I want you to be a great athlete

By Leo Isaac

People often imagine that the life of any great athlete must be a joy to live but the truth is probably, that it is not. Sure, there are moments of ecstasy when all the athlete’s efforts come to fruition but this belies the agony and heartache of the long journey that precedes.

Rising to increasingly high levels of performance involves day-to-day supreme effort not just in training but in life generally. It is a case of constantly striving to be better and this requires a high level of organisation of one’s time and energy to perform every last possible act that will benefit your sporting performance. Few athletes will take their sport to this level, maybe because of a lack of understanding or simply because they reach a personal equilibrium where they feel appropriately rewarded for their time and energy input. However, there are always a small number of athletes who are driven by personal factors to strive for higher achievement, and to dream the dream of being a great athlete. For such people, sport is an obsession in which their thoughts are focused every hour of the day. Probably, no-one starts out this way but simply evolves slowly over time until they are recognised by their own communities as an unstoppable force.

The issue with sport is that one’s feeling of worth as an athlete is often governed by the statistics of your own performance. If your statistics are improving, you are happy, but if not, it is all too easy to suffer a loss of self-belief and unhelpful emotions. Performance statistics can be overwhelming, belittling even, and lead to a tendency for frequent self-evaluation and comparison with others. The “numbers” become a sore that constantly burns a hole in your every thought. The more you desire those numbers, the harder they become to reach.

The purpose of this article is to help those who have the “statistics condition” to escape from this ailment, to reconfigure your thoughts and to develop a training process that is much more conducive to your well-being.

The start point is to consider the meaning of “great athlete” and to identify the important characteristics that are generally found. Perhaps if we consider the education industry, we can find a parallel. I am sure that we have all heard someone described as being a ‘great student’ by their teacher or professor. However, it does not mean that they were the top of their grade but instead someone who loves their learning, is diligent with their studies, and who contributes ideas and energy to others in the learning process. A good student is one who extends themselves in an effort to read all their study materials and still pursue more. They are exacting in their assignments, seeing the value of each one for its own sake and wanting feedback on how they could have been better. They value the knowledge and insight of others and appreciate the need for diversity of opinion. The great student is unceasingly one who wants to learn.

And so it is in sport. As a coach, I do not value mere performance. I value effort and when you move forward in performance statistics, I celebrate the striving you have made to be better, not the set of numbers you achieved.

Life is about striving. It is a quest to explore the limits of our human capability and to seek wisdom and enlightenment on our journey. In life, our happiness is not inextricably bound to what we own, nor is our value to society measured in terms of our remuneration. In sport, the satisfaction we experience when we achieve a new performance best is momentary and our cherished status as an athlete is no more than a short-lived perception. Sport, like life, is a journey which will be filled with emotions of every sort, and where it is the struggle that is important, not the achievement. If this argument about what is valuable in sport is not yet understood, then perhaps greater experience of life is needed.

So, if you want to be a great athlete, then start by truly appreciating the value of the daily struggle that it entails. Be a good student of your sport, relish each and every opportunity that presents and extend your capabilities in every which way you can. You will come upon barriers at every stage in your journey and there is no formula nor any secret of success that can be handed to you. You must steer away from the tyranny of a statistics driven approach and focus instead on the incalculable aspects of sport performance such as love for what you do, a desire to continually seek new learning and a want to explore every opportunity to improve. Without any doubt, it’s down to you to break through the successively harder barriers that appear on your journey. You must continue to extend yourself not simply by increasing the numbers but also through your application of every skerrick of knowledge that comes to you. Be aware that your actions stand out to others, earn you a reputation and determine your fate. To be a great athlete you must grow as a person, develop an appreciation for the intrinsic value of hard work, and welcome the really big challenges in life and training. There is absolutely no easy road ahead and that is what makes it all the more worthwhile. Listen to others who have made this journey before and don’t cast away their advice as only relevant to someone else not you. Every experienced coach understands the differences in ‘coachability’ between athletes, some that listen and really think about the advice they receive, and many that don’t. Realise that the value of a coach is far more than merely to give you technical and tactical instruction. It is time to seek their counsel, and listen.