Do or do not there is no try.
Too often we get things wrong when we talk about effort.
To say “we are going to need a better effort to accomplish x, y, or z” is not only reductionist and erroneous but unfair to those who made the effort in the first place. It presumes not only the ability to assess another’s effort acurately but foreknowledge of the future as well.
Every performance is affected by an almost infinite variety of factors only a fraction of which we have control over. No where is this more true than in the chaotic arena of sports. To assume if y is changed x would be the result is the definition of hubris. It shifts the focus from preparation to output. It instills a results-oriented rather than process-driven outlook.*
Bud Williams would always say, When you cross that finish line, if you can look your coach straight in the eye and say, I gave it all I had today, well, nobody can ask for anything more than that.
Now, I’m not going to argue disagree with Bud. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it is appropriate or right or the best you could possibly do.
The differences between trying hard and an appropriate effort is something the popular press failed to pick up on in the wake of Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset.
Dweck’s work center around the idea that praising talent over effort and process can have detrimental effects on how we experience the world.
Somewhere along the way the narrative became praising effort alone was enough. No matter how it was channeled.
If, however, I am sitting in my office with the door closed I can try REALLY hard to leave my office but am not doing my BEST until I put my hand on the knob and turn it. Up till that point I am quite literally beating my head against the wall.
There is a quote often misattributed to Einstein that defines insanity as the process of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This is not a mental illness. This is stupidity. They are not the same thing.
Growth mindset is Samuel Beckett:
It is Thomas Edison inventing 1,000 different lightbulbs that didn’t work all to find the one that would.
You can have 10 years experience or you have 1 year of experience ten times.
I have no doubt an 11:00 3k girl who always goes out in 78 for the first lap (sub-10:00 pace) is trying really hard. I also have no doubt she doubt she could perform better.
The key to performance is often about working smarter, not harder. Working harder may get the job done in tug-of-war. That is the exception. With most athletes, be it an offensive lineman, a pitcher, or a boxer, technique (and therefore performance) suffer the harder they try. The ones that work smarter, not harder, will prevail.
This is especially true in endurance sports where the an efficient distribution of energy (read: effort) is a key factor in performance.
In the words of Desiree Linden — one of America’s best and most consistent marathoners — fast running isn’t forced.
The idea that simply trying harder will equate with better results is not just false but can even be detrimental.
Rather than view on fatigue from a biochemical model (glycogen stores, lactate, acidosis etc. etc.) I find the model by steve magness more useful. In Magness’s conception fatigue is a function of the difference between our expected levels of fatigue and our observed levels of fatigue.
So, if the race feels a lot harder in the first mile than you expected, you feel fatigued. On the other hand, if getting to the third mile of a race easier than expected, you will understandably feel fresher.
The above photo is from the last 10m of the Men’s 800m Final at the Rio Olympics. Observe the progressive levels of strain on the faces of the competitors. From medalists Rudisha (relaxed), Makhloufi (slightly strained), Murphy (uncomfortable) to Bosse in fourth (more uncomfortable) on back to Kipketer in seventh (visible discomfort) the level of strain — not effort — is obvious.
Kipketer is trying just as hard — if not harder — than Rudisha. The difference between first and also-ran is not effort.
Through this lens, the fallacy of the “try harder” mantra becomes evident.
Performance becomes about preparation and mindset. It’s about harnessing the “flow” state common to peak experiences across discipline through the balance of challenge and skill.
It’s about where we choose to focus our attention and how we channel our effort. It is about giving the very best performance we have to offer moment after moment after moment.
Sometimes that moment is as wide as a mile. Often times we need to narrow it, to 400m, a 100 m. Sometimes it is ten strides. Sometimes in is one solitary stride. Again, and again, and again.
Rather than creating a feed back loop of I have to try harder, and harder, and harder it is about developing a calm conversation.
It’s about being present, not perfect.
* Results are important. For a good dissection of process vs results peruse Stuart McMillan’s Instagram feed from this June.