Part 1 — All I Really Need To Know About Human Performance I Learned In Kindergarten (or Notes on “How Bad Do You Want It”)

This started as a personal “Cliff’s Notes” for me as I was reading through Matt Fitzgerald’s new book How Bad Do You Want It. So much of the contents felt like practical wisdom we all know instinctively, but never had evidence to back up the claims — the kind of things we believed when we were kids and gradually forgot about, or were told by a coach in a pep talk and chose to dismiss as empty encouragement. So as I read the book that felt like a list of things forgotten, I decided to write that list down in the form of main points, supporting elements, and examples and research.

Matt Fitzgerald is disciplined about staying within the scope of the original research. In other words, he doesn’t attempt to apply the teachings of the book outside the world of endurance sports. For example, he doesn’t assert you’ll get that promotion or accomplish that life goal (or even that you’ll improve in physical activities other than endurance sports) by asking yourself “How bad do you want it?” I, on the other hand, may speculate from time to time… that the take-aways from this book… that analogies for the psychobiological model exist in many or all aspects of our life. To what extent they exist, I don’t know.

Each chapter of the book addresses a different element of mind over muscle, and rather than cram them all into a single post, I’m going to break them up and attempt to distill the take aways from each chapter in its own post. As a form of disclaimer, I’m basically paraphrasing the book by Matt Fitzgerald, and any inaccuracies or misinterpretations are my own fault. Apologies in advance to Matt Fitzgerald for any such errors.

Chapter 1 — A Race Is Like A Fire Walk

The Point
You can beat someone stronger than you.
An endurance competition is won through a combination of the physical capacity a competitor possesses (physical fitness), and how much of that physical capacity a competitor is able to summon (mental fitness).
The Supporting Elements
  • The Psychobiological Model states that: “exhaustion occurs during real-world endurance competition not when the body encounters a hard physical limit such as total glycogen depletion, but rather when the athlete experiences the maximum level of perceived effort he is willing or able to tolerate.”
  • Humans do have hard physical limitations, but they are in practice never encountered because the psychological limit of how much effort a person is willing to tolerate always comes first.
  • Perception of effort comes from the brain, not the body.
  • Physical fitness comes from genetics and training
  • Mental fitness comes from personality traits, which is to say nature and nurture. In the world of human performance and sports science they call this coping style.
  • Coping Style is the combination of an individual’s behaviors, emotions, and thought patterns called upon to respond to challenges.
  • Coping styles are composed of coping skills and traits
  • Coping Skills are generally context or sport specific… like knowing your position on a course and how aggressive a pace you can maintain.
  • Coping Traits refer to global personality characteristics like self-efficacy, belief in one’s ability, resilience, etc…
  • Coping traits (character traits) can be acquired or developed— that is by working through a sport-specific challenge that forces you to level up as a person… for example, by gaining greater control over an emotion, accepting a failure, or even something as deep as learning to be thankful for what you have.
  • However, simply participating in a sport will not develop more effective coping styles… it is required the athlete be aware of their struggle on a personal level, and that they choose to deliberately practice (in the Geoff Colvin sense of the phrase) overcoming this personal challenge. It depends on their attitude or mindset toward the sport… they must intend to use their experiences to improve their mental fitness.
Competitor A is physically stronger and mentally weaker than Competitor B, but so much stronger that she still wins. Competitor X is physically stronger, but mentally weaker than Competitor Y, but the slight strength advantage does not compensate for the significant mental disadvantage — X loses to Y.
  • The graph and caption above illustrate two hypothetical examples. Physical fitness is fairly self-explanatory — strength, speed, skill, etc… What does mental fitness refer to? — determination, refusal to quit, willingness to accept discomfort, ability to absorb a setback, etc…
The Research
  • In a 2009 study by Samuele Marcora published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, athletes were subjected to tiring mental tasks before performing a test of endurance. In all cases the subjects reported higher levels of perceived effort and “bonked” sooner than when they performed the same test of endurance without being subjected to mental fatigue immediately prior to the test. This is evidence that perception of effort comes from the brain, not the body.
  • Research has shown a list of factors that can enhance endurance without increasing physical capacity — for example, caffeine, up-tempo music, and transcranial electrical stimulation.
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