Great athletes find a way. Even when they are not at their physical best, they manage to come up with a performance that changes the game. The language is full of clichés about this phenomenon: "when the going gets tough, the tough get going," and, "great players make great plays in big games," to name a couple. The funny thing about clichés is, they exist for a reason.
There are two aspects to performing at your best despite the odds: one is physical, and the other mental. Maybe this seems obvious, but the two must be in perfect harmony for the athlete to find the success that he or she seeks when it counts most. This harmony creates a balance, though the relationship is one that can fluctuate depending on the circumstances. First, let's talk about the physical aspect of performance.
The best athletes in the world are also the best at preparing for their athletic endeavors. The arc of their training sets them up perfectly for the most important day -- that of the championship race, or performance, or game. While this involves a great deal of hard work, the trickiest part of the job is managing the natural impulse to over-train.
People who are very competitive athletically often struggle most with the day of competition itself, because their nature and work-ethic creates a constant feeling of unease in training. This is a fear that long-time UCLA basketball coach John Wooden addressed, saying, "Failure to prepare is preparing to fail." The trouble is, for the most motivated, driven people, over-preparation can leave you unable to perform, unable to find the bottom of the well, when it matters most. As a coach, it is vitally important for the success of your team that you have an over-arching goal -- a point of focus around which your season is built. In this way, you can structure your training plan in such a way that when you arrive at that goal, at that point of focus, your team will be at that moment of athletic peak. As an athlete, it's just as important that you do what your coach is asking you to do. When your coach gives you a specific split that he or she wants you to achieve on a 6x2k workout, the best possible outcome is that you achieve that split. It is not that you exceed that split, even if you are physically capable of doing so. Your coach is asking you to execute something specific so that you will be able to perform at your best when it comes time to test, and if you over-tax your physiology every time you do a training session, your body will not be ready on the day. If you are finding the bottom of the well every practice, you won't be able to dig any deeper when you need it. The best athletes know this, and make the best use of the training resources and advice available to them.
An easy example of this in rowing is Olaf Tufte. Whatever you want to say about the condition of the competition, Tufte has been the best prepared athlete in the Men's 1x on the day of the Olympic Final two times in a row. Not only does he know how to prepare his body in the best possible way, he also knows exactly how to drop the hammer when the time is right, which brings us to the next point -- force of will.
The flip side of the coin for a clutch performance is an indomitable will -- a mental edge that the best athletes possess and use to their advantage. This works in tandem with the physical component, and can even help the great athlete to put aside setbacks that others would find impossible to overcome. It's something that must be part nature, part nurture -- no one can teach you to have a killer instinct, and there is much truth to the idea that your true character is revealed in the midst of adversity. However, this also relates to confidence, which, as we have already discussed, is born of experience. The greatest athletes possess both these things -- a killer instinct coupled with the confidence that is a product of their competitive experience.
Basketball great Michael Jordan is a prime example, as, while battling the flu, he summoned the strength to bring his Chicago Bulls back from a 16-point deficit, eventually leading them on to a 90-87 victory over the Jazz during the 1997 NBA Finals. In rowing, we witnessed the same thing with Mahe Drysdale during the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, as well as during the Games themselves. Forced by the return of Rob Waddell to try to peak twice in the same season, Drysdale came up with enough early season speed to beat Waddell and represent NZ as the Men's 1x, and then began preparation for the racing in Beijing. Amazingly enough, he was still right on track -- having won the previous three World titles, he entered the Games as the favorite. Perhaps even more impressive than this, Drysdale, who was battling a stomach virus throughout the racing, still managed a bronze medal in what is one of the tightest fields in all of rowing.
Performance on the day is about physical preparation as well as about your mentality and approach to competition. The greatest athletes know how to get the most out of both when it counts. Intelligent physical preparation can help to build a mental edge, just as a mental edge can make up for a physical deficit in less-than-ideal circumstances. When all is said and done, this is why we watch sports, and why we play them -- whether we know it or not, we are all students of human nature, and we can't help but admire those whose natures compel them to achieve to the limits of their potential.