The Chased-by-a-Bear Analogy of 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!