The perception and reality of success in sports has been one of my favorite topics. The stoic faces of cyclists and runners in pain has always intrigued me. As a swimmer, some of the best athletes look like they are working less than the others. From the outside looking in, some could be convinced that athletes really are effortless at the top of their game but I assure you that this is not entirely true. I'll attempt in this post (divided into 2 parts after I realized how long it was getting) to delve into the crazy mind of an endurance athlete and peel back the fragile mask of control.
Greg Lemond summed it up eloquently when he said "cycling never gets any easier, you just go faster". I would even take this statement one step further and say that every increase in speed is exponentially harder than the one before. I'm not talking wind resistance or the limits of the human body. I'm referring to lunacy of the focus, work, and pain that go into that absurd .05% increase that we athletes are constantly chasing. The mental grit and toughness that it takes to push through a race is developed from countless small decisions over the course of years or even decades in training. All of the improvement is driven by the simple fact that we do not feel we are good enough, strong enough, fast enough, etc. We set goals that mark our achievement and when we reach them we set new ones. We put aside other facets of life in order to excel in endeavors that are small in the grand scheme of things. It is a slightly insane drive and fixation that has defined my life along with countless other athletes.
One of the hardest questions to ask is: "What if I really am not good enough? What if I don't accomplish my goals? Athletes tend to wrap up their self-worth in their performances. I know I do despite fighting the urge. We hate losing because it is visceral proof that we were not good enough to win. Even after winning, the glow wears off and we look toward the next competition where our weakness may again be on display for all to see. The higher the level of performance the more that has been invested in the outcome. When money enters into the picture, the results become even more defining to our self-worth (quite literally).
I do not hope that my goals are accomplished easily. That is a sure recipe for a hollow, nagging feeling that all of my work was not worth the reward. I hope that my goals are reached only by the slimmest of margins and against tough odds. Only then am I proud of what I am able to accomplish. If I am able to succeed, I know that I was truly good enough to accomplish something great. That is the gamble you take as you reach for that next .05% of athletic performance. The odds are increasingly against your success as the goals get bigger and bigger. Only one person wins Kona every year or holds a world record. At some point the odds are seemingly insurmountable, and that tipping point is what we athletes are always chasing. That is the battle that you don't see in the effortless swimmer or the stoic cyclist.
In part 2, I'll give a few specific examples of the mental wars we fight as athletes and ways to find a bit of balance and perspective.