Have you ever won a race and wondered why? How did you do that? How did you manage to pull of that win? Or visa-versa when you’ve lost? What made you lose? It gets even more confusing when you follow the same routine and the race plays out similarly in 2 races, yet in one you lose and the other you win. It can play on your mind all day!
A question I’ve always been fascinated with is this: what makes an athlete win, or lose? What makes Peter Sagan so good? What makes Bradley Wiggins so unstoppable in a TT? And what makes Jason Kenney literally unbeatable at the Olympics? On the other hand, why do some athletes never make it to the top? It’s been a question plaguing sport psychologists, sport scientists and coaches a like since the dawn of high performance.
Is it genetics, is it training programmes, is it nutrition and supplementation, is it resources, is it motivation, is it the mind; the list literally goes on and on, and I think we are still far away from ever definitely answering it. I think it’s better that way though, as that’s what makes sport great!
If you look at the tests in the lab, all world class elite athletes are very similar physically. They produce more or less the same wattage, have the same V02, have the same body fat percentage, etc. And here I’m talking about the handful of medal winners at world champs or Olympic Games, where the podium is split by fractions of seconds.
But there’s always the one who wins, the champion who has that little extra. With these athletes, all factors are covered and in place. For example, they all come from similar backgrounds, all follow similar diets, do the same type of training, use the best equipment, etc.
These athletes have reached the peak of what is physically possible in the current times. Never before have we seen human beings in the shape they are, and capable of doing what these athletes do. They are the cream of the crop of the genetic pool, and were for all intents and purpose made for this.
It’s like looking only at the top sprinters from Jamaica; nowhere else in the world will you find better genes for sprinting. Of these top sprinters, they all follow the same training regimes (albeit individualized in the detail), diets, and receive the same support. Yet there are some of them who break world records, and other who can only make it into the team.
The only real differentiating factor, and based on the evidence that most top athletes are the same physically, is we are left with the mind, and the role an athletes psychological space and mental training plays in winning. But here’s a conundrum: what if the winners are all the same concerning that too? What if they receive the same mental skills training, see a psychologist from a young age to sort out personal issues, and have the same mental tool box available. They all have the “champions mind” in a sense.
Who will win then???
Well let me tell you something about the body first: the body is not made to do what these athletes do, it’s made to hunt for sufficient food, and protect themselves and their families, and that’s all. It was never made to see who could run the fastest, jump the highest, lift the most, or ride their bikes the fastest or longest! So when these athletes push themselves past that point, the body uses any way possible to tell them to stop and rest. Through excruciating pain, dripping sweat, loss of breath, thirst, and even blood – it’s literally begging them to stop!
If we look at it from that point of view, I would think the winner is the one who can ignore these natural survival instincts that tell them to stop, or not to dig deeper. Some can naturally ignore those signs from the body for longer than others. They can push past that. Others simply cannot, when the body says they’ve had enough and should stop, they give in, and go home; even though they’ve still got something left to give. Of course this is a combination of each athlete’s genetic disposal and unique life path of environmental influencers.
Can it be trained? To an extent, yes, through putting yourself in that position and trying to go further (in a way like building the characteristics of mental toughness), but I think mostly it can’t. It’s in bred into our genetics, and possibly what separates the 3 athletes on the podium. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not in you, you might have more of it than you think, you must just convince yourself to actually go deep within yourself and get it! That’s where the mind comes in, only you can convince yourself to go harder and dig deeper, to push your limits and become a champion.
There’s a well-known quote that goes something like this: when you’re at your max, you can’t go anymore and you literally want to die. Then my friend, you’re at 80% (unknown author)
I think this sums up what I’m trying to say, there are limits, but the best will undoubtedly ignore these, and go farther than ever before! I’ll let you make up your own mind on what factor is most important your own success, and what big of a factor you let genes vs environment play in your performance.
Think of that next time you’re in a really tough space, we all have more in us, you’re never really at 100%, you just need to convince yourself to dig deep and access it. Go harder!
Matthew de Freitas