I don’t know much, but one thing I do know is that sport will find you out. When you line up against 7 other dudes all wanting to bust your ass. With a crowd of thousands. And perhaps a few million watching on TV, there is nowhere to hide. You cannot lie to yourself. Do so, and you’re toast. It’s happened to many. And will happen to many more.
It’s why it is is so important to be true to your own personality in competition. Many struggle mightily with this. Think you need to be ultra-aggressive? Then pace around like Maurice Greene. Or stare down the track intimidatingly like Linford Christie. That didn’t work? OK - try joking around like Bernard Williams. Or Jon Drummond. Or messing about, a la Usain Bolt.
Hmmm. That didn’t work either? Now what?
In his excellent book, ‘The Art Of Learning’, former child chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie, ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’), author Josh Waitzkin writes regularly about the struggles he had with certain coaches who didn’t share his general chess aesthetic. They didn’t allow him to express his own individuality at the chessboard; in essence handcuffing him to a style he was not comfortable with. Waitzkin was a creative, passionate, and attacking player, and just didn’t connect with the systematic strategy of a more conservative approach. Where once he had forged ahead - trusting in his instincts - and playing with a natural freedom - the new, more rigid style led him to question himself, and his game. Self-doubt had crept in. His game suffered. And, very interestingly, so did his passion for chess. In his words, “it no longer felt like an extension of my being”. It was not until he changed coaches, and re-connected to his old style of play, that his playing - and his love of the game - improved.
We see this all the time in the men’s sprints, especially. The bigger the meet - the more the pressure - the further some athletes stray from their natural selves. I saw it last weekend at the UK Olympic Trials, and I saw it again this morning, as I watched the 100m final of the Jamaican Olympic Trials, at which Yohan Blake absolutely roasted Usain Bolt.
Watch the introductions. Yohan reacts to the camera in his normal way. Asafa just doesn’t know what to do - as usual. And Usain? Hmmm....not really sure. He definitely doesn’t react in the usual ‘Usain-manner’. Clearly, he was feeling pressure - as he was in Deagu last year. Perhaps he felt he needed to ‘be serious’ - as this was definitely going to be a test (it was probably the most competitive National Olympic Trials of all-time; PBs going in: Bolt: 9.58, Powell 9.72, Carter 9.78, Blake 9.82, Frater 9.88, Clarke 9.99). In Deagu, he was his normal self, but it didn’t work for him. And he’s been inconsistent this year, so maybe he’s beginning to question himself. Questioning his natural personality. His approach. Self-doubt begets a lack of freedom, and you cannot run fast without freedom. Watch his run. Does it ever look ‘free’?
All conjecture, obviously. But the point still rings true:
“one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition...By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.”
- Josh Waitzkin