The two strongest individual predictors of health, wealth, happiness, and staying out of prison are intelligence and self-regulatory ability. This fact has caused some psychologists to ask whether self-regulatory ability isn’t just a manifestation of intelligence, but recent research has succeeded in demonstrating that the two phenomena are distinct. Whereas intelligence equates to what is often referred to by laypeople as book smarts, self-regulatory ability is more akin to street smarts, aka good old-fashioned horse sense.

In a paper published in the 2021 Annual Review of Psychology, researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Illinois described self-regulation as “a broad term that refers to the dynamic process of determining a desired end state (i.e., a goal) and then taking action to move toward it while monitoring progress along the way.” In other words, self-regulation refers to the ability to select, pursue, and achieve goals.

Psychologists who study self-regulation are greatly interested in sports because goals are so central to them and are more clear-cut in nature than they often are in everyday life. It is only a mild oversimplification to say that sports are tests of self-regulatory ability. The better an athlete is at self-regulation, the more that athlete improves, and only expert self-regulators reach the top of any sport.

In a 2021 paper titled “Achievement Goals and Self-Regulation in the Sport Context,” Nico Van Yperen of the University of Groningen identified ten principles of self-regulation for coaches to adhere to in working with athletes. A quick look at each of them will give you a good sense of what you need to do to enhance your capacity to self-regulate as an athlete.

Nico Van Yperen Credit: SportsSpeakers

Principle 1: Enhance performance and self-regulation through goal-setting.

In the past, scientists who studied self-regulation tended to take goals for granted, believing that what distinguished effective self-regulators from less effective self-regulators was how they pursued the goals they set. But lately psychologists have gained a greater appreciation for how goal setting positions athletes and others for self-regulatory success. In particular, top athletes tend to fixate on lofty goals as though they were matters of life or death, which makes them less susceptible to the internal conflicts and wavering that often hinder goal pursuit.

Principle 2: Structure the multifaceted nature of achievement goal pursuit into a hierarchical goal system.

There are three basic types of athletic goals: outcome goals, where success and failure are measured against external references (e.g., beating or losing to an opponent); performance goals, which measure success and failure against quantitative performance targets derived from assessments of current ability (e.g., setting a personal best time for a particular race distance); and process goals, which encode the key things the athlete must do to achieve their outcome and performance goals (e.g., sticking to a target pace during the early part of the race and then adjusting based on how the athlete is feeling).

The important thing to keep in mind is that the underlying goal in every race is to finish knowing you did the best you possibly could, all things considered. This perspective will help you set outcome, performance, and process goals that make sense and to keep each goal type in the proper perspective.

Principle 3: Differentiate achievement goals on the basis of evaluative standard and valence.

Yperen makes a further, cross-cutting distinction between approach goals and avoidance goals, each of which may beeither-based, self-based, or task-based. The resulting matrix consists of six achievement goal subtypes: other-based approach goals (e.g., beating an opponent), other-based avoidance goals (e.g., not losing to an opponent), self-based approach goals (e.g., doing better than before), self-based avoidance goals (e.g., not doing worse than before), task-based approach goals (e.g., executing correctly), and task-based avoidance goals (e.g., not screwing up).

Principle 4: Set approach goals rather than avoidance goals.

 Research has shown that approach goals tend to enhance performance, whereas avoidance goals tend to harm performance, so it’s best to focus on setting approach goals, which stem from desire, rather than avoidance goals, which stem from fear.

Don’t be too rigid in heeding this prescription, however. There may be times when avoidance goals (e.g., not quitting) are appropriate and helpful.

Principle 5: Develop interventions that focus on self-based and task-based approach goals.

In general, Yperen advises, self-based and task-based achievement goals should be prioritized over other-based goals. Anxiety and lack of self-confidence are common drivers of other-based goals, which open the door for performance-harming “intruding thoughts” during competition.

When I think of other-based goals and their consequences, I think of Squid Game, the television series in which the cost of losing is death. Those who, out of fear, spend too much time checking on other players’ progress succeed only in slowing their own progress and increasing their chances of losing. Run your own race, as they say.

Principle 6: Delineate athletes’ idiosyncratic developmental trajectories to better understand the process of goal attainment and self-regulation.

Self-regulation operates on various timescales. The first is moment to moment, as when athletes keep themselves on track toward a goal within a race. The second timescale is broader and concerns longer-term self-regulatory processes such as training for a race. The broadest self-regulatory timescale spans the athlete’s entire athletic career and concerns how they learn to self-regulate more effectively. Not all athletes learn equally from experience. Those who have a greater knack for self-regulation draw more lessons from their successes and failures and apply them to future challenges, and as a result their self-regulatory ability increases at a higher rate.

Principle 7: Work on strengths and weaknesses simultaneously.
Athletes with a knack for self-regulation bring a “whatever works” mindset to their athletic endeavors. They are not biased for or against particular means of improving but instead are willing to adopt any means that does the job. Hence, whereas many athletes focus on bolstering existing strengths and neglect their weaknesses, skillful self-regulators give equal attention to both.

Principle 8: Distinguish between high pressure [sic] situations and athletes’ psychological reactions to pressure.

 Pressure is intrinsic to endurance racing. It arises from the perceived importance of desired outcomes, the indeterminacy of these outcomes, the strain of exerting maximal effort, and the need to react and make decisions quickly. Expert self-regulators are not immune from pressure; they just respond to it differently. As Yperen explains, “Performers’ appraisal of their increased arousal level will be determined, among other things, by their perceived abilities to cope effectively with the pressure situation. When they feel they have the requisite physical, technical, tactical, and mental resources, they are likely to interpret their increased arousal level as a functional coping resource that aids rather than harms performance.”

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Pressure is a privilege.” Expert self-regulators genuinely believe this; other athletes don’t.

Principle 9: Accept fluctuating internal states and focus on goal-relevant cues and contingencies.

 In the pursuit of athletic goals, only the goal remains fixed. Everything else—thoughts, emotions, perceptions, sensations—is in flux. Staying on track toward the goal requires active management of these internal states. No single tool is capable of corralling every internal state that threatens to derail an athlete’s progress toward their goal. An athlete must have a variety of self-regulatory tools at their disposal and know which one to use in a given situation. For example, there are moments when athletes need to be hard on themselves and there are other moments when they need to be gentle with themselves—a time for the carrot and a time for the stick.

Principle 10: Control the controllables.

From a distance, expert self-regulators look like control freaks. Up close, however, they do not. The difference is that control freaks try to control (or become anxious over their inability to control) everything, including things that are outside control. Lacking an internal sense of control, they try to make up for it by eliminating all uncertainty from the surrounding environment. Expert self-regulators, on the other hand, are fanatical about controlling what they can and laissez-faire about what they can’t. While others freak out about an atrocious race-day weather forecast, for example, these athletes shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s the same for everyone. Who cares?”



Among the lesser-known figures in Greek mythology is Proteus, a water god whom Homer describes in The Odyssey as “the Old Man of the Sea.” His signature power is the ability to assume any physical form, à laJayna from The Wonder Twins. Shape-shifters exist in many mythologies, and Proteus represents the Grecian take on the archetype.

The English word protean derives from Proteus. Merriam-Webster defines it as “having a varied nature or ability to assume many forms” and “displaying great diversity or variety: versatile.”  In practice, this adjective is most often applied to artists. An actor with great range, who is able to disappear into any role you toss at him (think Daniel Day-Lewis), might be described as a protean thespian, for example.

My purpose in delivering this vocabulary lesson is to set up a discussion of coaching. It is my firm belief that the best coaches have a protean capacity, in the sense that they are able to be a somewhat different coach to different athletes, and even to the same athlete at different times. This is not to say that the best coaches try to be all things to all athletes or that they lack consistency. No coach can be equally effective with every athlete, and it is essential that coaches have a stable core of bedrock values, beliefs, and character qualities. But to be maximally effective with the broadest range of athletes, coaches must be able to shape-shift to a certain degree, tailoring their approach to fit the specific needs of a given athlete at a given moment.

Put another way, a coach needs to be comfortable wearing a variety of hats representing different sub-roles within their overarching coaching role. The five most important ones are nurturer, instructor, teacher, facilitator, and challenger. The order in which I’ve listed these roles is not arbitrary. There is a developmental logic in their sequencing, such that in a typical case the coach functions primarily as a nurturer with an athlete who is at the very beginning of their journey, then shifts to an instruction-focused role in the next stage of the athlete’s development, and so on. Let’s take a closer look at each role/stage.

Nurturer – Youth athletes need to be nurtured above all by their coaches. Nurturing need not come at the exclusion of instructing, teaching, facilitating, and challenging, but because youth athletes are not fully mature physically, emotionally, and intellectually, the youth coach’s main responsibilities are to protect the athlete’s well-being, use sport to aid their development, and nurture a passion for sport.

Instructor – Adult athletes still need nurturing from their coaches on occasion, but a coach’s primary focus with adult beginners is instruction. Quite simply, this means telling the athlete what to do. Because they lack experience in and knowledge of their sport, these athletes are not competent to make a lot of their own training decisions. It’s not that the coach has to wait to begin teaching, facilitating, and challenging the athlete, but they can do a lot to help the athlete improve through instruction alone.

Teacher – In its essence, teaching in the athletic context involves giving athletes the “why” behind their instructional decisions. With each athlete, coaches should act as if their ultimate goal is to equip the athlete to coach him- or herself eventually. In this case, the coach will want to teach the athlete everything they know about coaching in the course of coaching them.

Facilitator – Once the athlete is sufficiently knowledgeable and experienced to consistently make good decisions in their training, the coach shifts to a more facilitative role. In this role, the coach involves the athlete more in the planning process, which becomes more collaborative in nature.

Challenger – Even when athletes reach the level of development where they are fully capable of coaching themselves effectively, they still benefit from having a coach. The most helpful role for the coach to assume at this stage is that of a second pair of eyes, who critically evaluates their observations and ideas, alerts them to blind spots, and pushes them to think things through and, when necessary, step outside their comfort zones. The challenger role is not about playing devil’s advocate, mind you, but a matter of “two heads are better than one.”

The pot of gold that awaits the athlete at the end of the five-stage coaching process is mastery, a state in which the athlete is confidently able to make the right decision every time there’s a decision to be made. Mastery is less about being “good at” a sport (something that depends largely on innate talent) than it is about fulfillment of potential through skillful self-regulation, which entails setting appropriate goals and achieving them through effective control of thoughts, feelings, and actions. Total mastery is probably unachievable, as mastery is fundamentally a learning process and learning is never complete. This is another reason why it’s useful for athletes to have a coach even after they’ve attained a high degree of mastery.

By the way, coaching too is a learning process, so at the same time coaches help their athletes move toward sport mastery they also work toward mastering their craft. In this way, good coaches allow themselves to be transformed by their work with athletes as much as they seek to transform the athletes they work with. No coach is the perfect coach for a given athlete on day one. The best coaches recognize this, and they open themselves up to becoming the perfect coach for the athlete over time. This protean process of adapting to and growing through individual athlete partnerships gives rise to a broader evolution through which coaches move ever closer to mastering the art of coaching generally.

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I have a theory about athletic greatness, or more specifically, about what it takes to achieve greatness as an athlete. It’s quite simple. There are two mental traits that I see again and again in athletes of the highest caliber. One is a drive toward greatness that has the untamable ferocity of a full-blown disorder. In other words, great athletes have a screw loose—not in the sense of being certifiably insane, mind you, but rather in the sense of being unbalanced in a way that serves them well on the racecourse but not always so well away from it. The other mental trait I see again and again in the greatest athletes is a kind of self-mastery that blends together good judgment, strong discipline, and self-control. In other words, great athletes have their shit together.

There are exceptions—great athletes who have a screw loose but don’t have their shit together and athletes who have their shit together but don’t have a screw loose—but I see these rare exceptions as proving the rule. It is only a mild exaggeration, therefore, to state that if you want to achieve greatness as an athlete, you’d better have a screw loose and your shit together.

I am by no means the first person to propose that great athletes tend to have a screw loose, nor am I the first to note that, by and large, they have their shit together, but whereas others observers always focus on either the one or the other, I stand apart in pointing out that, more often than not, these two traits are combined in the greatest athletes.

When I think about the screw-loose part of the mental formula for athletic greatness, I think of something that six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen said in an interview for LAVA magazine back in 2011: “If you dig deep enough into the life of any of the top athletes who are pushing their bodies to the absolute limits, you’re going to find a story. You’re going to find something that those athletes are trying to make up for that they didn’t get when they were younger. Something that hurt them.”

The limited scientific research in this area backs up Allen’s claim. At the 2012 Olympics, psychologist Mustafa Sarkar and colleagues at the University of Gloucestershire conducted interviews with eight gold medalists and then looked for themes in their remarks. In a paper titled, “What Doesn’t Kill Me: Adversity-Related Experiences Are Vital in the Development of Superior Olympic Performance,” Sarkar reported that “the participants encountered a range of sport- and non-sport adversities that they considered were essential for winning their gold medals, including repeated non-selection, significant sporting failure, serious injury, political unrest, and the death of a family member. The participants described the role that these experiences played in their psychological and performance development, specifically focusing on their resultant trauma, motivation, and learning.”

Having a screw loose isn’t always the result of life experience, though. Some people are born with a screw that is not fully tightened, and many such individuals go on to become great athletes. We need look no further for an example of this type than Mark Allen’s archrival, Dave Scott, who seems to have emerged from the womb with an insatiable drive to keep moving and to test his body’s limits. A self-described “endorphin lunatic,” Scott once said of his superhuman appetite for physical exercise, “If I don’t get it, it just makes me go haywire. It rules my life. It’s a powerful drug for me. It’s huge. It’s gigantic.”

Yet Dave Scott, like all great athletes, had his shit together in most ways. Smart enough to earn a master’s degree in exercise physiology, he almost singlehandedly invented modern triathlon training methodology and was a brilliant tactician on the racecourse. In this respect, Scott was utterly typical of his ilk. Research involving elite athletes has demonstrated that, as a group, these performance outliers are way above average in certain mental traits, especially those having to do with self-regulation, or the ability to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior in pursuit of goals.

Study after study has found that elite athletes are better at self-regulating than lower-level athletes, and that lower-level athletes are better at self-regulating than nonathletes. What’s more, longitudinal studies have shown that self-regulatory capacity in youth athletes predicts subsequent rates of improvement. If you’re interested in learning more about this research, check out the new book The Genius of Athletes, coauthored by Noel Brick, a sport psychologist and leading expert on how elite endurance athletes think, and veteran running journalist Scott Douglas.

While the two mental traits I’ve identified as definitive of athletic greatness—having a screw loose and having one’s shit together—might seem to pull in opposite directions, an intriguing 2020 study led by Gro Jordalen of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences indicates that they are actually complementary. Jordalen’s team conducted in-depth interviews with five female Olympic and world championship medalists in which these athletes were invited to reflect on their evolving motivations and self-regulatory practices over the course of their careers. What emerged from these interviews was evidence of intensive interaction between these factors, with shifts in motivation triggering changes in self-regulatory practices and vice versa. It’s no wonder, then, that a loose screw (which manifests athletically as an insatiable motivation to achieve) and having their shit together (which manifest as an extraordinary self-regulatory capacity) are the two hallmark mental traits of the greatest athletes.

This is one of my blog posts that have no practical value whatsoever. Even in the unlikely event that you accept my theory of athletic greatness, there’s nothing you can do with it to benefit your own sporting pursuits. Informing you that the greatest athletes have a screw loose and their shit together is about as useful as informing you that they all possess a certain gene you lack. Be that as it may, I believe that truth has inherent value, and you never know where a truth revealed might lead. . .

A few years ago, New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds penned an interesting article titled “Running as the Thinking Person’s Sport.” It focused on a then-recent study by neuroscientists at the University of Arizona in which it was shown that high-level distance runners had significantly higher levels of connectivity in certain parts of the brain compared to nonrunners.

In interpreting these findings, Reynolds wrote that “running seems to be a kind of mobile math puzzle,” an idea that the study’s lead author, Gene Alexander, expanded upon, saying, “It requires complex navigational skills plus an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment, juggle memories of past runs and current conditions, and also continue with all of the sequential motor activities of running, which are, themselves, very complicated.”

If it’s true that, as this study indicates, running makes people smarter, then it must also be true that smarter people make better runners. There is no consensus definition of “intelligence” among scientists, but I like the one proposed by David Krakauer, an evolutionary biologist and president of the Santa Fe Institute, who has said, “Intelligence is making hard problems easy.” The reason this way of looking at the phenomenon appeals to me is that it’s inclusive and pragmatic. It recognizes that intelligence is not some global aptitude that one either has or doesn’t have but is rather a diverse collection of mental skills, which different people have in different degrees. No person is capable of making all types of hard problems easy, and very few people are incapable of making at least one type of hard problem easy.

Top athletes are among those who count as highly intelligent by Krakauer’s definition. As he explained in a 2015 interview for Nautilus, “Something that we’d find tremendously difficult—skiing downhill at a very high velocity or getting a small ball into a basket or getting a ball over a net at over 70 miles an hour, things that we struggle with . . . they make look effortless. And that’s not really that different from a mathematician effortlessly solving a theorem, or a musician remembering a symphony. The difference [exists in] the part of the brain that stores the relevant information, and for some reason when we’re talking about the motor system, it’s not intelligence. I think part of the reason for that is because it’s not exclusively human, because marine mammals make swimming look effortless. Birds make flying look effortless—we can’t do that. And surely that can’t be intelligence because we can’t do it.”

Krakauer continues, “If you reduce the theory to intelligence to, on the one hand, this notion of efficient solutions to hard problems, and simultaneously think about it in terms of the energy and resources that neurons require to solve the problem, then in fact, the motor system is arguably more intelligent than the frontal cortex.”

Long before I met David Krakauer at the 2015 Goldlab Symposium and learned about his take on intelligence, I had already become convinced that certain types of intelligence are vital to success in endurance sports. Pacing is arguably the defining mental skill in endurance racing. It is not easy to get from the start line to the finish line of a 10K or a marathon in the least time possible. While physical fitness determines the highest velocity you can sustain over a given distance on a given course on a given day, this number is fundamentally unknowable. Discovering it as you go is the job of your brain, and it is a job that most athletes suck at. Effective pacing requires intentional practice, but it’s also a matter of natural aptitude, as is the case with all mental skills. My advice to athletes is that you exploit the advantage of natural pacing ability if you have it and that you take pacing skill development more seriously than most athletes do regardless of your innate aptitude.

Pacing is one form of self-regulation. Another form of self-regulation that impacts endurance performance is restraint. All athletes understand the value of hard work, and a majority of serious racers are willing to work hard, but in my experience, relatively few of those who are willing to work hard have the restraint to consistently resist working hard when doing so is unwise. Forcing it in workouts where the target splits are out of reach, sticking to the training plan instead of dialing back in the face of excessive fatigue, grinding out the last mile of a 20-miler despite red-flag pain in your knee—such behaviors are the norm among competitive runners, not the exception.

As the saying goes, “It’s easy to train hard, but hard to train smart.” Hard trainers are a dime a dozen, but where smart training is concerned, the bar is low. This state of affairs represents a golden opportunity to gain an advantage over other athletes by taking pride in exercising restraint throughout the training process. It can be hard at first, but if you persist in the effort it can become your special thing. Instead of rushing to reclaim a Strava segment from a local rival who makes a point of taking it from you, laugh privately and take your revenge in the next race.

A third form of intelligence that aids the athlete is the ability to learn and adapt through trial and error. Athletes who are smart in this way pay attention to cause and effect in their training, figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, and adjust accordingly. I can think of a number of noteworthy examples of athletes whose training evolved over the course of their careers and who performed better because of the changes they made. One example is the legendary triathlete Mark Allen, who overcame a propensity toward injury early in his career by swapping his favored low-volume, high-intensity training approach for a high-volume, low-intensity approach under the guidance of coach Phil Maffetone.


In summary, if you’re smart, take full advantage of this gift in your training and racing. And if you’re not so smart (and let’s face it, most of us aren’t so smart), emulate those who are and you’ll at least have an advantage over other not-so-smart runners who make no effort to get smarter.

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