Compulsion vs. Commitment

Compulsion – an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way.
Commitment – the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause or activity.

It takes commitment to be a great athlete, but compulsion will prevent you from reaching your potential. It’s that fine line of being able to conjure enough stoicism to train when the going is tough and you are tired; when it’s wet, windy and cold. But not just going out to get the session done because it’s been ‘set’ by the coach, but training even in the face roadblocks like injury or illness. Let’s go back to basics and dissect some good traits in training and how to avoid the pitfalls of compulsion.

In sport, and indeed in life, we talk a lot about talented people. Artists who have a gift but just can’t get it together or dampen their longevity through vice. In triathlon, we see physically perfect specimens who finish an Ironman in 12 hours! It often confounds me when I see lean twenty-something year-olds flat sprint the last 100 meters of the blue (or similar) coloured carpet next to chubby 50-year-olds – how does that work? Quite plainly they’ve both tried but their talents have been bestowed in different areas. The buff youngster trying his heart out may not have a big aerobic engine (or had the time to get it humming between uni lectures). In contrast, the lumpy older gent may be time-poor and unable to train to his better motor potential because of family, motivation, injuries … we can only guess.

Essentially, what I’m saying is this: talent is physical and mental. There are the lucky guys like an unnamed 36-year-old German two-time Kona champ (cough-Frodeno-cough), who just happens to be 194cm tall and weighs 76kg – when he is wet and just stepped out of the shower. He’s talented in all three disciplines and, has been endowed with endurance and speed (he won an Olympic gold medal in 2008). But aside from the physical specimen, he is also mentally tough. Agile enough to change it up on a day when things don’t go to plan – like in Hawaii this year when he jogged for a finish, despite back spasms. Clearly, he is a great manager of his body despite suffering a deal-breaking blow on the Big Island. You don’t get 16 years as a professional without the self-protective characteristics required for that kind longevity.

It’s an interesting hypothetical to toss about this year. Did Frodeno enter the race with an injury this year? I guess not an injury, rather a niggle. Niggles can be massaged, needled and released, before and after training efforts, but a race is something different. Maybe it was something he had been managing for a few weeks. He’s clearly in first-class shape, given the way he swam and biked, so it’s unlikely he was managing this for months. I suspect the pace set by the front-runners of Sanders and Wurf helped turn a niggle into a nag … then a knot. Game over. But he had the headspace to weigh up the risk of injury against the rewards of trotting to the finish. To my mind, his decision elevated him to an important pantheon: through his actions, he became a patron of the race.

Respect: Frodeno pushed towards the finish line at Kona this year despite injury.


Motivation is more than bloody-minded resilience to get hard work done on the track. It’s equal parts commitment (to training properly) and recovering from that effort. Plenty of what we commit to as part of our training routine is for mental resilience purposes rather than strictly physical training per se. Exhibit A: you do not need to run a marathon in training to know that if you train properly over two to two and a half hours you will be able to complete it. Even so, many athletes will undertake a session or two of three hours plus, despite the risks of doing such a run. In part, this can be the penchant of a coach or lack of understanding by the athlete of the purpose of training. If executing a race distance in training was the key to success, more professionals would be doing it. It shows a lack of faith in the two keys of training: physical and mental resilience.

There’s an interesting tension between training for pleasure against training for function. There should be considerable overlap of these aspects for any hope of longevity. The three disciplines of triathlon have such a voracious appetite for time, a devotee must commit to spending hours training each. This commitment requires a certain personality type (see type A!) with a degree of selfishness that simply doesn’t exist in ‘regular’ society. The YouTube video of ‘I’m training for an Ironman’ ( comes to mind. This man is clearly unwilling to deviate from a training schedule that he believes will take him to the finish in an Ironman race. It’s both funny and a bit sad that so many people can relate to this trope.

Read through the list of compulsion vs. commitment in the breakout box and make a note of how many of each you relate to in each category. If you’re scoring a great victory in the compulsion department, it could be that you need to step back and examine your motivations. Coached athletes, discuss these with your mentors – it’s what they’re there for. This sport is supposed to improve your life and provide enjoyment, not tick the OCD box and insulate you from society.
See you on the track … unless you’re sick and injured …


  • Training with illness/injury.
  • Finishing a session despite dangerous conditions.
  • Defensive when training volume critiqued.
  • Preoccupation with finishing a certain no of kilometres or hours.
  • No agility when faced with a failing plan – blinkered.
  • Make-up sessions.
  • Short term thinking – reward for session, not race outcome.
  • Missing important social events for training purposes.


  • Training despite discomfort, moderate fatigue.
  • Avoiding dangerous conditions by training indoors (or not training).
  • Able to skip sessions and realise they’re gone (for a reason).
  • Agility in the face of hardship – lateral thinking.
  • Seeing cost/benefit of training with a long view to success.
  • Balanced view of training vs. life.
  • Enjoyment of sessions rather than the numbers in sessions.


Mitch Anderson

Dr. Mitch Anderson is one of the premier sports doctors in Melbourne working out his practice Shinbone Medical in North Melbourne. The former professional triathlete is your go-to triathlon doctor.

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