This article is about endurance sports, I promise. It’s just going to take a minute to get there.
Are you familiar with Calvinist doctrine? At its heart is the concept of predestination. Calvinists believe that, at the beginning of time, God selected a limited number of souls to grant salvation and there’s nothing any individual person can do during their mortal life to alter their eternal fate. Either you were chosen or you were not chosen, and that’s all there is to it.
Now, you might think that a person who subscribed to this doctrine would see no point in trying to live a righteous, sin-free life. In fact, though, the opposite was true. For, although no amount of righteous, sin-free living can change God’s mind about you, the surest indicator that you are not among the chosen is sinful living. Thus, if you want to go to heaven, you need to live a righteous, sin-free life and hope for the best.
I myself don’t believe in this sort of predestination, but I have observed something not altogether unlike it in my time on earth. Raised without formal religion, I became a regular churchgoer as an adult after marrying a Baptist. In the beginning, the whole experience was so novel to me that all I could do was absorb impressions without drawing any conclusions. But as time went by, I began to notice a striking pattern, which was that while my wife, Nataki, was changing for the better (i.e., maturing) under the influence of preaching and praying and scriptural reading, few of our fellow congregants seemed to be doing the same. For whatever reason, the Christian message just wasn’t taking for them the way it was for her.
Nataki had a volcanic temper when we met. There came a point, however, where she consciously recognized the conflict between this element of her disposition and the teachings of Jesus, vowed to work on it, worked on it, and made astonishing progress in reining in her temper. This transformation made her something of a unicorn in the context of the church we attended, where we were surrounded by people who were exposed to the same teachings but were not noticeably changed by them (something our pastor commented on explicitly from the pulpit on more than one occasion). I don’t think this phenomenon had anything to do with church per se. Rather, it had to do with human psychology. The specific context merely revealed a general truth, which is that not all humans possess the psychological wherewithal to purposefully change ingrained habits of mind. In Calvinistic terms, not everyone is graced with the capacity to transform on a deep level.
Indeed, I’ve noticed something similar in endurance sports, where many athletes are stuck in habits of mind that hold them back in one way or another. They deal poorly with psychological challenges such as starting out or starting over, failure, performance pressure, suffering, uncertainty, and injuries and other setbacks. In each specific instance of unskillful coping, the root of the problem is either bad judgment or poor emotional self-control. I know I’m sounding rather critical here, but all I’m really saying is something everyone agrees on: endurance sports are challenging. We wouldn’t describe endurance sports as challenging if most athletes were up to the challenge most of the time.
As a coach, I put a heavy emphasis on mental fitness, and I think I’m pretty good at teaching it. Nevertheless, I often feel the way the pastor of my wife’s and my old church seemed to feel. It’s not that athletes don’t understand what I tell them about mental fitness; they clearly do. Nor is it that they don’t accept what I tell them; they do that too—for the most part, anyway (after some initial resistance on certain points). Rather, it’s the final hurdle they trip over: changing in accordance with the truths they’ve understood and accepted. You can lead a horse to water, as they say, but you can’t make it drink, and you can show an athlete how to make good decisions and manage their emotions better, but you can’t make them actually do these things. Mental fitness is just one particular application of general psychology, after all. Most people who have anger issues at age twenty-five still have anger issues at age fifty-five, even if they are aware they have anger issues and want to gain more control over their temper. Similarly, most athletes whose confidence level is currently far too dependent on how well their last workout went are likely to have the same hang-up ten years from now even if they know they’re holding themselves back needlessly.
Most isn’t all, however. Some athletes do have the potential to make a lot of progress in the areas of decision making and emotional self-control, and you never know who does until it happens. It behooves you, therefore, to assume you are a “chosen one” who has the potential to attain the highest level of mental fitness, much as it behooves the Calvinist to behave as if they have been preselected for salvation. Transforming your mind is hard, and the only way you’ll be able to pull it off is to assume you are capable of doing it and commit to the process as if success is assured. And in a sense it is. For, whereas salvation is binary—either you’re saved or you’re not—mental fitness has many degrees. Becoming a true master of the mental game may or may not be within your power, but improving your mental game to some extent is guaranteed if you do the work.