Friday, February 22, 2008

"Believing in Belief"

Several things have been brewing in my head for this post: an article by swim coach Richard Quick, an Endurance Planet podcast, a blog post by triathlete Gale Bernhardt . . . consider this post a synthesis of their thoughts and mine.

Have you ever read about the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes? Before Roger Bannister ran his liminal mile, most people--almost everyone, in fact--seriously doubted that it was physically possible. After he broke that barrier, many athletes followed in his footsteps, to the point where running a sub-4-minute mile became almost pedestrian. It was Bannister's belief that carried him beyond the world's assumptions and made him the first.

Not everyone can be a professional athlete; no matter your work ethic, there's a half-dozen genetically-determined and unchangeable variables: muscle type, body composition, VO2 max . . . I would even argue that many professional endurance athletes possess a predisposition for higher tolerance of pain and a stronger sense of discipline . . . what if an extraordinary ability to believe is another difference between the elite and the age grouper? Belief makes the ordinary extraordinary; belief brings commitment; belief gives permission beyond limits; belief will carry an athlete through difficulties and setbacks; belief makes you act as if you cannot fail.

Belief makes the extraordinary ordinary. The success of Roger Bannister gave other athletes permission to believe that running a mile in 3:59 is possible. Before his achievement, the belief was visionary; now it's mundane, because it's fact. His accomplishment--which began with his belief--actually expanded the cultural perception of what is normal and ordinary! Wouldn't it be great to be a person who breaks that kind of barrier?

Belief brings commitment. Roger Bannister didn't run just one mile; I mean, he ran the famous one, but he ran countless others before that. He sacrificed. He reached new levels of physical pain. He restructured his life (he wasn't a pro athlete, by the way; he was a recreational runner) to give him an appropriate amount of time to train. He committed a huge chunk of his life to this goal, because he knew it was attainable--not just theoretically, but personally; there was no reason to half-ass it. It wasn't only something that his coach or his parents or his nation wanted (although they all did); no one thought it was possible, and if he hadn't initially believed himself capable of running the fastest mile ever, his culture never would have expected and demanded that he achieve it. His belief initiated the pursuit for the goal; he was committed before anyone else was.

Belief gives permission beyond limits. Roger Bannister wasn't waiting for someone to say he should or could; he wasn't waiting for someone else to break the barrier. In fact, he was committed to breaking the 4-minute record before anyone else could (there were two other men pusuing the same goal simultaneously). And many saw the 4-minute barrier as a natural limit: 4 minutes, 4 laps around the track . . . it seemed perfect. Bannister disregarded that idea of a natural order; he knew he could run a mile faster than that, and he set out to do it. His own belief allowed him to overlook any so-called limits.

Belief carries an athlete through difficulties and setbacks. Bannister didn't run a sub-4-minute mile the first time he tried. In fact, there were several races and events which were orchestrated specifically to help him break 4 minutes, times when all the world watched and waited thinking, "This'll surely be the time." He failed multiple times, at international events, and small-town races, even with other athletes pacing him. He failed. He failed, he failed, he failed. And in the face of discouragement, he continued his training with a singular aim, and continued to participate in meets and events; his belief did not allow him to look at himself and think, "Well, I guess that's it. I gave it everything, and it wasn't enough." It carried him through the profoundest discouragement--failure.

Belief makes you act as if you cannot fail.

Let's apply. What is an extraordinary goal for you? What's something on the outside edges of what (in your mind) is possible for you? For some, the idea of even finishing a triathlon is an extraordinary goal. I coach one woman for whom swimming 25 yards is mentally inconceivable. Maybe you have an inkling that you could run a marathon in under 3 hours. Maybe you secretly believe that you could get first place in your A-priority race this season. Maybe you dream of swimming the English Channel. Or maybe it's something completely unrelated to performance. Whatever it is, allow yourself to fully define your goal; I would bet that most of you have a little thought niggling at the corners of your brain. Mine says, "Know what? I bet you can get 1st in your age group at Shawnee Mission." Invite that thought into center stage in your mind and take a good long look at it.

What's your first reaction to that goal/dream/desire? Maybe that it's not realistic. It's a pipe dream. It's never going to happen.

Psh. Why isn't it going to happen? Is it because you're not genetically pre-disposed to win first place at a major race? Or because you didn't learn to swim until you were 37 years old? Check this out:

How could Dara Torres--at age 33 and having been out of swimming for seven years--return to the sport in 2000 after only 14 months of training and swim significantly faster than ever before in each of her events, setting tow American records and taking five Olympic medlas (two of them gold on world-record relays)?
How could American 200-meter butterflyer Misty Hyman drop from 2:09.2 (her lifetime best) at the 2000 Olympic trials to 2:05.88 just 30 days later to beat world-record holder and defending Olympic champion Susie O'Neill, breaking O'Neill's six-year winning streak in the 200 butterfly?
-Quick, Richard. "Believing in Belief."
The Swim Coaching Bible. Human Kinetics: 2001.

That's right! Belief! And you may not be a world-class 200 meter butterfly specialist, or a former Olympian, but you are capable of the same kind of belief that drove these athletes to do what was extraordinary for them. Know what? No matter how exceptional the physiology, dropping almost 4 seconds from a swimming PR is extraordinary. And coming back to the Olympics to win big after a seven-year hiatus is extraordinary. For you, extraordinary will look different (for one thing, if you're an age-grouper, you should damn well be able to drop a lot more than 4 seconds from your swim time!), but it is no less extraordinary, and it is no less achievable.

So look back over this post and ask some questions. I look forward to hearing what happens from there.

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