Finding information through adversity
I’m going to tell you a story of an athlete I coached who had his greatest victory in a race in which he went slower than he had ever gone before.
My athlete, we will call him Fred, had been coached by my amazing wife of two years, Bek Keat. He was doing such a great job in his training with Bek coaching him remotely. His progress was impressive. So impressive, in fact, that I decided to invite him to train with me, and the squad in Boulder, Colorado. Fred is a stand-up guy – I was excited to have him on the team.
After a few days in Boulder, it became clear that Fred had been only telling us about his great training days and leaving out the dismal ones. What I was seeing was a very talented athlete who trained incredibly well and performed amazingly when conditions were good, and his energy was high – no issues or problems. But add an obstacle to the equation, and there was a downward spiral.
Fred was an athlete who needed everything to be perfect to perform to his potential. He needed to feel great, and the conditions had to be ideal. When this was the case, this guy trained like a freak. However, if he wasn’t feeling great on any given day and training got tough,
Fred would find a way to abort the session. Once he gave up, it was all over, and it often got ugly.
I was exasperated by this display of inflexibility. To me, our greatest growth happens in those trying times – when the going gets tough, and we battle through, regardless of how ugly it gets. This is when we develop the most, both physically and mentally.
In the first few days, I would listen as he said he had a sore shoulder or was having trouble breathing. These were the things he would say were preventing him from training to his potential. I would give him advice on how to calm his breathing.
But, oh no – his breathing difficulties weren’t mental, they were physical. So, I told him I would give him my General Practitioner’s phone number, and she could give him an asthma test. That never came to fruition. Pretty soon I realised that Fred had an excuse for everything. If things weren’t going perfectly, there would always be a reason for it.
I came up with my plan for dealing with this behaviour. Whatever the problem was, we were going to work through it – no matter what. Breathing shallow? Ease up on the pace, focus on your technique, let the breathing settle and then fire back into it. There would be no ending the session short. There would be no aborting the session and doing it the next day. No. We would work through anything and everything that came his way.
This did not go over well. I pushed him through a set of 25x100s in the pool where the 100s all had to be done under 1:20. I knew, with effort, he could do this! Not a crazy hard effort, just a stronger effort. But he was having a bad day, so, as usual, he gave up and started barely making 1:30. I told him that every time he missed the interval, we would add on one more to the 25 that needed to be done. This wasn’t working. He was now at 35x100s needing to be done. The rest of the team was finished with the session and were now sitting in chairs on the side of the pool, providing support as Fred was giving up right in front of our eyes.
I stopped Fred and said: “Listen, this isn’t for us, this is for you. You have got to find a way to turn your thoughts around and change the pattern that has defined you as an athlete.”
“You don’t just finish the set when you are feeling good, and everything is going your way. Here, on Team Sirius, we finish no matter what – with guts, determination and pride.”
“We are finishers,” I continued. “We are completers. The greatest glory comes in achieving something that, at the moment, you feel is impossible. Gritting and toughing it out, and never giving up on yourself. Doing the best that you can with whatever you have inside of you. Finish gracefully, no matter the circumstances.”
He put his head back in the water and proceeded to just make the 1:20 intervals. He was battling his mind more than he was fighting the water. My other athletes sat on the side of the pool, cheering loudly every time he made the interval. They understood the silent war he was fighting within himself. He was so used to giving up, to only finishing if it was going to be a good day. The challenge today was to change that whole mindset – to give him the opportunity to grow and toughen up. The challenge was to broaden his horizons by teaching him that finishing through struggle can be one of the most gratifying gifts you can give yourself.
He finished the set. The team applauded his resilience, hoping that this would now become the way he deals with adversity. Not giving in or giving up, but forging on and doing whatever it takes to finish – with pride, courage and a relentless spirit.
In the following weeks, we had many more encouraging sessions where Fred battled on despite adversity. But, when left to his own devices, he would still find ways to end a bad session early or find a reason as to why he only did half the session and stopped early.
Fast-forward to the Ironman World Championships in Kona. This race had been Fred’s dream for as long as he could remember – the Holy Grail. This is why he did the sport, and he had finally qualified to be here. A dream come true.
Race day. The gun goes off, and Fred starts his day with the best swim of his career. He swims five minutes faster than he would have ever dreamed of swimming. He gets on his bike and within the first 200m, POP! He has a flat tyre. He quickly fixes the flat and gets back on the course, riding strong, still buoyed by his excitement over his awesome swim. BANG! Another flat about two kilometres into the bike.
“Damn it!” He’s angry but fixes the flat quickly, realising that his fast swim gave him the cushion he needed to take care of these two flat tyres. Back on the bike, he is a bit nervous because he has used both his spares. If he gets another flat, he’s out.
I’m standing on the Queen K, waiting for Fred to come by. I see him and am so excited that he’s in a really good position. “OK, good. He swam where I thought he would on a good day,” I think to myself. I didn’t realise what a great swim he actually had.
As he passes by… POP! I hear him swear loudly: “F**K!”
I am appalled by his reaction to his flat, so I let him know.
“Coach this is my third flat in five kilometres,” he reports. “I had the swim of my life, and now I can’t even ride. I have no more spares – my race is over. I’m so angry. F**K! F**K! F**K!”
At this moment I decide this day could change his life. At the very least, it could change his whole experience with this race and this island in the future.
“Fred,” I say, “you will walk to the bike shop about a mile down the road. You will buy another few spare tyres, and you will fix this flat first off, making sure there is nothing in your rim that is causing the flats.” He has tears rolling down his face as he says: “My race is over. This sucks. It’s not my day. It’s over.”
“Fred, you will finish this race no matter how long it takes you,” I tell him. “You will start off your relationship with this amazing island in the most powerful way. By saying, ‘Nothing, nothing will stop me from getting to that finish line. Nothing will get in the way of me achieving my dream of being at the World Championships. I will lay everything I have out on the course to cross that line!’ What you do today will define your whole future with this race. Show this island who you are and what you’re made of. Show yourself who you are. Show me who you are!”
He gathers up all his stuff and starts walking. My final words to him: “You get to that finish line no matter how long it takes you. Make it the best day you possibly can, no matter what. Finish!”
I leave him there. Feeling his pain and feeling like a mean b***h because of how tough I had to be on him but knowing in my heart that this was the right thing to do. I continue on my way, following Rinny, Yvonne and Troy who were also out there racing hard.
Kona is such a magical place. The Ironman World Championship is the most incredible display of true grit, heart and soul, passion and persistence. I was so proud of my athletes and the incredible effort and relentless spirit they put into their races. I was overwhelmed with pride and joy.
As the end of the day drew near, I wasn’t sure if Fred was still out there or if he had finished. I could only hope that he was battling his demons, and winning!
As I was heading back to my apartment, at about 10pm, my phone rang. It was Fred.
I took a deep breath before answering, wondering if I had any energy left to deal with the possibility that he was going to tell me he gave up.
“Coach, I did it!” he exclaimed excitedly. Tears were welling up in my eyes as I continued to listen intently. “It took me two hours to finally get my wheel and tyre sorted, but I got back on my bike and decided I was going to have the best race I possibly could, from that point on,” he told me. “I realised there was always somebody to catch. I thought about all the work I had done – the work that we had done – and how I have been dreaming of racing on this island for what seems like a lifetime. I felt strong and inspired and did all the little things right.
I drank, I ate, and I pushed hard the whole way. Same on the run, I just ran – I ran for me. Living my dream, having the opportunity to race here at the World Championship. I kept catching people too, and with each pass, I felt better and better. Coach, I did it!”
I told him I had never felt more proud of him than I did at that moment. He had finished – not begrudgingly, but gracefully. He had finished despite all the obstacles he had to overcome. He had finished with gratitude, with passion and with a great spirit. He had proven to himself, to me, and to the island that nothing would get in the way of him achieving his goals. Nothing would stop him. Nothing would beat him. He was up for any challenge. He could roll with any punches. He was resilient, relentless, and he was a finisher! This to me, and I know to him also, was one of the greatest victories. This is something that had to happen and something that will forever change his definition of who he is as a man. This new definition will reshape his entire future.
So, what’s the moral of this story? Don’t ever think that victory is always beautiful. Victory can mean many different things to many different people. It can be standing up to struggle and relentlessly pursuing your goals despite everything and everyone trying to stop you. This changes the definition of who you are and what you are capable of. This is success – this is a beautiful victory.