When things inevitably get tough in life and in sport, the greatest threat often arises insidiously from within our minds in the form of the question “what the heck am I doing here?”
This question is never asked when things are fun, the answer is just too obvious then, but it waits for us, lurking in our moments of greatest exhaustion, pain and weakness. A champion is so much more than just medals and titles. A champion is a good answer to this question.
This question, cuts through to the very essence of our being. There can’t be a shadow of doubt. At that desperate moment, when faced with this profound self inquiry, there better be an honest answer. If you don’t have one, or are not honest with yourself at that point about exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it, you are going to be in trouble as everything falls apart.
As Friedrich Neitzche said, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. The answer to that profound question of “what the heck am I doing here?” is what makes your mind your weapon, or your weakness. The answer get’s you up before the sun and drives you beyond your comfort zone and sustains you out there. This answer is the essence of toughness and applies to everything from enduring the last few miles of a marathon, to the last few rounds of chemotherapy.
Rudyard Kipling so eloquently expressed this type of mental fortitude with these lines from his famous poem entitled “If”:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
Fundamentally this type of endurance only arises, if, your answer to question of “what am I doing here” is good enough. It can’t come from anyone else but yourself, and no one else has to know it. The actual answer is in unimportant, what is important is that you believe it wholeheartedly.
For me, I know. The answer is always changing, but to me, it’s always a good one; it has to be. I do it because I love it, because I can, for those who can’t, and because it’s a beautiful thing. A very good answer can sustain a sporting career for decades.
To gain experience, be consistent and enjoy longevity one must not be afraid take time out to get re-inspired, re-focus and set new goals. The answer to our question is going to change as we change. In order to have a good answer it will become absolutely necessary to take a step back from the routine and the grind to reassess things and re-answer that question from time to time.
This is as much a part of being a champion as the act of consistently performing at the top of your game. Gary Hall Jr, won Olympic Silver medals at the 96 Olympics, he then took time off, returned to win the Gold at the 2000 Olympics. Then after again taking almost 2 years off focusing on other interests, he returned to live a spartan existence of tirelessly toiling after perfection for another 2 years despite suffering from diabetes to once again win the Gold at the 2004 Olympics.
For him, the answer to that simple but profound question of “what the heck am I doing here” was worth more than all the minor competitions missed and passionless days of going through the motions during his years away from the sport. His answer, even though he took time away to find it, ensured his longevity, which gave him the experience to finish on top the Olympic podium quadrennial after quadrennial.
I am always impressed by consistency more than anything else when it comes to athletes and their sporting careers. From experience, I know that behind the impressive consistency lies great willpower, tenacity and toughness that arises from having a perfect answer to the question, and I always wonder what it might be for each person.