Mental Fitness

There are dozens of different versions of the two-friends-chased-by-a-bear joke. Here’s the version told by Matt Blumberg in the October 11, 2011 edition of Business Insider:

Two friends are in the woods, having a picnic. They spot a bear running at them. One friend gets up and starts running away from the bear. The other friend opens his backpack, takes out his running shoes, changes out of his hiking boots, and starts stretching.

“Are you crazy?” the first friend shouts, looking over his shoulder as the bear closes in on his friend. “You can’t outrun a bear!”

“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” said the second friend. “I only have to outrun you.”

I thought of this joke recently while conducting research for my forthcoming book Screw Loose/Shit Together: A Theory of Athletic Greatness. It came to mind as I revisited a critical moment in the career of Australian triathlete Chris McCormack, who was left off the 2000 Australian Olympic Team despite being ranked third in the world at the time and first among Aussies. His reaction to the snub was revealing:

“That put a giant chip on my shoulder,” he recalls in his autobiography, I’m Here to Win. “I started to believe in myself again as an athlete. . . It was the beginning of my mental game. I was beginning to understand how identifying and highlighting the fears and insecurities in other athletes could give me an advantage in the later stages of a race, when mental toughness was everything.”

Another athlete memoir I read (or more accurately, reread) recently as part of my research project was Andre Agassi’s award-winning Open, which was published in 2009, three years after his retirement. In it, I found a passage that resonates with the section of Chris McCormack’s book referenced above. Agassi is eating dinner with Brad Gilbert, a fellow professional tennis player whom he’s trying to persuade to become his coach. Agassi has asked Gilbert to give him a brutally honest assessment of his game, and Gilbert responds with a 15-minute tirade, during which he raves, “Stop thinking about yourself and your own game, and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses. You don’t have to be the best in the world every time you go out there. You just have to be better than one guy.”

Do you see what I’m getting at here? For both of these great athletes, the turning point for their mental game began with the same insight: that other athletes have the same fears, insecurities, and weaknesses they do. From this insight it’s only one small step to the realization that, to gain a competitive advantage, they didn’t need to wipe out their own fears, insecurities, and weaknesses; they just needed to exploit those of their opponents.

To spell it out for you, eliminating one’s own fears, insecurities, and weaknesses is like outrunning a bear—not very likely, but also unnecessary if you can just make your fears, insecurities, and weaknesses a wee bit small than those of the athletes around you—the equivalent of outrunning your friend and letting the bear devour him in your place.

I use the two-friends-chased-by-a-bear joke often in my coaching. Athletes struggling with fears, insecurities, and weaknesses are daunted by the assumption that they must completely overcome these things to get where they need to be mentally. The bear analogy assures them that, in reality, it’s much easier than that. All it requires is that you gain a pinch of strength from the realization that every athlete has fears, insecurities, and weaknesses, not just oneself.

If you are held back as an athlete by anxiety or self-doubt, try the following experiment: The next time you show up at a race, turn your attention outward. Instead of wallowing in your own emotions, read the emotions of those around you. Notice the subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs of dread and discomfort in their behavior. Tell yourself, “These people are scared.” See if this mental exercise doesn’t take the edge off your own fear.

If it does, try practicing a remote version of the same exercise at other times. For example, if you find yourself fretting about your next race a week or two before it happens, think about the other athletes preparing for the same event. Where are they right now? What are they doing? How are they feeling? Are they fretting too? Very likely. Can you draw a bit of comfort from this knowledge, just enough see your slightly lower level of fretting as an advantage? I think you can. And if you can’t, try this one final exercise: Picture your competitors being literally chased down and eaten by a giant grizzly!

Callum Hawkins came into the 2018 Commonwealth Games Marathon in Australia with high expectations. Having set a national record of 1:00:00 for the half marathon and finished fourth in the World Championship Marathon the prior year, the 25-year-old Scotsman was supremely confident in his ability to claim a gold medal for his small, proud country. His strategy–despite expected temperatures in the mid-80s–was to run hard from the start and demoralize the other contenders. This bold but risky plan played out exactly as Callum imagined it, and with just 2 miles left in the race he held a commanding 2-minute advantage over defending champion Michael Shelley of the host nation.

And that’s when the wheels came off. Trapped inside his body by the ambient heat of the day, the metabolic heat generated by Callum’s hardworking muscles, having accumulated steadily throughout the marathon, crossed a dangerous threshold as he approached the 40 km mark. He began to weave back and forth across the road like a blindfolded drunk in a hurricane. It was only a matter of time before he went down, but he managed to stay upright far longer than an actual blindfolded drunk in a hurricane would have done before pitching over onto a grassy verge on the side of the road. Spectators watched with a lack of visible alarm that I can’t imagine myself showing in their place as Callum tried repeatedly to hoist himself upright, now looking like a boxer trying to beat a 10-count, succeeding on his third try.

Still leading, he lurched along in a grotesque approximation of human bipedal locomotion for another couple of hundred meters before collapsing again, this time smacking his head against a metal railing and staying down. After an unforgivably long delay, medics came to Callum’s aid, ending his race officially. When he came to later in the back of an ambulance, the young runner croaked out words expressing his only concern: “Did I win?”

In a recent podcast interview, I was asked whether I thought mental fitness was something people were born with (or not) or something that could be developed over time. I was thinking of Callum Hawkins when I answered that I’d be lying if I said that mental fitness was not partly innate. Exertional heat illness had reduced Callum to a beast of basic instincts in the crisis phase of his 2018 Commonwealth Games Marathon performance. He most certainly was not making considered tactical decisions when he kept running well beyond the point where most runners would have quit, or when he got up and kept running after his first fall, or when he refused medical assistance initially after his second fall. Heck, he doesn’t even remember doing these things! He just did them.

Even more revealing is that moment in the back of the ambulance. Not yet out of danger and barely coherent enough for speech, he asked not “What’s wrong with me?” or “Am I going to be okay?” but “Did I win?” There’s something almost Shakespearean about the scene I picture when I read accounts of this moment. Rarely do so few words say so much about a person. Thank goodness people like Callum Hawkins exist.

As for the rest of us, we just need to accept that Callum and athletes like him have something we lack and can never acquire. But that’s okay. The answer to the nature/nurture question is seldom either/or, and mental fitness is clearly something that any athlete can cultivate over time, even if the very highest level of mental fitness is attainable only by those who are born with this potential. In this respect, mental fitness is very much like physical fitness.

We all know that only a tiny percentage of the human population possesses the genetic potential to reach the elite level of endurance sports performance. But this knowledge does not make the rest of us throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point?” That’s because even the least talented among us has the capacity to increase our endurance fitness markedly through training, and there is tremendous satisfaction to be had in earning such improvement.

It’s the same with mental fitness. I myself was born with a very low level of mental fitness, as evidenced by the various stunts I pulled to escape the pain cave as a high school runner—faking an injury in the middle of a 2-mile track race, hiding in the woods, and missing the start of another 2-mile track race, etc. But years of consciously working to raise my mental game transformed me into a completely different athlete, one who is utterly fearless on the racecourse. I can’t see myself ever waking up in an ambulance and asking “Did I win?”, but I’m okay with that, just as I’m okay with not being able to attain a VO2max of 80 ml/kg/min.

No matter what your starting point is with mental fitness, accept it and focus on getting better.

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