What does it take to get to the next level?
I have always loved the word enthusiasm, ever since I ran the London marathon in 1996. On the back of my medal was Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” And I could not agree more.
In the past few years I've watched some very ordinary* young triathletes become very accomplished juniors; and a 29 year old city Lawyer take 19th in the London Olympic triathlon after only 18 months as a full-time athlete. Then there's the 40+ age grouper who sits on the turbo for up to five hours and then achieves a sub 9 hour ironman, a feat he never thought possible four years earlier.
There are many more stories like these, but is it enthusiasm alone that allows them to achieve so much?
Lately, surrounded by these very high achievers, I have pondered what takes them beyond what would seem possible, what gets them to the next level.
Enthusiasm is normally enough to get an athlete out of bed when it is raining and to tick off the training sessions set by the coach. It can get you round your first marathon or 10th ironman. I see enthusiastic athletes every day accomplishing great feats that the man in the street only dreams of. The weekend warrior, fuelled by enthusiasm, is a breed apart and one that I would happily have in the trenches with me.
I see enthusiasm flowing through triathletes all the time, elite and age group. The sport becomes their lifestyle. Many spend a small fortune on the next gadget or piece of kit; put a little more into their training than their families would like and even take time out of work to “see what they can do” in their quest for personal greatness. It keeps them fit, young, competitive and loaded with stories for dinner parties and they (we) love it!
(*No youth athlete has come into my team with national standard times in running or swimming).
Enthusiasm may not be enough:
With enthusiasm alone however they may not dig deeper on those gut busting middle reps (no mans land) or they may allow the voice in their heads to slow them down… just a little, until the pain subsides… Yet we know they had a little more to give, because their final rep is just a little faster than the middle ones.
The flipside is that they probably do the easy training a little too hard, as this feels like “training”.
Enthusiasm will not always see off the voices of doubt: “you're too old” or “you're not national standard” or “you're a bit skint, its time to go back to work.” All of the conversations that stop you going that extra mile, rep or lap and stop you becoming better than you ever thought possible.
Don't get me wrong - climbing your personal Everest is not for everyone and as I've already said, every one of the athletes I have encountered has achieved more with enthusiasm than the vast majority of the population ever dreams of. But if you do seek to take that step up to the next level it will require a dedication that can and will feel very lonely at times.
If you have the desire to achieve the very best of yourself, everything else must come second. You have to be selfish, and for what? Normally for little or no money or prestige.
The Dark Side
But enthusiasm also has a dark secret; it may be responsible for the journeyman boxer who loves his craft, consistently turning up at the gym for sessions. He likes putting his body on the line, to see if the next up-and-coming young punk can get past him and onto greater things… The ring and all that goes with it is his identity.
We also see a type of journeyman in elite triathlon, where the sport becomes a lifestyle: they have gone off the boil, training day in day out… but the fire seems dimmed and when they race, they do ok, but not close to their potential.
Summiting your Everest
So what is it that marks out those people we truly admire in sport, those who go on to (relative) legendary status?
Often, during their sporting careers we only really see the winning, picking up the gold's, having a bad day and coming back stronger and winning again. Until retirement that is, when we flick through their autobiographies and learn of the heartache and pain they endured to achieve success. We didn't know about the darker-than-dark periods of injury that would see the “merely” enthusiastic athlete listening to the “voices of reason” and looking for the door.
This is a different animal to the one who is purely enthusiastic. If you're lucky you see them at training every day, you can see it in their eyes, you can see them deliberately practicing their trade day in day out. It's not necessarily effortless and these animals may need to spend a little bit more time mastering something. But you wont see them quit, you may see frustration and low periods… but to these “every day warriors” the drives are deeper.
They must also love it, love the environment, the training, racing, battling to give the best of themselves daily.
A true legend does not just win a fight or a race. A legend is a person who through all manner of adversity, through the deepest darkest times of their lives, opens that door and brings to the table… DESIRE. A deep burning DESIRE to succeed whatever it takes.
Is DESIRE trainable?
I have had the pleasure of coaching people since the early 90's ranging from the military to “ladies-that-lunch”, children and age groupers through to elite Olympic athletes. After all these years I still ponder is “DESIRE” coachable or trainable or is it something we are born with?
It is not like learning a skill or just setting a goal, but it is the difference between a good solid performance that one can be proud of and an outstanding achievement.
Don't believe the hype:
We have heard and read about it… the reason the Kenyans / Ethiopians are such great runners is their drive to escape from poverty. Or the reason boxers are so ruthless / driven is their drive to drag themselves from rags to riches.
And this line of thought seemingly finds confirmation when we look at the repeated failures of the English football team on the world stage. Do you see desire in these highly paid and pampered players or rather do you see fear when they come anywhere near the quarter or semi-final?
A deep burning desire to succeed will transcend fear (something we've witnessed this week as Andy Murray dug himself out from two sets down in his quarter final against an opponent playing out of his skin).
And what about rowing, a very middle class sport, or even triathlon? Are we saying Redgrave et al or the brothers grim* don't have desire in bundles? Did breaking the four minute mile not require some of the deepest desire ever seen in sport… from an amateur (unpaid), Oxford student?
*(Brownlee's) I say this with the greatest respect as they make life very grim for other male triathletes!!!
This type of “fixed” thinking has stumped our middle and long-distance running for 20 years, until Radcliffe & Farah… so we should now see any runner worth their salt developing a growth mindset, not hampered a second longer thinking the Africans are better for any reason other than… they work harder.
This fixed mindset also stumps many junior athletes who have seen success early in sport. Enthusiastically getting out of bed at 5am for swimming six days a week since they were 10 years old. Now, when their competitors start doing the sort of volume they have done for years… for them to then work harder still, suffer more… requires something different, something bigger than enthusiasm.
But is it trainable? For sure you don't need to have that fire burning 365 days a year to dig deep. As triathletes you know the body needs to go through different phases of a year and you know when its time to “switch it on” and hit the hard sessions. Desire will really help you through them. You will also notice that if you have something on the horizon that you really want to achieve (a scary but realistic goal!), you will dig deeper. As you dig deeper in sessions, you will toughen up and actually look forward to working really hard and testing yourself.
Winter & injuries
Desire will also help deep in the dark winter months when you are focused on changing something or working on something… instead of enthusiastically practicing, you will deliberately practice. And we know “deliberate practice” the difference between going through the motions and mastering a task is the only way we can make long term changes.
Desire, believe it or not will be the key ingredient lurking, when you get that twinge / tightness and know you should be icing it, or get that massage, see a physio. The enthusiastic athlete will just eat dinner and put off the little things like icing, until tomorrow… alas, as Apollo Creed told Rocky… “there is no tomorrow”.
Key ingredients to tapping into DESIRE:
- Patience: knowing there are no quick fixes
- A willingness to suffer
- A scary but realistic goal / target
- A willingness to suffer more than others
- Deliberate practice
- A feeling of moving forward / progressing
- Seek out the best advice
- A refusal to listen to the excuses
- Belief in yourself & your system
- A love of what you are doing