When you grow up as a track athlete you are faced with the black and white nature of the sport. You instantly know if a race was successful or not based on the time run and the place given. No matter how much ruminating about the weather or pacing or tactics that might have accounted for the discrepancy in your performance and your expectations, you can’t justify it.
This notion of clear success and failure is what separates sports like track and field apart. In other sports, we can justify our way out of almost any performance. Even if we missed the winning penalty kick in soccer, we can look to our play the other 89 minutes of the game, or blame our teammate who missed the crucial pass or shot that would have put us in position where our missed shot wouldn’t have mattered. It’s the same story in football, basketball, or any other sport that isn’t measured by minutes and seconds or feet and inches. There are no judges to blame it on, no referees who deflated your chances, no teammates to act as scapegoats, and no partial victories of ‘winning’ the defensive battle while your offense couldn’t take care of business.
With individual sports, it’s all you and you know where you stand compared to every other person in the world. In many, this black and white culture of success creates an intensely driven cultural dynamic. The obsessive passion for continual improvement becomes the norm.
There’s a reason why in individual or endurance sports, the ‘grind’ of work is glorified. Look no further than the bragging of training twice a day on Christmas or the monk-ification of the endeavor in book like Once A Runner
, where the title character spends his days in a secluded cabin in the woods hammering out endless 400m repeats while his relationships around him fall
This passion, drive, obsession, defines sport.
In a well written article, my friend Brad Stulberg
took a look at what is beyond this obsession in the world of sport. Through story and science, Brad explores this relentless pursuit of excellence that we are all familiar with. While the underlying passion is complex, to truly get a grasp, we have to combine the psychology and even the psycho-biology of where this obsession comes from. While Brad explains some of the science, and offers a few very compelling stories, I want to expand on the notion of pushing.
As someone who grew up in this relentless pursuit of excellence culture, I can regale you with stories of track workouts in the middle of tropical storms, long runs staring at a wall on the treadmill to engender ‘mental toughness’, and the like. The OCD drive is part of who I am and certainly permeates other parts of my life.
For a long time, I’d say my biggest fear was one of “settling”, or not reaching my maximum or at least giving everything I could to reach that. I’m a believer in continual search for improvement. That task of always getting better is one that I hold near and dear to my heart. The same obsessive compulsion I applied in running, I’d apply in other aspects of my life, trying to improve and constantly move progress. So the notion of “settling” was almost against my being as a whole.
Settling is traditionally thought of as being satisfied with something that is not your best. Whether it’s in settling for a relationship, a job, or a controversy, the implication is you are walking away with something less than ideal. You could have done better; there was more left on the table. In other words, it has a largely negative connotation. And this is how I took it.But like most things in life, framing matters. How we frame a concept colors how it impacts us.
A Deep Need for Closure:
As human beings we have a great need for closure. As discussed in his book Nonsense, Jamie Holmes makes the case that ambiguity rules the world and that it’s our job as humans to make sense of it as best we can. When we are faced with uncertainty, we naturally grasp at any possible solution that allows us to wrap a bow around the issue and box it up as complete. People go to extreme lengths for closure, from believing they were abducted by aliens to convincing themselves that they absolutely hated that ex-boyfriend who they were ‘in-love’ with 24 hours before. Ask yourself, how many times you’ve had to have that one final talk or get in the last word before drifting apart? That’s the drive for closure.The reason is simple. Ambiguity makes us feel uncomfortable. It leads to that nagging feeling of uncertainty that hovers over us when we can’t quite make sense of a problem. In our own minds, the need for closure manifests itself because of our deep need to have our internal narrative be coherent and consistent. In other words, we need to feel good about the story we tell to our self of who we are and how we act. If we don’t close out a coherent story, we sit with that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing, whether it’s about our selves or our beliefs.
In the coaching world, when an athlete has a subpar race or an injury, we have an innate need for closure. The desire to have an answer is so strong that we push for an explanation even if there isn’t a readily available one. While I’m a firm believer of there always being an explanation, sometimes it’s outside the grasp of our or anyone’s knowledge. Yet, “I don’t know” is seldom seen as an acceptable answer. Instead, if you are
like me, following a poor race or an injury that pops up out of nowhere, you’ve seen some pretty crazy explanations.
I’ve witnessed others perform mental gymnastics to explain why X occurred. It might be blame the entire race on the meal the night before, or an injury on some complex and likely invented biomechanical movement that makes no sense. How strong is our desire for an answer? Think back to how many of our ‘injuries’ were caused by “your glutted aren’t firing.’ For a few years, it seemed every problem under the sun was caused by this.
Why weren’t people’s glutes not firing? Did we have a massive influx of the millennial generation simply forgetting how to activate the large and powerful muscles in the butt? Doubtful. Instead, trainers, PT’s, coaches, etc. likely saw an injury (knee pain, IT band, shin splints, etc.) and needed an explanation so freaking bad, that they remembered all those articles they’d read and guru’s they listened to online that mentioned something about glutes. So the glutes became the explanation. It became our closure.
Now that we’ve established how strong our desire for closure is, what’s that have to do with obsessing over performance or settling?
The Art of Settling
Settling is a part of our innate human drives. As Robert Goodin stated in his dissertation
, the reason we settle is simple. It creates closure. When we settle, we are establishing that the case is closed. Whether it’s settling a debate, or settling down with a family and creating a commitment. As Goodin stated, settling creates an anchor point off which to judge our work so far off of, and to move forward from. These anchor points serve as almost check points to see if we are on the path we thought, and if not to course correct and move forward from. These are “fixed points around which to plan your life.”
Settling allows us to wrap up a story, create the narrative on our head that we want and to feel good about it. We create an anchor point, saying ‘all that is done with, let’s move forward.’ In other words, settling in certain aspects of our lives frees up capitol to move forward and not obsess over things that we don’t need to obsess over anymore.
Contrary to our common notion of settling being bad, when looked at in this light, settling is as useful as obsessive drive is. We have a notion that all elite performers need obsessive drive to reach the top. We also know the drawback of being overtaken by this obsession, so there is obviously a sweet spot in which we have enough to propel us forward but no so much to create a paranoid, isolated mess of a person hell bent on accomplishing a goal without being able to see that he is in fact holding himself back.
The same could be said with settling. While instant settling into a content-ness is simply us falling victim to our need for closure too early without exploring the mystery of life or pressing boundaries, there is a danger in the other extreme. If we never settle, then we have no anchor points. We lack the foundation that gives us permission to explore items in a different area.
When comparing pushing and obsession versus settling and complacency, it’s tempting to see it as a good/bad, either/or issue. I’d counter, much to the chagrin of my younger self, that depending on the situation both avenues need to be cultivated. As a coach or athlete, it’s our job to figure out what aspects we should be relentlessly obsessed about and which ones we simply need to settle. Just like in a long race, perhaps a 10k on the track, there are points where we need to be obsessively driven all-in focused on pushing the pace as hard as we can. But there are also those middle miles where we might need to “settle” in the pack and go for a ride, turning our brain off until it’s time to engage with full attention and drive to the finish. The same is true in coaching or in life.
My high school coach, Gerald Stewart, used to tell us that we can only truly be great at 2 or so things at a time. He’d often point out that as high school students, we had running, school, and a social life to worry about, among other problems. He’d tell us to choose two to be great at, and one just settles with what you got left. His hope, of course, was that we chose running and school.
So while, this piece doesn’t have a direct relationship to training, and I don’t have the answers on when we need to push and when we need to settle, I hope that it counterbalances the idea of always needing to be on, driving mercifully forward. Without a doubt, the strong push to relentlessly push is an attribute that is needed. There is no way I would have been able to grind out 17 miles a day with a full college workload without some crazy obsession pushing me forward. As demonstrated in Brad’s article, it is a strong driver. But, how far and in what direction this driver is applied is often what separates the ones who reach success and those who crater into burnout and bitter dissatisfaction.
Knowing when to push and when to settle is one of the keys to making sure that we stay focused on what actually matters. If we are constantly pressing, without taking a brief moment to surface above water and take a look around, we could miss the key components to reaching the next level. Instead, we might be haphazardly driving full bore in the wrong
We need a bit of obsessive pushing, with a tinge of settling to keep us on course. It’s about knowing when to unleash the power of each and when to ignore our desire to fall into the trap of defaulting to our normal state of settling or pushing. It’s not that pushing or settling are counteracting concepts on the same line. Instead, they can be mutually beneficial in so far as settling can lead to more productive pushing at a later time or in a different endeavor. In the end, it seems, it is about making sure they are complementary.Our put another way:
“If we do not settle some things – our goals – then we will have nothing to strive for. If we settle everything too firmly – if we resign ourselves too completely to the world as we find it – we have nothing to strive for, and nothing to live for. ‘Settling’ and ‘striving’ are thus deeply intertwined: we settle some things in order better to strive for others.”
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