In one of the more heart-wrenching stories from the Rio Olympics, US cyclist Mara Abbott was one of two leading the pack in the women’s cycling race as they climbed the steep 19% incline. Racing down the descent, the other cyclist crashed and Mara was alone in the lead — until, 200 meters from the finish line (and a gold medal), she was passed by a trio surging up from behind, and came in fourth place instead.
Afterwards Mara said, “I was proud of the way I raced. As a cyclist, I competed against these people on courses just as hard or harder for the last 10 years. But I would say that I gave the absolute best performance that I could give on that day and that’s actually a harder thing to do than a lot of people think it is.”
Indeed, there is probably nothing more psychologically demanding than giving your absolute all, whether in a physical or intellectual endeavor.
I see the resistance in others: “What if I make a huge effort and I still don’t get the deal [funding, promotion, job, top test score]?” And, of course, I see it in myself — the rationalizations for holding back in cycling class (“whoa, knee hurts!”) or not leaving enough time to prepare for a presentation (“eh, you’ve done this before”), providing the set-up for excuses to fall back on later.
As Malcolm Gladwell told ESPN’s Bill Simmons: “It’s really risky to work hard, because if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection. When Tiger [Woods] loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience.”
That’s what Mara asks, in her WSJ article: “Would you rather have some excuse or rationale for a race outcome: Sick last week, got a flat tire, missed a feed, had to sneeze when the winning attack went, or even just that you lost your nerve that day when it got really hard (yes, this happens). With that, you can forever clasp onto the worrystone-mantra of “I could have won, if only…?
Or, would you rather honestly know you had ridden a race to the very best of your strength and ability, know there was nothing else you could have done and have that be…not…quite…enough?”
It takes real mental toughness to push past our perceived limits, even as our fight-or-flight alarms are screaming at us to stop — and then to handle the psychological pain if our best isn’t enough.
But it just means that our best wasn’t good enough this time, not that it never will be. And we can train ourselves to go all out, overriding the excuses and nudging past our limits just a little further each opportunity.