This is the way.

Inside today’s blog: This is the way.

The elusive chasm that sets elite athletes apart

Perform when you think you can’t

For the love of sport

GOAT tribute

My loyal readers know that I like to connect pieces of seemingly disparate information to reveal parallels or further illuminate distinctions. So, here goes: What do top-tier athletes embrace that the average player keenly tries to avoid? Said another way, what is one key characteristic that elite sports figures possess that escapes the weekend warrior? The answer may surprise you, yet it may be the singular quality that separates the sheep from the GOATs. 

Tennis Professional serving

The elusive chasm that sets elite athletes apart

I’ve coached for many years and still compete at a high level. Through the years, my hitting partners, opponents, and even my rivals have provided learning opportunities and improvement possibilities. I’ve internalized countless lessons along my tennis journey. These are my observations, perceptions, and current ‘facts.’ Of course, as do most perceptions, these may change over time or with the advent of new data. I’m convinced most ‘facts’ have a relatively short shelf life in today’s world. I share some of mine in hopes they may light a spark of discovery.  

I firmly believe that a fundamental attribute of ‘greatest of all time’ athletes is their unique methodology to measure their mental toughness. It is the thing that allows a player to push past failure, impart ultra-competitiveness, and instill confidence against all odds. It’s the one thing that brings the margin of superiority, the edge, the advantage to every endeavor. Elite players revere it, and average athletes abhor it. It creates a great divide among athletes – a chasm that is difficult to cross.

What is it? Pain. Pain is an integral part of exercise and sport. However, high-level athletes, who may possess higher pain tolerance, use it to their advantage. We’ve heard the phrase ‘play through the pain‘ or the ‘warrior mentality.’ Elite sports stars embrace the pain. The greatest athletes stay in touch with pain yet are not consumed by it. Pain can assist with focus and motivation.

Coach’s sidebar: I am talking about pain and pain tolerance in theory. The use of pain to spur performance or even masking by sheer focus are examples of ‘playing through the pain .’However, don’t let the ramifications of not addressing an injury permanently keep you out of the game. Always seek medical advice as necessary.

Perform when you think you can’t

Examples of pain points could be as simple as getting out of bed earlier or hitting the gym first. It could be running your hardest on the last lap. It is working toward momentary muscle failure. It’s the motivation to perform when you think you can’t. There’s a special kind of exhaustion that the world’s best athletes welcome. When pain and fatigue push legs and lungs to their limits, great athletes surge through to a gear even beyond their threshold. These athletes approach pain not with fear but as a challenge, an opportunity. Even though elite athletes may be feeling the effects of stress, they will persevere to the end of a task.

If you’ve done any weight training, you’ve heard of training to failure. The idea is to do as many repetitions as you can, with good form, until you’re tired. Then, keep going until you can barely get through the last rep—a push that will feel painful. Did you know that approximately 75% of the benefit in that training set comes from the last 3-4 repetitions before failure? The extreme push at the end garners a significant percentage of the benefit. Yet, most athletes and exercisers avoid it. Why avoid the obvious benefit? Because it hurts – a lot. Who in their right mind wants to go through that? Simple answer: Top-tier athletes do.

Other ‘pain points’ may be a dedication to reading and studying to improve your athletic savvy – even when it is the last thing you want to do. It’s a commitment to optimal sleep hygiene. It’s adhering to proper nutrition or even ingesting things that don’t taste good because they’re good for you. And it’s doing these things daily, routinely without question. 

Years back, I heard an Olympic Gold Medalist respond to the question, “How do you know you’re mentally tough?” The Olympian said, “That’s easy. By my tolerance for pain. When my pain tolerance is very high, nothing bothers me, and intense focus is a natural part of this process.” I have remembered this quote. And I’ve asked the same question to other elite athletes. Guess what? Their replies frequently center around pain tolerance. When their pain tolerance is at its highest, their mental toughness peaks.

Handicapped athlete's

   

For the love of sport

THIS IS THE WAY! It’s always been the way, and I believe it will continue to be the way for top-tier athletes of the future. Why? Top-tier athletes move through obstacles eagerly and consistently because they love what they do. Theirs is a passion – a purpose for what they do. This intrinsic motivation outworks and outlasts their competition.

Uncommon sense says that if you do not truly love what you do, you would be unlikely to make extreme sacrifices. Moderate interest produces restrained commitments and relative sacrifice. Those with the most profound emotional connection to their sport will also be the ones willing to push through the greatest pain. 

Coach’s Sidebar: Instead of pushing players to do more or try harder, help them nurture a love for what they are doing. Find the emotional connection. Once the spark takes hold, get out of their way because nothing will stop them. This may be one of the most important things a coach or parent can give. 

Interestingly, some of the best matches I ever played were when I was ill or when I had a nagging injury. I have crystal clear memories of matches when my initial expectations were low based on my physical condition. Yet, these were the very times I pushed myself into the ‘Zone’ or ‘Flow’ state. I recall that it was during these times I was completely dialed in – so much so that I didn’t even remember that I was hurt or felt ill. How did my A+ game come to me during these times?

It was my mental toughness fueled by my love for the sport. I looked forward to competing and genuinely enjoyed every minute of being on the court. I believe that my physical/health challenges required me to dig in deeper and focus at a higher level if I was going to be able to do the thing I loved.  

Don’t beat yourself up over your lack of effort or your waning willpower. These are not the root causes of your lack of success. Be completely honest with yourself. You may need to accept that you are only moderately interested in your sport or fitness goals. If you’re not ‘all in’ whether in sports or life, you’re apt to be disappointed. However, if you can dig deep through mindfulness, you’ll discover what you truly love. You’ll work through pain and effort and cherish the promise of what is to come.

Tennis champions

GOAT tribute 

The 2022 Australian Open saw the true grit of Rafa Nadal – again. This GOAT’s list of injuries over his long career attests to his love of tennis. In the summer of 2021, Nadal had foot surgery and faced the uncertainty of ever playing again. Then he got Covid. And, during the AO tournament, he had intestinal issues. He pushed to the finals. Nadal was being thumped by an opponent ten years his junior in the championship match. Yet, he found a way to win. He persevered in true Rafa form.

Why? Because throughout his career, Nadal has been willing to hit the extra ball, run the extra sprint, eat, hydrate, train, and sleep with extraordinary discipline. Because PAIN has been there with him throughout his career, he was able to make one of the most incredible pushes to the finish line any of us has ever seen. THIS IS THE WAY! This is the way of legends. This is the way of those who love what they do. Ponder the fact that there is a direct correlation between love and effort. In all things, this holds true. 

Coach’s Golden Nugget: I want to give an additional tribute to Rafa Nadal. Nadal has won 21 Grand Slam men’s tennis singles titles, the most in history. In addition to his incredible talent, he is incapable of disrespecting his sport, the fans, or a tournament. He gives superhuman effort with no excuses. When he loses, he is humble. To me, this is the epitome of a true ‘greatest of all time.’ Regardless of win/loss records, I don’t count a sports figure as a GOAT if they are arrogant, selfish, disrespectful, or insolent.

A true GOAT holds this title through talent and sportsmanship. How could anyone be a GOAT when they care more about themselves than their sport? I am grateful to have had the privilege of watching Rafa grow into a true ‘greatest of all time.’ 

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Learn. Share. Inspire

Until next week my friends!
Coach Fred

This is the way. Tennis champion Fred Robinson. NC tennis hall of fame.

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