After a recent workout, one of my college athletes came up to me and said something that stuck with me. “This is normal Steve. Easy going, mild. But halfway through the workout, I looked over and you had this look of intensity that I hadn’t seen in you. And I was like, oh that was 4:01 miler Steve!”
When I reflected on what he meant, I thought back to where my mindset was during the moment he was talking about. During the first half of the workout, I was just trying to get through it. Stay in the workout and close enough to the college guys I coach so that when it really mattered, when we were pushing at the end, I could be in the thick of things. At that moment, I knew I had to change my mindset. I had to start competing.
I’m not special. When I watch my college athletes race and train I see the same thing. Athletes who go from looking like they are surviving and hanging on to appearing like determined beasts of a runner. One of my favorite runners to watch do this was my first assistant, Nate Pineda. When a race got difficult, regardless of his fitness, his face would transform. He’d get this steely-eyed glare of determination. His stride would get aggressive and he’d be locked in, seemingly unaware of anything else except for pushing through the most difficult part of the race.
I like to call this the flipping the switch. When you know that you need a little extra juice, when you need to be extra engaged in what you are doing. So many people watch an NBA or NFL game, or even a marathon and think that those athletes are competing at the same max level the whole time. But they aren’t. They are working hard, putting a lot of effort into it. But when things get tough, when the game is on the line, many flip the switch.
From working with athletes in a variety of sports, here’s what I’ve learned are the keys to competing:
1. Know when to compete.
It’s not about always being competitive. We all have the friend who everyone hates to play board games with because it will turn into an all-out war. Or the co-worker who battles to finish his project before the rest of us. Many people think that being competitive means always being on, always competing, no matter what it is. But the best of the best know when they need to be competitive.
The competitiveness switch is finite. It’s our turbo boost. A signal to our mind that this matters a lot and that we should use all our powers to hone in on getting us through the tough patch. If we try to stay zoned-in and focused for too long, it backfires. Every situation or moment can’t be important.
Take running a marathon. If we are competing in the first few miles, running out of energy for when things get tough is certainly in our future. You see this in inexperienced marathoners, who are expending anxious energy early on, always running right on the shoulder of the leaders and responding to every mini-surge that occurs. They are being competitive when it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to over-compete in the early miles, we need to compete when our race is at its make or breakpoint.
2. Know how to flip the switch.
I’ve seen athletes slap themselves before a race or in between intervals. I’ve seen facial expressions shift from a looking of wide-eyed panic to a deadly stare of determination. I’ve watched people talk to themselves mid-performance. There are a number of ways to flip the switch but they all utilize some sort of mental framing of the task at hand and a shift in focus or attention.
When tasks get difficult, our default is to fall into a preventive or protective state. We limit the damage, try to survive and get through. But when you flip the switch, you become proactive. You frame the task at hand as something that you’re capable of winning at, not just surviving. When you take a proactive mindset, your mind and body are willing to push a bit more. You wrestle back control, instead of being at the whims of stress and fatigue.
Manipulating attention is the other key to flipping the switch. By moving from distracted and taking in the world around you to narrowing your vision on one task, the full weight of your mind’s abilities get behind you. When I ask athletes about this moment, they often refer to narrowing their attention, focusing on the person ahead of them or the goal at hand. And if you watch close enough, their facial expressions often change. Their eyes take on a deep stare, they are fully engaged. The look of panic or bewilderment dissipates. It’s as if they’ve narrowed in on the task at hand and are focused almost entirely on that.
3. Know how to turn it off.
Finally, they know how to turn the switch off. Research on elite athletes shows that resiliency is tied to efficient termination of the stress response. In other words, once the competition is over, or once they’ve utilized their turbo switch enough, they turn it off. Either saving it for later or transitioning into recovery mode. This oft-neglected skill prevents the disease of over competing, or when you lose the effectiveness of being able to compete because competing becomes the norm. Like a coffee addict who no longer feels the effect of caffeine, you lose the ability to flip the switch when it matters most.