I’ve just finished reading David Epstein’s excellent book The Sports Gene, a fascinating exploration of the research on genetic and physiological factors that may contribute to exceptional athletic performance. Ironically, I got the book only a few weeks before I saw the fascinating Alex Gibney documentary The Armstrong Lie, which was intended to be about Lance Armstrong‘s 2009 return to competitive cycling in the Tour de France, but instead ended up being about Armstrong’s secret use of performance-enhancing drugs. Clearly anyone who takes PEDs is trying to gain a physiological advantage in competition, but watching Armstrong’s behaviour in the film made me wonder about another factor in exceptional athletic performance: how much do you have to care, or not care, to be successful?
Competitive cycling is a physically challenging sport, and the Tour de France has been called – by someone who’s competed in it – “the toughest and most demanding sporting event in the world”. But Gibney’s film demonstrates that physical ability isn’t everything in being successful in cycling – psychology is important as well. And Armstrong’s steely confidence not only made him dominant in cycling, but also helped him maintain the secrecy around his doping activities. One scene in the film, during the 2004 Tour, shows Armstrong catching up to Filippo Simeoni, the rider leading at that stage of the race, and making an inaudible comment to him; later, it was revealed that Simeoni had testified against Armstrong’s doctor in a “sporting fraud” case, and that Armstrong made a sarcastic comment about “nice work” before passing Simeoni to take the lead. Armstrong shows that same determination to dominate and control when he testifies under oath in 2005 that “I’ve never taken drugs”, and when he admits to Oprah Winfrey earlier this year that he did indeed take PEDs. In Gibney’s film, Armstrong almost seems resentful that his confession did not restore his image in the public’s eyes; his attitude is that he did what he was expected to do, and now he should be rewarded for it. Armstrong clearly cared about winning, but obviously cared less about the ethics of how he got there, and everything he could do – psychologically and physically – to win, he would.
Another perspective on the influence of caring, or not caring, about competitive success is in Allison Manley‘s interview with Dan Hollander, a brilliant professional skater who had an erratic career in amateur competition. Psychology plays a big role in success in competitive skating. Although skaters aren’t competing directly beside each other like cyclists are, one mistake in one program in one competition can result in a skater missing out on an opportunity they’ve spent years working toward – which puts tremendous pressure on competitive skaters to not only perform well, but also to perform well consistently. In that interview, Hollander explains the psychology behind his performance at the 1996 US national championships, where he ended up third – his highest national placement as a senior competitor.
Mentally it was always my issue to get focused and to get the job done. And you look at someone like Todd Eldredge and it’s like, he did clean programs all the time. When I look back at my [amateur] career, I think I completed four. It was the mental training I was getting, which was not conducive to being consistent….Scott Hamilton, he once said something to Mitch Moyer, to be a champion you either have to be a butthead, but using the other word [laughs], or you just don’t care. And it made sense, it hit home. I’m not a jerk because I don’t have that competitive instinct. So the other thing was, I don’t care. So [in 1996] I was at the point where I remember walking backstage before I went out [for the long program], and watching on the monitor, and Michael Weiss fell on a jump, and the first words out of my mouth as I’m pacing back and forth and looking at it were, well, I can do that jump. And then he landed a nice jump, and I was like, hmph, I can land mine better than that. It was like I was programmed all year to do the job I wanted to do. It wasn’t me, but I was programmed that way. And I went out, started the program, no nervousness, the whole thing just happened. And at the end the whole place was standing, and I was shaking my fists, taking my bows. That was all choreographed. I did that in my hotel room the whole day before, exactly how it would happen.
Armstrong (without the PEDs) and Hollander were both physically prepared for their competitions, and capable of competing at an elite level, but psychology played a significant role in both of their successes. Winning was important enough to Armstrong that he didn’t care about how he accomplished it, and when Hollander didn’t care about what his competitors did, he found confidence in his own ability. While I’m certainly not endorsing what Armstrong chose to do, nor would I present him as a role model of good sportsmanship, both he and Hollander each had to figure out how much they had to care, or not care, to become successful.
In his book, Epstein makes a similar point about how each individual athlete has unique physical factors that influence their performance capacity. Even with all the research that’s been done, there is still no consensus on the ideal physique that will ensure success in sports – and there likely never will be. Genetics and physiology might help an individual’s performance in a particular sport, but there’s no guarantee that an athlete possessing those natural advantages will be an elite performer, because there’s a lot of other factors – including psychology – that influence success. Epstein is talking about physical factors when he suggests, “If one sport or training method isn’t working for you, it may not be the training. It may be you, in the very deepest sense”. But he also says something very profound about where success in sports really lies:
Everyone benefits from exercise or sports practice in some unique way. To take part is a journey of self-discovery that, largely, is beyond even the illuminating reach of cutting-edge science.
And without the reference to exercise or sports, that statement could be true about achievement in any activity. The participation and the personal development is often more rewarding than the outcome – but the psychological factor of caring or not caring about our performance still might affect what we can physically accomplish.