Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Great Ones, Part 3: Focus and Drive

Many say they want to be the best, and claim they want it more than the competition, but very few actually do the work along the way. Similarly, many athletes can have the desire and the focus required to be a champion on race day, but not nearly as many have that same focus and drive day in and day out, when it's the middle of the offseason/they are tired/sore/busy/emotionally drained, or it is freezing cold and raining/snowing outside. At a certain level, the dedication required seems uncomfortably similar to a semi-weird, all-consuming obsession, like chess with the addition of physical abuse and exhaustion. Weird or not, it is this tenacity, this unrelenting force driving them, that causes the greatest athletes to prepare with such zeal and attention to detail.



Although the bread-and-butter of any athlete's work is goal-oriented training, managing the "small stuff" is what separates the great ones. As the legendary Bob Knight, who racked up the most wins of any basketball coach in NCAA Division I history, said, "The will to prepare is far more important than the will to win." Preparing means managing all the little things surrounding training. It means paying attention to your sleep, diet, stretching, core and other supplemental/ancillary training activities and exercises that enhance overall performance over time. These are the details that make the difference, and an awareness of these details is what separates Randy Moss and Kobe Bryant. Managing one of the details individually, in one workout, will make almost no difference in the grand scheme of things, but the cumulative effect of doing all of these things on a daily basis throughout the year and from year to year makes a tremendous difference. And it starts with that one workout. Just as one extra inch of run between strokes can add up to 220 inches by the finish line 2000m away, each one of these "small things" can earn you lengths when managed correctly.

It's not just about training hard when you feel like it, or when things are going well. It's about training well through the tough times. It is easy turn it on when it is race day at the adrenaline is flowing. The problem is, if you haven't brought the same attitude to your training, it doesn't matter how focused and motivated you find yourself on race day. A curious side-effect of this: athletes are often the most driven in the moments and days immediately following a heart-breaking loss. However, it is all too common for these athletes to let this motivation—the bitter memory of losing—subside with time, so that the great proclamations made immediately following a tough defeat, which seem so powerful and set-in-stone at the time, gradually fade with the ensuing weeks and months. The time when this motivation and desire is needed the most is the time when it is the hardest to summon. Far too often, the athlete that was so unequivocally driven in the wake of defeat is far less driven when he or she is a few months out from competition, in the middle of the heaviest training periods. All of a sudden that athlete, who seemed like she would never be stopped from achieving her goal, becomes derailed by small obstacles. The great ones seemingly have the ability to bottle up the motivation that comes as a result of disappointment, so that they have a continual supply of fuel and motivation for those days when quality training is required, but the light at the end of the tunnel remains distant.

This process requires sacrifice. No one—but no one—and that especially includes your girl or boyfriend, wife or husband, relatives, etc., unless they are similarly involved in sport, can understand that level of commitment. It is not a common component of the man, or woman, on the street. Their word for this kind of dedication is "crazy." It can be a challenge to manage personal relationships with those who do not understand the mindset required to achieve. The willingness to persevere and conquer this challenge, which can result in the destruction of relationships and the breakdown of personal lives, is yet another obstacle faced by the greatest at their discipline. Just as there is a chance that such fanatical dedication can result in difficulty, there is also the chance that, given the clarity and simplicity of goal-oriented training, the rest takes care of itself. Remember (and who doesn't?) that scene in Rocky IV, where he's running around splitting firewood in the forest? Ultimately, that's the idea.

On race day, the ability to dial it in, execute technically, and perform physically in the most efficient and effective way possible, is crucial. While managing nerves during competition itself is extremely important, all the things surrounding a major competition also demand attention and focus. This includes traveling and everything that goes along with it, from changing scenery, to changing time zones, to waking up early, having to stay in an unfamiliar place, unfamiliar foods, etc. Too many athletes train extremely hard leading up to a race, only to blow it in the last few days before the event. When, at last, you are sitting at the starting line as the flag goes up, you must be in a place where your mind is quiet and your body is simply ready to act. Focus during practice places you in a position of freedom when the moment arrives, because you know exactly how to execute. You can allow yourself to stop thinking, and start doing.

It's important to maintain personal balance during training and racing. You cannot become completely consumed or defined by the activity. If you become too caught up in your goals and your training training outside practice, you can become emotionally drained and/or mentally stressed, which can actually take away from your current performance and slow your progress toward the ultimate goal. One might classify this over-thinking/over-analysis as the point of diminishing returns.

Great preparation and keen focus lead to a singular vision, which is that of complete immersion in the moment. Often, athletes can't remember the specific details of great performances. This is because peak performance is a product of complete readiness—a point at which the mind and body are at peace in the knowledge that the work has already been done. The ability to be keenly focused and supremely driven results in true preparedness for the day, and allows the great ones to give their best performance when it matters most.

-The RR Editorial Staff

4 comments:

  1. Another great article Bryan - I would be really interested to see an article on overtraining to follow this - how, particularly during the toughest periods of training, does one judge when to stop? How tired is too tired, for example?

    I also say this from a selfish point of view halfway through the hardest "hard" week of training I have ever experienced and trying not to implode!

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  2. The Ed. Staff is hard at work on the next one -- thanks for your feedback!

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  3. Ya! thanks for all the great articles. This has quickly become one of my favorite pages to visit.

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  4. Thanks very much for the positive feedback! We'll keep typing!

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