The Question Every Athlete Answers Every Day

Every athlete faces ONE BIG QUESTION every day they train: “How determined am I today to maximize my performance and train at the edge of my ability?

The list of things and circumstances that can cause an athlete on any given day to train with less than total concentration, effort, or determination are numerous - some days you are distracted, some days you don’t feel perfect, some days your touch is a little off, and some days you just want to do other things.  When these situations arise, every athlete has the opportunity to choose how they will respond, how they will answer this question, and the level at which they will train.  In that moment, the top performers consistently make one choice, and mediocre performers consistently make another.  This is true at every level of every sport.  To see how true, just take a look at someone at the top of their sport ...

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time – having won 22 medals over 3 Olympic games (18 of them gold).  He has totally dominated world swimming for more than 12 years, and his accomplishments are almost legendary.  Phelps’ accomplishments are the result of monumental training effort - years and years of incredibly demanding training, for many hours every day.  There simply is no short-cut or easy path to becoming an Olympic champion – especially when you do it 18 times over 12 years.  But even Michael Phelps had to answer the ONE BIG QUESTION every day ...

After finishing second in the 200 meter butterfly final in the 2012 London Olympics, Phelps acknowledged that his training and preparation for London was “more haphazard” than it was for other Olympics … that he wasn’t always as focused as he was in previous Olympics.  He himself acknowledged that this was ultimately reflected in the 200 meter butterfly gold medal race - when he “glided” into the wall to finish the race (instead of driving into it) and was overtaken by another swimmer.  He talked about this mistake and its cause in a a New York Times interview

Phelps acknowledged that there were days when he glided into the wall at practices. “And that came out at the moment I needed it the most,” Phelps said, adding: “I’m not going to sit and make excuses. Those lazy finishes were decisions I made.”

(You can see this almost imperceptible let-up at the end of the race here.) 

Michael Phelps was one of the world’s greatest athletic competitors; his training regime was more demanding than most people can imagine, and his willpower and discipline were exceptional.  His tremendous accomplishments were possible partially because he answered the ONE BIG QUESTION correctly far more often than not - but even he had moments of difficulty maintaining the quality and standards he knew were required for world-class performance.  His story, and his bluntly honest comments about the 200 meter butterfuly race in London, provide two very important lessons for any aspiring athlete:

  1. What many people consider to be a minor and inconsequential choice to occassionally take an easier path in daily training actually has a long-term impact.  These choices inevitably show themselves in performance at the highest level, when excellence matters the most.  The choice to “cut corners” or “take it easy” will cost you – no matter how successful you have been in the past or how talented you may be.
  2. Every athlete, even at the highest levels, battles the temptation to let their standards slip for a day, or to avoid sacrifice. However, the best athletes consistently make a deliberate choice to overcome this temptation, and they all answer the ONE BIG QUESTION the same way: By training with total effort and concentration to maximize their performance levels every day.  It is this choice, made every day, that separates players and teams from each other.  

How you answer the ONE BIG QUESTION will determine your ceiling as an athlete.  The more consistently you answer "correctly," the more you will separate yourself from your peers, the higher levels of competition you will reach, and the more successful you will be in the long-term.  You may not be at 100% every day, but you can always give 100% of wherever you are on that day.


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