Friday, October 10, 2008

Altered States

Coaching endurance athletes is a never-ending education. The past nine months has been the most profound in terms of what I've learned regarding athletic performance, specifically in terms of how race day results can be above or below expectation simply as a result of the mental outlook of the athlete...and how as a coach I can help encourage the correct mental approach to help bring out the best performances on race day.

Before the reader is filled with fear that I'll be overly 'touchy-feel-ly', let me elaborate. The beginning of my nine month crash course began as I've detailed ad-nauseum, with a crash...with my being bashed up by a hit and run driver. So much of my training and racing over the last few seasons has become rather 'paint by numbers' and simply going through the motions. Sure, I was in great shape for me, but the real enthusiasm for competition, for getting up well before the crack of dawn to shit in the woods in the rain had gone. More importantly, the races had become barometers, tests if you will as to how I was doing...whether I was 'succeeding'... The interesting idea to note was that I realized that not only had racing taken upon a 'work-like' status, but that riding the bike had, too. As cliche' as it may sound, you don't know what you've got until it's gone. As I sat in the basement with one arm in a sling, I longed to ride outdoors once again. I found the joy I'd lost.

What I hadn't realized until some time later was that I was being primed for a lesson of such profound importance that it would reshape my understanding of human performance forever.
It wasn't until I was 'given' a few more clues that it really began to 'sink in' though. At this time, a gifted athlete with whom I'd worked for several years was going through a rough patch, in which we were faced with a fitness plateau and actually seemed to be taking a step backward in terms of race performance. After our athlete/coach relationship was terminated, I realized that I'd missed the signs of an overemphasis on the results instead of the joy we'd felt daily in our 'process'. The thrill of toeing the line, 'throwing down' and seeing how many top pros we could beat had been replaced with pressure that could only lead to fear, which always leads to disappointment. The workouts and the races had become the measuring stick instead of the pleasure they had been for so long. I realize now that you will never beat the opponent who has exactly the same genetic gifts as you, but is thoroughly enjoying what they're doing every day, whether the session goes well or not, whether they 'PR' a race or whether they improve a few places over last year. So, the question still remained, how to avoid this condition in which an athlete is trying to compete with their old self that was clearly enjoying the racing and hence, flourishing when they've now put so much pressure on themselves.

Fast forward to Lake Placid. A number of athletes were emailing back and forth via a yahoo group and were listing key words or phrases to express their hopes for the day. When I forwarded a few to one athlete, to the list of words like 'cool, overcast, calm, dry, perfect' this athlete added his own wishes for the day..."rain, misery, a Sunday in Hell...and simply, 'Game on'". When pressed for his reasons for such counter intuitive wishes he explained how despite being exhausted at times and even dreading certain training sessions that the 'journey' had been so much fun that the race was almost anticlimactic...only in 'the black hole' of misery and pain could he push himself enough to enjoy the experience. He got his wish and he exceeded our greatest expectations...and despite the misery, he smiled for the entire race.

This got me thinking more about athletes that perform below and more importantly, above expectation. Clearly, the ones who welcome the black hole, the opportunity to really feel something, who look to the pain as a peek into the abyss, a sense of really being alive, to face the possibility to fail, are ones that perform best...they are the ones that win. As I type this, I am thinking back to a story about Michael Jordan from his NC days. As an 18 year old freshman in college, with the national championship in the balance and only time for one last shot, his coach and his team passed him the ball...with all the weight of a nation looking down on him, he made the game winning shot. But as he later said, "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." The rest in history as they say.

I have tried to take these lessons in mind more and more recently, emphasizing to athletes that the result really is meaningless...that the experience is what matters...period. Of course, as we work together, the velocity and therefore race times get faster, but the fun must always stay as it was in the beginning.

I was faced with an opportunity to 'put up or shut up' last Sunday while driving to the Pete Senia memorial race in 50F temperatures and pouring rain. I thought of 'a Sunday in Hell' and of my ever-smiling triathlete in Placid and decided that today would be an epic, miserable struggle and totally a blast! Well, it was and the result was good...though completely irrelevant.