missing a beat or questioning their decision. They’ve learned to trust their instinct, cope with their environment and respond over and over again to the little defeats that we will all suffer but that can ultimately serve to build the strongest foundation for success.