What makes a champion?
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
One of the champion performances that I remember so well was back nearly 30 years ago when a friend of mine, Lindy, was having probably her worst race result ever! At the time she was one one of the Junior stars of Australian athletics and held multiple state and national records over long distance events. Competing in a National 3000m Track Championships, Lindy was the favourite before the race, but from the gun she was off the pace and found herself dropping further and further behind each lap. As a teammate cheering her on, it was clear to me she was giving it her absolute all.
She still had the fire in her eyes as she came by lap after lap and even though her body wasn’t responding on that day, in her mind she didn’t once give up. There was not one excuse at the end and I thought it was probably the gutsiest performance I had ever seen. The lesson I learnt as a spectator: A champion gives their all, even when they are having a bad day.
It is easy to keep pushing hard and to stay in the zone when feeling good and everything is going to plan, but it is how athletes respond on a bad day that distinguishes the champions. There are many examples in Triathlon of the Champion prevailing despite having a less than perfect day. It is the never give up attitude that is deeply instilled that makes them a champion.
One whose recent success comes to mind is Jan Frodeno – who this season has won the European Ironman Championships and Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Though for me what is just as impressive was how he handled the season before. In 2014 he debuted at Ironman Frankfurt with three punctures. At Kona he dealt with a penalty and a puncture on the bike. This did not deter him and and to finish both races in a podium position was testament to his champion mentality.
The importance of a strong mindset is one of the biggest things I’ve learned from being on deck with the Trisutto.com coaching squad over the last couple of seasons. Coming from an age-group background it always fascinated me that Brett (Sutton) was never overly fussed about the workouts or the times, but placing more emphasis on producing a ‘champion mindset’. That is, the creation of a decision making process that can automatically kick in when things aren’t going right for you.
At the 2012 Olympics after dominating the bike leg, we saw Nicola battling various cramping issues on the run. If all had been going to plan, she would have waited for a sprint finish with the confidence that she was the fastest sprinter in the field. But she was forced to change her tactics less than a kilometre from the finish due to the onset of cramps. With 60 metres to go her body and legs were spent, nothing left... Yet she was somehow able to will herself to the finish line first and to win the Gold. Mind over matter.
When it comes to the Olympic Games, or a World Championship, it doesn’t matter how you feel. You still have to perform on that given day regardless. The champions know that how they feel both before and during the event is irrelevant!
Whilst most of us are not blessed with the physical attributes to compete in the Olympics or World Champs, we can all work to develop the mental fortitude to race like a champion. One of the hardest things to do is to keep competing even when it has all gone wrong. I’ve seen athletes pull out after receiving a penalty, or even after fixing a puncture, simply because they feel at the time they are no longer in contention for the win; even quit a race as they just didn’t feel good that day. It takes great strength of character to battle on at the best of your ability despite being aware you can no longer reach your immediate race goals.
The champion mentality needs to be rehearsed in training. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone pull the plug on a training set simply because they are not hitting the paces they think they should. (Myself included!)
This is one of the reasons our coaches tend to shy away from measuring devices in our training environment. If you’re not hitting the times you expect, it becomes demoralising and easier to justify calling it quits on the workout.
But the mindset of a champion shines through in training also, in that they will push on and complete the workout even though they may be way off their expected pace. The workout is therefore not viewed as a failure, but rather as a success as they were able to complete it on a not-so-good day.
At Trisutto.com, we don’t just measure champions by times or race places; we measure champions on perseverance and their will to improvise and overcome under difficult circumstances.