“...For it isn’t a man’s father, mother or wife Whose judgement upon him must pass; The fellow whose verdict counts most in his life, Is the man staring back from the glass...”-Man in the Mirror (Excerpt)
I’ve always considered myself a competitive person. It is something that has defined my self-concept for just about as long as I can remember. Measuring yourself by counting wins and losses works great when you’re standing on the podium at the pinnacle of your career. Inevitably though for most athletes, this view of competition can lead to disappointment, and a sense that they had unfinished business. As a result of this narrow-minded view of competition I have often found myself struggling to find meaning in seasons where I have fallen short of my goals.
I think many people share a similar view on competition. It is about winning and losing. The winner has successfully achieved their goal and the loser has failed. But this black and white view of competition leaves little room for athletes to cultivate an enjoyable journey along the way. Chasing the podium can provide athletes with a fleeting feeling of fulfillment and happiness but these feelings fade with time. The act of winning itself releases neurotransmitters that stimulate the pleasure and reward centers of our brain. Winning, therefore can be a form of pleasure-seeking, but like money it will not necessarily bring happiness or a sense of fulfillment. The problem is that winning is dependent on external factors and thus to continue feeling the pleasure and thrill of winning, an athlete must keep on winning.
While in theory, this sounds great - win and then keep on winning - the reality is that this is just not possible. Eventually, even the greatest athletes in any sport will succumb to the aging process and make way for a new generation of athletes. The question: is it possible to enjoy training and competing by developing a broader self-concept, beyond winning or losing, that leads to a greater sense of fulfillment regardless of the outcome? The remainder of this blog will seek to provide an answer to this question.
Fun versus Enjoyment
The training process is often miserable by nature. There is very little about the pain and suffering that go into a typical training session that could be considered “fun”. However if you were to ask someone who just won a close race to the finish, they would almost certainly tell you yes. If you were to ask the same question of the person who came in second you would probably get a different answer. That doesn’t mean that the person who got second can’t enjoy the competition, but rather that fun is not a necessary requirement to enjoy an experience.
Winning is fun. Setting PR’s is fun. Losing is not. The pain of a 60sec max calorie Assault Bike time trial is not fun. The problem is that all of these things are part of the training process. Athletes need to have the emotional capacity to reframe negative events and perceive failures in the context of the bigger picture. This is far easier for someone whose self-concept is made up of much more than just winning or losing, success or failure. To the athlete who only values wins or losses, a loss is a threat to their self-concept. To the athlete who has learned to be engaged in the process, a loss is just one step in the journey. The question then is, how do we get ourselves to be more engaged in process-oriented thinking than outcome-oriented (win-loss) thinking?
Flow and the Zone
Enter the concept of "Flow" introduced by Dr. Csikszentmihályi in his book titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Dr. Csikszentmihályi described flow as a state of optimal experience, where you are completely absorbed by what you are doing, your sense of time and self dissipate, and you are fully entrained with the process. To me “flow” resembled the “zone” described by elite athletes when they were at their best. Through his research, Csikszentmihályi, has identified 7 common elements that typically lead to a flow state. I believe that if athletes can learn to apply these “rules” of optimal experience to the training process, they can expand their self-concept well beyond wins and losses, so that they can enjoy the process of becoming their best self. I also believe that the daily application of these rules could lead to greater improvements in performance (more attention to the process = better adaptations)
I’m now going to lay out the 7 common elements required for a flow experience, and provide some notes on how this relates to the training process.
Flow states usually occur when we confront a task which we know we have a chance at completing.
Choose appropriate competitive outlets. The events you choose to compete in need to provide a challenge. The challenge must be right at the edge of your current skill or ability in order to create enough demand on your cognitive resources to encourage you to get into the zone. For example, if you cannot complete a strict dead-hang pull-up or strict dip, trying to learn kipping techniques for muscle-ups will be an incredibly frustrating process. If instead, you focused on a task that was more appropriate for your current skill level, like getting your first strict dip, then it is likely that you would be more engaged in the process and thus make faster progress.
We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing
Instead of going into your training session and just starting, take steps to eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, tell your training partners you will be focused on the task for the day, warm up thoroughly and have a plan - in this way you are creating an environment that encourages you to be focused ONLY on the task at hand.
The task has clear goals
Before starting any training session, you should know what cues you’re going to focus on and the outcome goal for each part of the session. For example, when you jump on the rower to do an energy system session you should know what time domain you are looking to improve, what energy system you are trying to train, how it should feel, which damper setting you’re going to use, appropriate stroke rate for that duration, and goal time and paces for the session. Taking a mindful approach to training where you identify the targets for everything you do down to the smallest detail will almost certainly result in better progress and more enjoyable training sessions than saying you’re going to “just go hard.”
The task provides immediate feedback
Setting task goals as outlined in the previous section allows us to have quick positive and negative feedback that draws our attention and engagement into the task. As you approach a session you could, for example, set a goal to hit a certain repetition scheme on a metcon (I’m going to break the wall balls into 10’s), hit a certain percentage of successful lifts at a percentage of your 1 rep max (I want to hit 7/10 snatches @ 92%), do a certain series of movements unbroken in a workout, or try to hit a certain pace on a cyclical movement. Regardless, the feedback from these mini-goals is very clear. Did I do all 10’s on the wall ball? Yes - good next time try to go for 12’s.
One acts with deep involvement, free from worry and frustration
This is more difficult to apply than the others, as it requires you to truly forget yourself during training, to stop being your own critic and become part of the process. I’ve always told my athletes that frustration is a poor teacher, by nature we don’t learn well when we are flustered. If you have ever watched a child in the process of learning to walk you can understand this key point of the flow experience. Each time they fall down, they patiently climb their way back up again, make some subtle adjustments, and then fall down again. There is no frustration, only the desire to learn. If we could approach our training mini-goals like a child approaching learning, our rate of progress would be far faster.
We feel a sense of control over our actions
In observing the best of the best in various sports, I’ve seen this play out in the real world. When you speak to an athlete who wants to be the best is asked why they couldn’t go faster or lift more, they often have something to blame. My training didn’t prepare me, my aerobic capacity isn’t good enough, I’m too tall for this movement, my heart rate spiked out of control too soon, etc. When you speak to an athlete who is one of the best of the best, they are always framing situations as if they are in control and no matter what happens, they can succeed. There is a fine line between being deluded and being in a mind state that can set you up for success and enjoyment of the flow process, but believing in yourself and your ability to control our actions is key.
Concern for our self-concept disappears
“What if I don’t win?, “What will everyone think about me if I fail?”, “If I can’t make this lift, and Rich can, then I’m too weak.” These are the obsessions with self concept. This could also be defined as insecurity, narcissism, self-obsession, etc. Comparison is necessary for competition. It stimulates growth and forces us to get better, but it also can very quickly take us out of flow state and we can begin defining our self concept solely by the outcomes dictated by the competition. If you want to enjoy what you are doing, you will have to figure out how to strive for successful progress, but also let go of attachment to the result.
As athletes, we have the ability to choose how we approach competitions. When we are younger and more solely involved in our athletic quests, we can (and should) ascribe to a black and white view of competition. However, your life and career are sure to have ups and downs. In those seasons of disappointment you have the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop emotional coping mechanisms to define yourself in a more complex way. As you grow, rather than solely focusing on winning and losing, you can begin to shift your focus to the training process. When you are able to cultivate habits of optimal experience on a daily basis, you can more frequently find yourself in flow states. Unfortunately, most of us are not cut out to be the best in the world at anything. If one has the circumstances, the self belief, the drive, the genetics, the time, and all the variables that allow them to soar to levels not attained by the masses of humanity, they should be obsessed with finding their limits. For the rest of us, we should look to improve to the best of our ability, while maintaining a balanced self concept, and constantly seeking enjoyment in the process. If the world shows you that you are not capable of what you dreamed of, you do not have to be hopeless and disappointed in life. You need to find a more appropriate strategy to love yourself in spite of your losses. If not, your confidence, sense of self, happiness, and life enjoyment will slowly pull you away from the arena where you fell in love with striving to be the best version of yourself. And in the end of the day, ultimately it is you who will lose respect for yourself and pay the ultimate price.