Sunday, December 2, 2012

Yins and Yangs of Performance: Being "Due"

One of the hardest things to deal with as an athlete (or in life, hence why sports movies seem to always have the best speeches) is a subpar performance, especially when it's a game, race, match, etc. that has been the long term focus. In triathlete terms, this means sucking in your "A" race.  Practically every time I've ever chosen a true A race, this has pretty much happened to one degree or another, which is beyond frustrating...but there IS a silver lining to my most recent crap performance.
My major in college was in Government (not sports psychology, so don't sue me when this whole lesson makes absolutely zero sense to you), so I learned my fair share of abstract concepts and theories to explain societies, governments, and people.  One of the most prominent ones was that of the philosophical dichotomy.  Despite what we may want to think about the uniqueness that is the human mind, a lot of it can be boiled down to simple logic of yes-no, 1-0, left-right, etc.  In our daily life, we even tend to create a dichotomy.  Nearly any given situation in our daily lives, we tend to force a dichotomy in an us vs. them, black and white sort of situation.
When I get my my masters in systems engineering, I will find a way to incorporate this into a design project.
However, there is also the ancient eastern idea of the Yin and Yang.  It's a little distinct from the logic or philosophical dichotomy, but rather that there are complementary forces at work in any given situation.  Then, I still see the further connection with Newton's Third Law.  For those who can't remember your most basic introduction to physics,
Law III: To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.
Wikipedia has naked line drawing ice skaters pushing against each other.
Actually, I like Newton's version of it best, because it's what I've noticed seems to be the best description of athletic performance.  What I mean by that is that in every terrible performance, not only is there a lesson to learn from what went wrong, but there is a great performance inside of you.  Now, if it's a bad performance because you're in bad shape that's one thing, but bad execution? That can be fixed instantly.  When you have a bad performance, the best advice I can give is to just get out and give it another go, one way or another.
Some of the best examples of meltdowns include a crappy Collegiate Nationals in 2011 compounded by a drafting penalty, a horrendous Collegiate Nationals in 2012, a terrible Age Group Nationals 2012 compounded by a flat tire and bee sting, even a terrible Giant Acorn International in October.  Well, most recently, this included a simple little 10k turkey trot in Virginia Beach.  I didn't really focus on it per se, but I still wanted to do well.  I had been working hard on my running lately, and I wanted it to show. Well, it didn't.  I blew up HARD and just wanted the damn race to be over.  I blew up the first half mile thinking I ought to be in the front pack, even if that included a professional marathoner and triathlete, but I was an idiot, and it was a death march, similar to Giant Acorn.
I felt a little better about the race after going mountain biking, but I still was a bit bummed. I knew I was in better shape than a 40:40 for 10k.  I scoured the interwebs to find any local running race.  I found a teeny tiny 5k just outside of Richmond the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Sure, it was only two days after my 10k, but I had to do it.  I lined up at the start of arguably the most low key, least official looking race I've ever been to and went.  Obviously I took the lessons learned like trying my absolute hardest not to overshoot the first mile.  More importantly though, I just felt like I had more heart to it and was able to suffer more.  Now, should I be impressed or super-pleased with winning a teeny tiny 5k with a time of 17:40something? Hell no.  That's nowhere close to where I want or need to be.  However, what's important about this is that it shows I can get back over the terrible performance.  It shows that the first turkey trot was not exemplary of where I am in my training.  It shows that what I'm doing is working and I just need to be smarter.  Most importantly though, it shows that no single performance is ever indicative of, well, anything except for that day.  No single performance is externally valid in and of itself therefore it cannot necessarily be used to predict or forecast, but collectively we can begin to get a better picture.  The only thing we can do with certainty, though, is describe what is happening or has happened, and that's why we run the races. There's always a spectacular performance in there somewhere, just as there's probably always a god-awful performance in there somewhere.  The best in the world, though, know how to find more of the former and fewer of the latter when it counts.
This definitely goes both ways, too.  A familiar example would be Alistair Brownlee's performance at Hy-Vee only a few weeks after the Olympics.  In the last few years, Alistair has been all but unbeatable, culminating in his gold medal in his home country.  A few weeks later he decided to try out a non-draft triathlon (not what he normally does, for those of you unfamiliar) that had a massive prize purse.  Sure, it was a new format, but he absolutely crumbled, running a time similar to some of my 10k times.  He had apparently used up his good performance(s).
I used to go to a lot of Yankees games growing up with my dad.  Every now and again a player would come up to bat and my dad would say "all right Bernie (or Tino or Paulie or in later years, A-Rod), you're due."  Now I understand what that means.  Obviously the statistician in me says that each race or at-bat is independent and we are only equally "due" at any given race.  That's not true at all though.  Every time you're up to bat or on a starting line, past performances have an impact n how you perform in terms of fatigue and strategy.  So, the best we can do in training is find what tips the odds in our favor for being "due" to have that spectacular performance, and leave the terrible performance for some other time (like preferably at a turkey trot, as opposed to a national championship).
They were due.

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