Competition and Luck: It’s A Mug’s Game

In the Spring of 2010 I worked with an Ironman as his professional Mind Coach. He was preparing for the 2010 Coolangatta Gold, an event run every summer on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.

 

The Coolangatta Gold is one of the most iconic and physically challenging multi-discipline events on the world’s sporting calendar and is the longest race of its kind spanning 46 kilometres.

This test of human endurance comprises an ocean swim, surf-ski, board paddle and soft sand run… and all in the heat of an Australian summer… as a field of the world’s top athletes compete for the coveted title of ultimate Ironman.

We spent the off-season mentally preparing for the race with specific technical visualisation, targeted focus exercises, hypnosis, internal recognition to external application and a very detailed and structured race-day plan.

By the beginning of the season he had become a well-oiled machine.

Part of the race-day motivation plan comprised:

  • Mental compartmentalisation & performance accountability; and
  • A rewards process

These are designed to maintain sustained motivation and manage emotional stability.

Both these skill-sets encourage the athlete to break the performance down into specific ‘achievable’ and ‘acknowledgeable’ units.

As an athlete, when focus is on each specific unit, you can:

  1. Complete the unit;
  2. Learn from it;
  3. Reward it; and then
  4. Move on!

The power in this process is it removes emotional attachment, mental fatigue or overwhelm, a vital aspect of the endurance mental game.

I had not worked within the Ironman ‘world’ before this but I had many times worked in endurance-based sports, so understood the unique mental and physical challenges they present.

Race day arrived, I knew my athlete wasn’t a favourite to win and he was very aware he wasn’t as physically strong as the race heavyweights. However we knew the race would need to be run in his head, so we were ready!

As I stood on the beach and watched the field of 50 competitors complete their final warm up, they were indeed a spectacle of ultimate human machines. I watched these sporting elites conducting their own rituals., waxing boards, consuming energy gels, packing water into the ski and running the race in their minds and noticed:  physically, they were the fittest athletes I had ever seen… they represented the top 1% of athletes on the planet, an intimidating bunch by any standards.

I also became aware of a sudden, dark, nervous buzz. The confident strutting became edgy shuffles, the mind games instantly stopped. This invisible, negative buzz filling the beach was now spilling over into the crew tents and crowd.

What I had not seen when observing this change was the surf had grown. I had seen these modern-day warriors battle much larger waves, stronger currents and harsher beach conditions during training – so why on race day had it become an issue big enough to make them so wary? And, why did they now start talking up the surf and talking down their ability?

The more I watched and listened, the common theme appeared to be ‘luck’ – or the curse of ‘bad luck’ to be precise.

I heard the coach of one of the favourites to win telling the TV crew ‘if the big waves don’t get him he may still have a chance.’ I was shocked, I couldn’t understand why a wave would select one athlete out of 50 and go after him!

Luck: It's a Mug's GameHad I walked into the twilight zone… a place where the elements have objectives, held grudges?

Had this athlete upset the Water Gods at some point and this was his retribution?

Or was this all self manifested in their minds?

I asked the coach why he thought a whole years worth of preparation had come down to ‘luck’. He told me they couldn’t predict the surf and it was luck if they did or didn’t collect a wave that brought them back into shore or one that would stop them initially getting out.

But, I responded, doesn’t every athlete out there have the same opportunity to collect or not that same wave? Ultimately they manoeuvre themselves into the right position to collect the wave, and if they don’t it would be poor planning or poor execution– not luck!

I could see the blood drain from his face as his whole exit strategy had been exposed. The exit strategy of ‘Well, if I under-perform or under-execute the plan, I have an external force to lay the blame on.’

And the more I listened the more this cultural dependency on ‘luck’ as an excuse was evident. There was no denying these were fit guys, but mentally they had left themselves an out option. And it would appear it was part of the sport’s culture, rather than an individual athlete.

You see, psychologically having an exit strategy such as ‘luck’ lowers someone’s resistance to the physical and mental forces, and minimises their behavioural ability to keep on pushing through the tough times.

Given the option to bail out when the going gets tough becomes a very viable option when you have the ‘Bad Luck’ card to play.

Luck: It's a Mug's GameAfter working within various sporting disciplines, I had observed the exit strategy in many different forms on many different occasions. But never had I observed this phenomenon weaved within the culture of a whole sporting discipline, as this one.

In my opinion, luck isn’t a viable excuse for anything. If we allow ‘luck’ to have a hand in our performance then we hand over a large amount of control to an external force – one that only exists in our minds.

It is the athlete’s way of keeping one hand on the door handle, ready if the going gets too tough to mentally run and have an excuse to do so.

When I conduct Open Mind Nights, they are an opportunity for coaches, athletes and parents to come together and move forward as one efficient unit – I openly promote the removal of the word ‘luck’ from their vocabulary and actively hand back control of the performance to the athlete.

Despite the large seas, the race was run and my athlete got a top five finish which was a phenomenal result and one that was made possible by the mental strategies he had and utilised.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply