Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Character-Performance Connection

ORN [Obligatory Running Note]: 19 degrees and windy. 2.5 mile warm up. 4 x 1 mile at 10K pace, w/ 2 min. active recovery. 2.5 mile cool down. 3-4 mile recovery run later today.

If sports teach character, why then are so many professional athletes immature and spiritually bankrupt? (This is not a trick question). It’s because sports don’t teach character; they merely have the potential to teach character. Like so many things in life, you only get out of sports what you put into them. Obviously, you can achieve excellence in sports without developing character through them. The image I get here is Serena Williams' tirade at the U.S. Open. But sadly, there's really no shortage of examples, are there?

I find it interesting that the number of references I come across that say character development is the next frontier in running is increasing.

In Chris McDougal's book Born to Run, the Tarahumara are not the only runners to believe that a value system has the ability to affect running. Joe Vigil, coach to Deena Kastor and Team Running USA, believes that humans can push the barriers of endurance by developing “character.” Not the sort of character we typically identify with sports – not the “killer instinct” or “second place is first loser” attitude – but rather an attitude of compassion, kindness, and love. Is it possible that we have analyzed the scientific facts of running to the point of diminishing returns and the next advances in running will come from emotional and psychological changes?

Joe Vigil thinks the Tarahumara have the secret. He believes it so much that he has established these rules for Team Running USA:

· Improve Personal Relationships
· Improve Achievement Motivation
· Improve the Quality of Their Mini and Macro Environments
· Improve Their Athletic Maturity
· Show Integrity to Their Value System
· Display a Commitment to Their Mission
· Practice Abundance by Giving Back to Their Sport and Team

Vigil established these rules to promote the pureness of heart and passion he considers necessary to be a great runner.

Then there's the greatest triathlete to ever live, Mark Allen. He's clearly frustrated with the lack of athletes pursuing the metaphysical side of training. When Inside Triathlon asked him asked about the current pro field he said, " There is still not one athlete who is incorporating anything other than the numbers in the logbook to go fast. Anyone out there that you can think of that focuses on developing inner character to go fast in Kona?

A while ago, Matt Fitzgerald (author of "Brain Training For Runners") wrote an article for Triathlete that is so good, it's worth posting in its entirety:

Character and Performance

A couple of years back the legendary running coach Joe Vigil wrote an article called Anatomy of a Medal that provided his take on why his star athlete, Deena Kastor, was able to capture a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Women’s Marathon. Vigil provided lots of interesting details about Kastor’s running volume, altitude training, and key workouts. But before he got into any of that he wrote about Kastor’s character. He identified several qualities necessary for success, including athletic maturity and showing integrity to ones value system, which Kastor epitomized, in his view.

This passage intrigued me. Vigils tribute to Kastors character contained a clear inference that character enhances performance. It is said all the time that sports build character, and who knows what we mean by that? But could it really be true that it also works the other way? I decided to investigate the question further.

Get a Grip

The first person I thought of in considering the character-performance connection was Mark Allen (a.k.a. The Grip), who won the Hawaii Ironman six times between 1989 and 1995, but who before that lost the Hawaii Ironman six times and sometimes doubted that he ever would win it.

The year he finally broke through, Allen met a Huichol Indian shaman named Don Jose Matuswa in Mexico. Allen became intrigued by the Huichol spiritual traditions and immersed himself in them, and they began to transform his attitude toward life.

One of Huichols philosophies is that they’re grateful just to be alive, because their life down there is very uncertain, Allen says. Moved and humbled by the Huichols appreciation for the smallest things, he soon found himself letting go of many of life’s frustrations and anxieties, and feeling happier for it.

If you think about it in our own life, he explains, when you wake up in the morning and you feel jazzed to be alive, you know your day is going to be great, because you can handle everything. But when you wake up saying, Oh, god, this sucks, I don’t want to be here, you know what kind of day that’s going to be.

Granted, Mark Allen also trained better and harder than ever that summer, but he gives this new, all-embracing attitude toward life equal credit for the razor-thin victory he achieved over Dave Scott in Kona in October. The two men cycled side-by-side throughout the bike leg and ran side-by-side until the final miles of the marathon. “About halfway through the marathon Dave started really pouring it on and I was barely able to hang onto him”, Allen recalls. ”Before that pivotal moment in the marathon I had a ‘This sucks’ attitude. I didn’t want to be there. Dave was too strong. I was going to lose again.”

Suddenly, however, Allen had a vision of Done Jose Matuswa, and was reminded of his new attitude.”When that image came to me, all of a sudden I was happy just to be there”, he says. “I was with the best guy in the world. We still had 13 miles left to run. Right then and there I knew I had what it took to win.” With less than two miles to go, Allen broke away from Scott, and the rest is history.

Mark Allen is aware that most Americans have a hard time relating to the Indian rituals and traditions that enabled him to make this breakthrough, and facilitated many more astonishing performances over the next several years, but he insists that the essential point can be easily translated into simple, psychological terms. “If you have that perspective, where you’re just happy to be alive, then you can take challenges in stride, and not get stuck by the tough moments”, he summarizes.

The ability to smile in the face of suffering and difficulties- is that character? Could be. And if it is, then character is unquestionably a performance-enhancing quality.

A Coach’s Perspective

After discussing the relationship between character and performance with Mark Allen, I next called Lance Watson to get a coach’s perspective on the matter. Watson coaches triathletes of all levels, from absolute beginners to world champions. Interestingly, he told me that, in its broad outlines, the course of Mark Allen’s character and performance development is not at all unusual.

“I’ve observed a long-term development path in elite athletes”, he says. In younger athletes there’s a complete obsession with every minute detail of the sport. They live and die by their performance in the last race, the last workout, or even the last interval. Most of them have to go down that pathway, explore every nook and cranny of the sport in search of greatness.”

It could be said that these young athletes lack character, to a degree, because they have limited mastery of their thoughts and emotions. They try to put positive thoughts and feelings in their heads by exerting absolute physical control over their performance on a purely physical level. They have not yet achieved the level of maturity that would enable them to sustain positive thoughts and feelings regardless of how they perform, a capacity that, ironically, as Mark Allen discovered, actually enhances performance.

“One can only improve for so long by purely physical means. When they reach this limit, athletes must mature to continue moving forward. In their late 20s, triathletes often plateau, start butting their heads against the wall, and maybe go through a little burnout”, says Watson. ”Those who make it through and eventually reach another level of performance are typically the ones who find new meaning in their sport in their early 30s.”

The “new meaning” Watson refers to is, I believe, the same attitude Maark Allen adopted at mile 13 of the marathon in the 1989 Hawaii Ironman. Suddenly it no longer mattered whether he won or lost. He still wanted to win, but he was happy simply to be having the experience he was having. And that’s why he won.

Watson has found that those fortunate triathletes who do find new meaning in their sport tend to perform better because they loosen up and stop being afraid.They don’t take so much anxiety to the starting line and learn how to let go of stuff, he says, again echoing Mark Allen’s words. They may or may not take another step in their physical development, but they do take another step in their psychological development. Watson’s wife, Lucy Smith, an elite runner, is a good example of the phenomenon. “My wife is 40 now and she’s still winning races”, says Watson. “She stands on the starting line thinking, Okay here we go for another one. Meanwhile some of the younger athletes next to her are practically having a nervous meltdown.”

What Would Sartre Do?

When they discuss the psychology of sport, athletes like Mark Allen and coaches like Joe Vigil and Lance Watson don’t sound much like traditional sports psychologists. They sound like existential philosophers. Mainstream sports psychology is highly empirical and technical. It’s all about employing narrowly focused techniques such as goal-setting and imaging to achieve specific benefits. Non-measurable qualities such as courage and spirit are largely ignored, despite their obvious relevance to performance.

Existential philosophy posits that humans have absolute freedom to choose their own meanings for their lives, and to either boldly fulfill these meanings or fearfully shrink from them. Feelings of anxiety and discomfort overtake us in moments when a critical choice must be made. The right thing to do is face up to these feelings and make the choice that is most consonant with ones personal values and ideals, no matter how hard it is.

Mark Nesti is a reader in sport psychology at York St. John University in England and author of the book, Existential Psychology and Sport. In my search for a better understanding of the character-performance connection, I called him up and asked him to explain the existential approach to the psychology of sports.

“It’s about facing up to the discomfort that is associated with the sport experience, whether it’s the pain of racing, the grind of training, or the entire lifestyle sacrifice,” he explains. “Confronting those challenges and the anxiety that is associated with it builds character. A lot of people talk about how sport builds character and they never quite articulate what that means. The existential view is that the encounter with anxiety that comes with facing up to challenges repeatedly, facing up to those challenges and going through them, strengthens the core of who you are.”

Dr. Nesti is a good talker, so I let him talk. “Every time there’s a chance to step up, every time there’s an opportunity to move beyond where you are now, and the recognition dawns on you that that choice is yours, if you repeatedly say “no” to these opportunities, if you make “no” your typical response, that undermines your personality and character, and makes you less of an authentic person,” Nesti says. “You become less of the real you”.

“The idea is to become more and more authentic, which involves you fully engaging the question of why you should step forward. The more you do that, the more authentic you become, because you’ve gone through this process of wrestling with your own values and thought processes to make a decision.”

Nesti’s words made a lot of sense to me. They reminded me of my own struggles to become better able to tolerate the sheer agony of racing, to overcome a tendency to wimp out and race at 98% of maximum effort to spare myself the worst suffering. My ultimate success in this effort came through precisely the sort of process of facing up and making a choice that Nesti described.

The other thing I thought of as Dr. Nesti ran up my phone bill was the splendidly politically incorrect term “man up” that is used so often in sports these days. Manning up is refusing to let anxiety, fear, and suffering steer you away from what you know you really want as an athlete. The ability to man up is hugely beneficial to performance, of course, and I also think it’s the essence of character. After all, isn’t that what we really mean when we use the word character? The raw courage to say “yes” as Mark Allen said “yes” to the misery he had said “no” to previously on his way to winning the 1989 Hawaii Ironman?

Full Circle

Now I fully comprehend why Joe Vigil credited Deena Kastor’s “athletic maturity” and “integrity” to [her] value system for helping her win an Olympic medal. Thanks to her courage and, yes, her capacity to man up, Kastor has made a career-long habit of studying her values and ideals and choosing to step toward them rather than shrink away from them every time anxiety and discomfort have told her there was an important choice to be made. Her rewards have been the development of a more and more authentic character and steady improvement as an athlete. This is something all of us can do. “Either you’re growing, and getting stronger, or you’re regressing” Mark Nesti summarizes. You make your body stronger by challenging it, and the same principle applies to your spirit.

The take away? You could do a lot worse than taking a methodical approach to character development as a means to improving your running.

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