Tag Archives: competition

Psychology of Competition

Why do people compete? Can you think of anything more destructive psychologically. The worry, upset stomach, sleepless nights. Of course there are all levels of competition and I would assume from observing the human race over these seventy plus years, that not everyone likes to compete at very high levels. In fact my best guess is that only a small minority love the high level of competition.

Now I am talking about competition that can keep you awake at night wondering if you have done the right things to be at your best. It doesn’t have to be in the world of sports but exists in business, religion, the arts etc. The level of competition where you put everything on the line, do or die as they say.  But I have been in the world of business and the only time I felt the same as when I was competing in sport was when my livelihood was at stake. In other words something must be at stake or at least you feel something is at stake. In sports it may be as simple as your reputation.

When I was in high school at the State competition I was as nervous or maybe more so than when I stepped to the line for an important international race. Why? I had nothing to lose except myself imposed reputation. I wasn’t expected to win by anyone, even myself.  But there was something, some idea in my mind, that I must run well, for if I didn’t I would bring shame upon myself. Is that what it was?  A mentally contrived idea of my own making.

Humans, because we are thinking animals, have a way of making too much of an ordeal. We worry about what might be and not what is. Many times we make things worse than they are.  Of course I can think of some scenarios that are so bad our own minds cannot comprehend what is going to happen to us. When something goes wrong with our bodies, something that is life threatening, we have a hard time comprehending. We worry about the situation. We don’t have to contrive anything.  What is real is real enough, there is no reason to go beyond reality.  Having said all that let me go to the part of competition I know the best. Man against man, head to head, with something at stake. As I look back I was more nervous when I was not as well prepared as I wanted to be. But what does that mean? How did I know that I wasn’t prepared? I surely didn’t know what my competitors were doing in their training. I thought I was doing everything possible in my training in high school. Of course as I look back I think how funny that statement is. If I was doing fifteen miles a week it would have been good.

When I was in High School I remember lining up for the State Mile race and being so nervous I walked off the track and threw-up. I did it in college too and as I look back I realize I wasn’t handling the situation but I was allowing the situation to handle me.  Later I made a discovery, a mental awakening if you will. I decided I would only run as well as the shape I was in. Oh I knew I could factor in the excitement of the race but that would always be there. The one thing I could control was the work I could and would do in the weeks, months and years prior to the race. Therefore if I was prepared properly I could and would run well. Being prepared properly meant that I was doing more and better work than my competitors. And yes, some humans are born to be better in many ways.

How did I know I was in better condition? How did I know I was doing more work? I didn’t, that’s right I didn’t.  So how do you assess your condition against those who want to run you into the ground. You step to the same starting line and test your body against theirs. Your Physical conditioning and your mental conditioning is put to the test. If you lose, you spend some time re-evaluating your training. Where can I change the training so I can become a better athlete? Do I spend more time running, run more miles, run faster in my workouts, eat better, sleep better. You look at your entire life and learn to treat your body as a machine. How do you make this machine more perfect? Check everything, even the way you breathe.

As your races improve your mental state improves. There is no doubt that success begets success. When you finally believe totally in yourself, when everything has come together, when workouts that once were difficult have become easy and hard days of the past are no longer hard and you have moved to a higher plateau, then you are ready to test your rivals. Now you can compete.

That is the reason records continue to go down. Athletes continually test themselves against their rivals.  When they lose they realize they must train a little harder and a little smarter. They do that and beat their rivals and then someone else goes to a different level. It is a constant reaching for better training.

Isn’t it interesting that someone fifty years ago didn’t train like athletes of today who are setting world records. Why didn’t they take a quantum leap. Why didn’t they say to themselves, my training is ridiculous, I am going to increase the load four fold. They didn’t and therefore records continued to fall slowly. Of course we must remember running tracks and shoes have also helped to bring records down and we must put those items in proper perspective. (Take two seconds per lap from cinder track records over all-weather tracks.)

Getting back to the competitive side of racing, runners come to the race with different intensities. If we could measure the physical fitness of everyone in a race we would find several runners with near equal cardiovascular fitness. However one of these athletes would be able to beat the others most of the time.  Why? Because that person is able to concentrate on the race better than his rivals. And in many cases the athlete is able to push through discomfort better than the others.  That is a part of the race we never know. How do you measure how much discomfort the athlete is able to withstand. Many athletes will back off when they feel their bodies in that discomfort zone. Some are able to set the discomfort aside and continue pushing the body. That is not to say they don’t feel the pain, it is to say they have learned to deal with it.

Is it possible to train the athlete to accept more pain or is it a personality trait. It may be both. I have come across athletes who seem to have the natural ability to push their bodies to extremes. But at the same time I believe I have been able to train all my athletes to push harder in races. Learn to live with the pain. There have been times when I was so tired in races, trying to stay close to the leaders, I had fleeting thoughts that soon I would have to drop off the pace. But I was able to say, it will only hurt for a short time, two, three, four minutes is such a short time, don’t slow down, don’t back off.  There is no doubt there are runners who do not win, who run harder, enduring more discomfort, than the people who beat them. They are tougher psychologically, but have not placed their bodies into the same cardiovascular condition as those who beat them. Oh, I realize that on certain days there are other factors, but if we could rid ourselves of those factors the above would be true. Then, of course, we must remember genetics.

My point is then, that it is not enough to have the body in great cardiovascular condition. A top athlete must be able to concentrate totally on the task and have the ability to run through discomfort. It is the mental side of racing. Yes, some athletes are born with superior attributes (genes) and they will be able to get to the top if they are able to put the other two factors together. The tough competitor is one who can push through discomfort. A person who has the ability to put up with more pain than their competitors. All other factors being equal it is this person who will win the race.

How much slower were cinder tracks than all-weather?

How does one assess the greatness of America’s distance runners? Each generation has pushed beyond the one before with better training, better tracks and better equipment. If we are going to compare these people we must have some way to measure the environment of when they ran. Maybe that is impossible but we know that the modern all-weather tracks are much faster than the old cinder tracks. How much faster?  Hard to say, but obviously the difference must be close to two seconds per lap. Why is this so? First there was no rebound from the cinder tracks. In effect you had to work much harder to achieve the same stride length. Stride length is important as the stronger push off you have off the back foot the more time you will spend in the air with both feet off the ground and therefore your stride length will be longer without any additional effort.

If we would theoretically give four inches more per stride for the rebound of the all-weather track and the length for a stride is five feet, then we take approximately (88) strides per lap. In a five thousand meter race that means you would take 1100 strides. With the four (4) inches (gained)  you would have a difference of 258 feet or 86 yards. That means on an all-weather track, where you gain at least four inches, that 86 yards is worth 13 to 14 seconds. That alone is a major difference. Secondly, we must account for the condition of the track. Obviously an all-weather track is always the same, stride after stride. The runner does not have to worry about stepping in a hole. On the cinder track the runners, with each push off, create a small hole that causes the runners foot to shift each time he hits a hole. It must also be true that the runner is slipping backward each time they push off on a cinder track since they create a hole.  This happens constantly as the meet continues. This means that each athlete is constantly fighting to use his energy to stay in a straight line as he is being thrown from side to side as his foot lands. In other words the athletes energy is not all going forward but some is used to keep the body from shifting. Runners on all-weather tracks do not have this problem. The difference is easily one second per lap and possibly more.  For those of us who ran on both type of tracks the difference was tremendous.  Those two differences would mean the cinder tracks were 25 to 38 seconds slower in a 5K race than if that same race was run on an all-weather track.

Concentration: Searching for the Perfect Runner

What makes one athlete excel over another? Easily answered you say. Obviously they were born with better genes. Therefore they are slimmer, shorter, and without any defects. We know that body weight has a tremendous effect on distance running and there must be an optimum height. What that is exactly, no one has studied as far as I know, but we can surely estimate that somewhere between 5’2″ and 5’8″ would be a good guess. There have been taller runners who have done very well, but not many. I am six feet one inch tall. Good runners cannot be stocky, so the small boned, slim runner has the advantage.  When we look at these body types, we must come to the conclusion that weight lifting may not be in the best interest of these athletes. Maybe limited amounts would be all right but nothing that would build bulk in the athlete.

I don’t see the Africans doing any weight lifting and I did very little during my running career. What I did do was use light weights for toning purposes and not to build bulk. The idea is to be as light as possible without losing strength.

The next advantage is the birth place of the potential athlete. It is apparent now that being born at altitude has a tremendous effect on the development of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. So a distinct advantage will go to those people whose parents live in a country where it is over 5000 feet above sea level and the advantage may increase if you live even higher.

Once you have the body type and being born in the right place then we want to know how much oxygen can be absorbed into the body and the rate it can be absorbed. Obviously some humans have better “oxygen uptake” than others and therefore the factors listed above will give you the advantage. Genes passed from parent to child would also be a factor. The percentage of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers in the body is a determining factor on how good the person will be.

In my days of training with the Los Angeles Track Club there were many athletes who did essentially the same amount of work but the results were not the same. It must be assumed that at least some of those athletes had the same muscle fiber or the same percentage of slow twitch to fast twitch cells. Of course, one other variable is that some athletes do not run as effortlessly as others and therefore the wasted motion used energy that could have been used in moving the proper muscles toward the finish line. Any small discrepancy in the bone structure makes the runner work harder than they should and can bring about injury. When we watch runners at the International level, we see that their running form is much more perfect than the average runner.

If we dismiss the being born at altitude theory for the moment, we have put together the perfect body for distance running. There must be thousands of these people in the world. Some will never be given the opportunity to compete and others will never take the opportunity. So we are left with hundreds of individuals who have the proper body makeup and are given the chance to see what their bodies can do.  Out of these we have a few who excel. Is it the training these people have been given that gives them the edge? Surely many people do the equivalent training. However there are those who go a little farther than their competitors. In 1964 I was and am convinced that no one in the world was doing the training I was doing. If that was true, the possibility exists that the few who are leading the world today are doing a little extra. Nurmi did it, followed by Zatopek, Kuts, Clarke etc. And sometimes it is because their bodies are holding together as they push themselves harder than someone else. And that may be the most critical point of all. Years of training without serious injury is a vital key to success. With all the attributes to become a great distance runner, it will do no good if the body is constantly breaking down.

Now we come to the point of this essay. There is one more attribute we can study which is the level of concentration these people have. I am convinced that this particular attribute is essential to being a good distance runner. There are times in races where runners have increased the tempo and you ponder a decision to go with them or to keep the same pace. At those times the decision is based on the amount of mental toughness the runner has which is directly related to concentration. Mind over matter.  Some athletes will not place their bodies in high discomfort zones. In other words when they feel discomfort they back off a little so they don’t have to endure it. Other athletes will push through these episodes. And theoretically there would be various percentages of discomfort for each athlete. In other words some may back off at the slightest hint of discomfort while at the other end of the scale the athlete will not back off until his body gives in to the forces of human endurance from a physiological stand point.

If this is true, how does a person achieve this ability. Is it an inborn trait along with the other gene factors that give an individual the possibility of becoming a fine distant runner? I don’t see how that could be the case. Could it be the environment where the person is raised? Having a parent(s) that somehow instills the notion that giving up is not an option. Possible. Or is it a learned trait from the training the athlete goes through. I would think that the environment has some effect for surely a person who sees a way to move upward in society has a greater psychological drive than another who comes from a family position where they are comfortable. And that may be the greatest impetus of all. Is it that they are trying to be better, having a need to be better than the other person? Are they wanting to leave a life where they are not satisfied? Are they trying to show others that they are capable of achieving and this is they way they have chosen? In many cases it is one of the few roads available.

But surely, training has a lot to do with how a runner can push through discomfort. A training program that brings the athlete to discomfort periods time and after time must condition the “body of the athlete” and the “mind of the athlete” to endure higher and higher levels of discomfort.

So we find the perfect human body, with the right percentages of slow twitch to fast twitch muscles cells, who has been raised in the proper environment and is hungry for success. Then we place them in the proper training program that has been designed by a knowledgeable coach. Then we use the perfect environment(s); altitude, sea level, perfect trails, good sand, world class track, ample sun, temperature, humidity etc. Then we have the athlete run only because work would interfere. Running is work. We travel from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern hemisphere for the best competition, from Europe to North America to Asia.

If all this is done and we throw in a masseur, a doctor, a psychologist and a few other things I have surely left out, then surely, the outcome would be an athlete who can compete on an equal footing with any athlete in the world.  I knew athletes once who trained four hours a day and still worked an eight hour job. I wonder how they did it?