One of the athletes I coach had her last race of the season this past weekend. It didn’t go well; one of her worst races of the year. Her head just wasn’t in it, she said. That sometimes happens this time of year. It’s been a long season made up of purposeful workouts and weekly goals for what can seem like a never-ending 11-month tunnel of focus. For the most part, she got stronger with every race and altogether had a great season despite this finale.
When we talked after the weekend’s race, however, she was not depressed or angry. While she certainly would have liked to have performed better, there was no second-guessing or blaming others. She took full responsibility without commiseration. Interestingly, her previous race two weeks before was perhaps the best of her season. When we spoke after that race she was pleased but not ecstatic or giddy. There were no whoops of joy.
What really stood out for me from these two races was that there wasn’t 10% of difference, if we can measure such things, between her temperament from the best race to the worst race of the season. She was quite even-tempered. No excessive highs or lows. There was just a slight variation in disposition in spite of the big difference in outcomes. I have found this mental characteristic in nearly all of the most successful athletes I’ve coached.
For example, in the late 1990s I coached Ryan Bolton as he worked to make the US Olympic triathlon team for the Sydney Games. I’ve never coached an athlete who experienced so many setbacks that seemed to be out of his control. There was a period of several weeks in the summer of 1999 when he was repeatedly sick. During this time he lost a lot of fitness, was unable to race and dropped from 25th in world rankings to 76th. He never once broke down when it seemed he wasn’t going to make it. He never lost his focus, never became depressed, never felt sorry for himself, and never gave up when many would have. In May of 2000 he qualified for the team. The evening after that qualifying race was the only time I saw him truly celebrate after a race, and deservedly so.
I could tell you about many more such athletes both in cycling and multisport—pros and amateurs, old and young, men and women. In fact, I’ve yet to coach anyone who wore his or her emotions on the sleeve, who was easily depressed, or who was always ecstatic after victory who went on to be an exceptional athlete. I’m sure they exist. I just haven’t come across one. And it could be me. I’m sure I work better with even-tempered athletes. I suspect that in endurance sport it may even be beneficial to be evenly tempered. I’ve never seen any research on this. But it appears to me that long events are best managed when staying calm. Emotional swings would seem to be a disadvantage and a potential energy-waster when one still has several minutes if not several hours or days to go to the finish line – or the end of the season.