This past weekend, I headed 315 miles west to Ankeny, Iowa. Not exactly a winter-vacation hot spot, it was covered in high drifts of snow with a temperature around 23 degrees. Yet like every other time I have traveled to Iowa, whether in the green lushness of July or the barren cold of February, the landscape is inspiration. Driving along I-80, the rolling hills are covered in a perfect white layer of snow with the dark bales of rolled up hay scattered throughout the horizon. It is simplicity at its best. For me, Iowa feels like peace of mind.
I was in Iowa to work with a group of my athletes. This weekend, we will assess their swim form, go through a bike Computrainer class with strength work and analyze their run. What they would get out of the weekend is a better understanding of their personal weaknesses in each sport, how to address them and also how to implement their workouts. When one of them asked what I would get out of the weekend, I explained it was an understanding of their weaknesses but also how they approach workouts. You can learn a lot about an athlete by watching them workout – their dialogue, body language, physical response. Observation, as a coach, is one of the most powerful tools we have.
Waiting to meet with them on Saturday morning, I was sitting in Panera. It was filled with the usual early morning crowd - older couples, groups of women, laughing, chatting about the minutae of life. Small talk, the soundtrack of any coffee shop.
After awhile, a group of men sat down behind me and started talking. Immediately the conversation struck me because they were talking about sport. Their sport was college wrestling but they could have been talking about coaching athletes from any sport. They covered issues like motivation, attitude, nutrition, conditioning. The conversation was intriguing and relevant because this is my business – the business of bringing out the best in others and like they were saying – there are many factors that go into that.
They started talking about attitude. And one of them said something striking:
There is a firewall in the mind called confidence.
(now, I'm really listening)
He went on: This wall will not permit any other thoughts to pass other than the will to win.
He went on to explain how in the moment when the athlete is on the edge of greatness, there is no doubt, there is just a foundation of sacrifice behind them and that confidence. Athletes that have it – will win. Athletes that don’t have it, want to win but never get there. Athletes who don’t win, don’t have the will to win – they just have the desires to get the benefits of winning. However, the athlete who will win gets there because they want to test their limits, to see what they can do not what they can get.
I thought about this for a moment. Keep in mind that winning doesn’t have to be number one. Depending on your level, winning might be cracking 8:30 miles at a 10K. It might be crossing the finish line. It might be earning a national championship. It doesn’t matter what your goal is, you won’t get there without confidence.
The other part of confidence that they discussed was attitude. Attitude is the litmus test for a great athlete. There are two attitudes: an athlete is either selfless or selfish. The selfless athlete lets it go. They invest 100 percent in the program, trust it and give themselves up for greatness. They put past any hesitations or ego needs. They have a strong character that is not easily swayed by success or even defeat. The selfish athlete is always in conflict with themselves and the coach. They doubt the plan and so they never fully commit. This athlete also never reaches their full potential. They put up a road block to their own greatness.
Next they talked about athletes who break through versus athletes who break down. When you get frustrated, you have two choices – you can back down which causes you to stay at the level you are at. However, if you keep pressing on, you learn and develop. That paves the way for winning. That builds confidence. How many times have I seen an athlete give up because things aren’t going their way? One of the hardest parts of training is that it hurts, there are set backs. There are hard days and harder days. Training is not about setting personal bests, it’s about building a stronger body and mind so on race day you can set a new personal best. Day to day, training can be tedious and painful. Some days you feel like Phelps, other days you slog through the water with heaviness. But day to day does not matter. It is the athletes who focus on patterns over time, focus on big picture that reach their success. Getting frustrated by the day to day or obstacles holds you back.
Not only that but great athletes keep themselves in perspective. They accept that they have both strength and weaknesses. Like one of them said: winning athletes are focused on their strengths yet partner with their weaknesses. They realize that a weakness is an opportunity - to work harder, to learn more, to challenge yourself. Great athletes partner with their weakness because by addressing it, they get that extra edge. If an athlete always does what they are good at and what is comfortable, they never make themselves uncomforatble or frustrated enough to learn.
They also talked about sacrifice. How if you really want what you are chasing after you will go after it with tunnel vision. You will give up things that others are not willing to do. In the case of the college wrestler, they talked about how while other athletes are playing video games on a Friday night, the champion will be reviewing films with their coach on how to wrestle better. Part of sacrifice, they said, is also learning how to rest. Most athletes, in any sport, have no idea how much rest you truly need. We are great workers – and most burn out too quickly because of their obsessive drive to work themselves into the ground. The best athletes understand there is a balance between work and rest. They realize that what seems like enough rest is usually not enough. It takes a great deal of rest to reach your greatness.
I’ve spent the past few years working with many different types of athletes. Whether beginner or advanced, there are commonalties to greatness. Commonalities that transcend specific sport. These coaches were talking about wrestling but it was as relevant to me as multisport. Successful athletes possess key qualities. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this because the more I coach, the more I realize it is less about the details, the numbers and the physiology. You don’t need WKO+ to identify a great athlete. It is immeasurable – it is an athlete who trusts, who sacrifices and who believes – in themselves and the training plan. Whether they run a 6:00 mile or a 9:00 mile, the successful athlete is less about speed and more about confidence, grit and character. They care about what they do, they believe in who they are, they trust the plan. That is the athlete who will win and who will feel athletically fulfilled.
What is fulfillment? One of them explained how it is putting your talents to work with confidence. To succeed your talent doesn’t necessarily need to be speed or high V02 max. It might be perseverance, endurance, positive attitude, tenacity, resilience. Your ability to maximize this talent determines your success. How many athletes are longing for what they can’t do rather than just capitalizing on what they can do? I thought about this in regards to my own past performances; I never felt I was more physically equipped than anyone else. I just wanted it more, and was willing to do whatever it would take.
The men concluded shortly before 10 am. I was sad to see them go. Of all the nonsense chit chat and small talk you hear throughout the day, this small talk left an indelible impression o me. Because it confirms what I have sensed all along: that all athletes are willing to work. Work alone does not set us apart. It is the attitude and mindset that accompanies that work that will count more than power to weight ratio, mile splits, more than experience in sport. One of the men said it best: attitude is everything. If you’re going to work harder at something, work harder at improving your attitude and building that firewall called confidence. Only then will you see rewards.