What separates the Elite from the Amateur? Is it their training regime? Recovery protocol? Nutrition? Genetics, perhaps? What makes the best of the best? What makes them better than you?
Every elite athlete I’ve ever met has had only one thing in common: A mental strength that surpasses physical limitations.
Listening To The Best of the Best
Last Spring, my husband and I sat down to dinner with some of the best from across the world. They were all in town to compete at the Kern US Open. This is a powerlifting meet with the largest cash prizes ever offered in the sport. The Kern US Open hosts the best in Powerlifting, and a group of them met up with us for dinner.
Over the course of the night, as we were discussing our training and recovery, I was listening intently. These guys are world record holders, I was sure to learn something. As they were talking, I was trying to find the similarities, but really the differences are what became apparent. They train in different gyms across the world. They have different coaches, different meal plans. They have different injuries they are training around.
Clearly, they each have different genetics, so what does it take to make them the best? What is it that places these guys amongst the best of all time? What do they have that no one else does? And more importantly is it something that can be taught?
I am of the type that believes in the 40% rule: “When you think you are done, you have only gone 40%.” The mental aspect of training I believe is something that matters just as much, if not more than, the actual training itself. The reality is, training hurts. It’s brutal, It’s not for the weak. Its knowing, walking in to the gym, that you are about to purposely inflict pain, and you welcome it.
Each of these athletes walk into a meet knowing they will win. They train with intensity, as if it’s the only thing that matters. Many of them still work full time jobs, and have families. They have set aside self-doubt and insecurity. In their mind, they have already won. The common denominator in each of these athletes is the same.
Removing Self-Doubt in Order to Find Success
When presented with an obstacle, literally or figuratively, what is the most common reaction?
We see an obstacle or challenge as the brick wall and we turn around, attempt an approach from another direction or even sometimes, abandon the path all together. It is rare to find the type that will continue through, breaching the wall because they know it’s the fastest way to their destination.
Why? People are afraid of risk. They value safety. This applies to all facets of life. People stay in comfortable relationships or secure jobs not because they find them fulfilling, but because they find them safe. Does that ever result in success? Well, I suppose that depends on your definition of success.
For the athletes we had dinner with, mediocrity is not success. Being strong is not the same as being the strongest. There is no reason, in their mind, as to why they could never be the greatest of all time. They have no self-doubt, even when presented with a reason that would allow it. Many, if not all, of these lifters have faced serious injury, some may even call them debilitating. But they don’t give up on their goals. They rehab, recover, and resume training. One of my closest friends endured over 65 surgeries, including a hip replacement, and still went on to set an all-time World Record. The best in the world have one very simple trait that connects them.
Fortitude - noun / for·ti·tude / \ ˈfȯr-tə-ˌtüd , -ˌtyüd \ : strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.
Fortitude. An admirable quality. Some people are born with this trait. They are the First Responders, the Soldiers, the high-level competitors. The ones that keep going when everyone else has quit.
Recently I listened to an interview with Courtney Dauwalter. She won the Moab 240, a 230-mile ultra-marathon in Moab, Utah, this past October. Courtney not only won this race, but finished a full marathon in front of the next runner. 8 hours separated her and her closest competition. She said she slept a total of 12 minutes over 58 hours.
Obviously, the physical training she had to endure to be able to complete this was intense. However, it was the way she tackled it mentally, that I believe, was the determining factor for her win. Her previous race was the Run Rabbit Run, a 100 miler in Colorado. At mile 90, she went blind. What is being called Ultramarathon-Associated Visual Impairment (UAVI), she gradually began losing her vision on the rocky course until around the 90-mile mark, she was unable to make out the area around her. No longer able to navigate the trail, she fell many times, at one point, smashing her head against a rock, causing blood to pour from the wound.
She did not stop.
She finished the race, winning that one just a month before tackling the Moab. In the interview, she was asked what she would have done if at the finish line they told her she still had another 20 miles to go. Her response, “well, I guess I would strategize with my team and keep running”.
The last time you skipped a workout, what was your reasoning?
Training Yourself Not To Quit
Can you learn to conquer the mental aspect of training? Is it possible to learn how to tap into the part of the mind that will force you to push through?
I believe so. I believe that through concentrated effort you can train the quit out of you. You can change how you react to obstacles. You can adapt and overcome. I do believe that Fortitude can be learned. Through repeated practice you can learn to push past boundaries, and so many people do.
But then why are there still so few at the top?
To write this article, I wanted to talk to someone I have the utmost respect for. Someone who has overcome adversity, and stood on the platform with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Someone who has fallen from the top, and has fought to come back, multiple times. Someone who encapsulates the definition of Fortitude.
I reached out to Brandon Lilly. A quick search of his name on the internet and you are faced with a multitude of results. He is a World renown lifter, author and a coach. He created the Cube Method, a training protocol based on his experience as an athlete. He has also faced career ending injury, more than once, and has come back stronger, each time.
I met Brandon just over 2 years ago in San Diego. He travels, hosting strength seminars to help people become the best lifters they can be, and I was fortunate enough to attend.
The questions, and his answers, were enlightening:
“What does Fortitude mean to you, and how much of a role do you believe it plays in your training?”
“Fortitude has become a buzzword. A hashtag. Another word in a long line of self-imposed words that make us feel good about ourselves. The literal definition is ”courage in pain, or adversity”. I visit children’s hospitals and I see fortitude. I see children that have no bearing for what they are facing, yet they meet each day, each guest, each moment with a smile. I see parents heartbroken, full of guilt that comes from a place of innocence. Somehow, they blame themselves for their child’s suffering. I’ve known service men and women, that have suffered horrific injuries in battles, yet fight, and work only to go back and keep going. Keep fighting. That is fortitude. When I look at my injuries, the surgeries, the time spent in hospital beds and in recovery I almost feel pathetic that it was generated from a hobby. Something most view as a casual endeavor. So, in short, my fortitude comes from knowing and seeing others that are truly stronger, and greater than me….”
His response gave me a whole new perspective. Maybe fortitude isn’t solely what these athletes have in common. Maybe, it goes a bit deeper than that.
I believe to be the best, in order to be the greatest of all time, you are grateful. You have the ability to recognize your gift, and you have respect for it. You appreciate what you have, and you honor it through effort. Every one of the Athletes I have mentioned give back in some way. Yes, each of them show fortitude, each of them know how to remove self-doubt and work through adversity. But more than that, they are humble. They are mindful, and they have found purpose in their passion.
Find Your Fortitude and Make the Most of It
I’m not trying to be the best as exercising. If you are reading all of this and taking it literally, you are missing the point.
The mindset it takes to be at the level of these athletes is what we need to focus on. If you’re not an athlete, feel free to sub in “businessman”; the fact remains, without training your mind, you will fail.
Fortitude isn’t something we are born with. Ideally, it is planted as a child, nurtured and encouraged as we grow older. Sometimes, it is something we must self-teach and grow. How do we learn to push through obstacles? How do we begin to remove the doubt that is keeping us from being successful? We grow through struggle. We grow through experience, through change. Just like the muscle in our body, our minds grow when we are forced to adapt and overcome. We listen and learn from those that have walked the path before us. We take a page from their book as we write our own stories. We recognize what our own talents are and we nurture them. Whatever it is that you are gifted with, and I believe we are all given some unique ability, don’t take it for granted.
Jamie Popp Christenson is a SOFLETE athlete and is the 2017 USS Pro Women's Worlds LW Champion. She is committed to practicing what she preaches.