On Thursday, June 22nd, Jim Ryun ran a mile in 4:07. In his training log, he wrote “was hard.”
The mile race was the prelims for the AAU National Championship. Ryun had advanced to the final. But as someone who was just a few years removed from gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated when he set the high school mile record with a then incomprehensible 3:55.3, it’s easy to see why a ‘hard’ 4:07 mile could be concerning. After all, the next day in the final, he’d face off against six of the top twelve milers in the world. All as a 20-year old University of Kansas sophomore. You could imagine doubts were circling through his mind.
The next day, Friday, June 23rd, Ryun’s log has a giant asterisk next to it, reading, “Mile win. 3:51.1. Felt very easy.”
Ryun had set the world record, closing in a ridiculous 53.5 seconds for his final lap on a cinder track…and it felt easy.
When it comes to performing at just about anything, we often over-index on how we feel. Are we energized and excited for our presentation, or does our mind feel sluggish, forgetting key points in our talk? Do our legs feel springy and bouncy in the days leading into the state championship, or are they lead-like and dead?
When we over-index on the negative feeling, we often spiral. All of a sudden, we have reason and justification for performing poorly. “My legs didn’t feel good. I wasn’t on top of my game. I was off.” We set ourselves up for performing poorly. While I do not know what Ryun was thinking, it’s clear that how he felt during the preliminary round didn’t dissuade him from going for it 24 hours later in the final.
But it’s not just over-indexing on the negative that can get us in trouble. All of us experience a performance like Ryun’s second race record-blaster, where an incredibly difficult task somehow becomes effortless and easy. The tendency is to finish that race and think, “I can go faster. I’ve got more!” Then we spend a lifetime searching for that magical feeling where the difficult feels easy, all the while not realizing that part of what led us to that performance state was that our expectations were not that our performance would be easy, but that it would be hard.
Listening to your body is important, and how smooth or difficult something feels can provide valuable information. But it is easy to read into things too much, to over-index on what the experience feels like. Feelings come and go. The mind-body system is a complex one. It’s good practice to notice when things feel exceedingly hard or easy, but not to get too attached to either experience.