Michael Jordan with his signature leap from the foul line to the basket.
Michael Phelps, with the wing-span of an albatross, flying through the water demonstrating the perfect butterfly stroke.
Greg Louganis in diving and Roger Federer in tennis whose names are synonymous with the term “beauty”.
Craig Alexander giving a lesson on perfect running technique in the last miles of a marathon - at the end of an Ironman.
There’s absolutely no denying that some athletes seem born for their particular sport. We ooh and aah over their amazing talent, delight in watching their memorable performances, and talk about them with reverence.
But what about the rest of us – we mere mortals? If we aren’t gifted with these God-given talents, do we have the opportunity to do great things in our chosen sport?
A new book called Grit recently hit the best seller list. The author builds a solid case supporting the idea that the secret to outstanding achievement, in any field, is not always talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”
I’ve always been a strong believer in this concept but my description is a bit less precise and more geared to the athlete: Heart trumps talent.
Regardless of how one refers to it, I believe it’s a concept every athlete would do well to consider since, unfortunately, the majority of us are mere mortals.
It’s an inarguable fact that, if you’re doing something you don’t enjoy, you’ll find all sorts of excuses not to do it. We’re human and that’s just the way we’re wired.
And it’s also true that, if we have something in our lives we love doing, there’s no question about whether we’ll do it. We simply make the time and spend every available moment and ounce of energy in the endeavor.
If you like what you’re doing, you may possibly be able to conjure up the effort to try and become great. But if you absolutely love what you’re doing, your passion for it is part of your being and working hard at it is a no-brainer.
Every athlete has workouts that suck, moments of doubt, races that don’t meet expectations. He’s been frustrated, overwhelmed and discouraged. But the great ones summon the will to move beyond it, come back the next day and continue to pursue the quest. Good things happen for those who show up again and again and again, ready to work. Greatness is never achieved by those who give in when it gets tough, give a lesser effort or throw in the towel.
It’s supposed to be hard! If it were easy, what’s the point.
Great accomplishment is about extending above and beyond what you have already mastered. Winners are those who set very tough goals and will persist through failure after failure until the goals are met - and then start the process again with even tougher goals.
Natural talent will get you only so far. Even the greats have to couple their other-worldly talent with hard, persistent effort.
Time and energy are limited resources for everyone. Don’t waste any of it - make it all count. Know what you want to accomplish and design the work to efficiently get you one step closer to your goal. Keep a long-term view with a short-term action plan.
If athletics is your chosen path, it will require a great deal of tough physical effort. It’ll be taxing and you’ll do some serious suffering in pursuit of your dream. You must believe strongly that this goal (every workout, race, etc) is worth the physical pain and suffering.
If you’re passionate enough (want it with all your heart) and persist through the discomfort - if you have “grit” - you’re setting yourself up for great personal success, even if you’re not the most talented athlete in the field.
Steve Prefontaine “Pre” once held the American record in 7 different distances, from the 2000 meters to the 10,000 meters. His running style was not pretty. He defied the accepted strategy by running off the front. This guy ran hard and won again and again on pure heart. He was the personification of “grit”.
Heart trumps talent!
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The principle of reaping what we sow is certainly relevant to any effort requiring endurance. A Hail Mary might occasionally work on the football field (think Doug Flutie), but don’t expect that kind of miracle while participating in a 5k, half-marathon or marathon.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about endurance, it’s that it can’t be faked for long. Things have a tendency of shaking out fairly quickly. We know when someone has put in the work.
As heavyweight boxing great Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”