Monday, 4 November 2013

Low-Odds Campaigns (2): Training Not Winning

There's another way of being an Outsider, and that's to get really good at something. The mindset you need to do it well, and not in an obsessed-tortured-genius manner, is pretty much guaranteed to remove you from Normal.

To the regular spectator, track and field athletics is about who can run fastest, throw furthest, jump highest and generally beat the other guys on the day. It's about winning and it's about records. More than that, it's way better when someone they identify with actually wins. There's a reason athletes get sponsored, and only some of it is because they are at the top of their event. This applies especially to the supporters of the underdogs: it was just the sheer amazingness of being there at all, in the Big Stadium, sharing the track with the legends. For most of history, that's what it was about for the athletes as well. 

Then it all got serious. Coaches and psychologists noticed that most athletes who were motivated by exhortations about beating the other guys, or the glory of taking part in a great event, only went so far. they got discouraged if they didn't make the podium now and again. They wouldn't train or try past the level required to stay on the national team, and after that, what was the point? The top ten are usually better enough and consistent enough to beat everyone but the others in the top ten every time. (this is why someone invented the saying: "it's not the winning that counts, it's the taking part." With the longer careers and increasing demands of the  training and competition schedules - no setting up the hurdles with champagne glasses now -

some other form of motivation was needed. What the psychologists discovered was kaizan  - continuous improvement. An athlete may never be good enough to win, but they can take pride in the fact that their personal best keeps on getting better. Not only that, but sports psychologists suggest that their athletes don't think about the occasion, the crowd or the contest. The athlete is focussed on personal improvement, on the minutiae of technique and maintaining a steady, balanced state of mind that isn't demotivated for months by a loss or sent into a panic by a Big Event, party because there's always another Big Event soon.

Now if that sounds sensible? Now look at the state of mind of the athlete. Their validation comes from their engagement with their own process, not with any of the institutions around athletics. Win or lose on the day, it's about doing as well as they can, and the medals and public applause are not the point. The ultimate athlete wins and wanders back to the changing room, oblivious to the event and the award ceremony. The spectators aren't really watching a competition, but a group training session in which competing and winning is just a by-product.

But isn't winning the point? Most people want a win, they want a payoff: a medal, a round of applause, a stack of cash, a new pair of long legs in the bed Sunday morning, a pay rise or promotion. They want to get high and down and boogie, they want treats and rewards and fungible payoffs. And they want to brag on it with the guys over a pint. 

That illusion that it's really a competition is carefully maintained and hyped for the general public. Athletes are couched by professional PR's to be upbeat, say good things about their rivals and coaches, and make it sound like they care where they finished. But competition is not the point. Training is the point. And that's definitely not how the regular folk see it. They want to focus on the moment of competition, not the weeks of preparation.

No comments:

Post a Comment