Ironman 2013 has come and gone. The next Ironman on our shore is a year away. Some of us are enjoying a well deserved break from a hectic training schedule, while others have taken up other sports. Maybe a few of you are contemplating doing your first Ironman in 2014.

Irrespective of where your focus is at present, most of us will eventually get back into a training regime, while some will venture into the world of Ironman training for the first time. Before the serious training starts it is the perfect time to consider whether your mental approach to training is consistent with your goals for 2014.
Society is built of the belief that success in all area of life is driven by natural talent and hard work. Malcolm Gladwell challenged this traditional view of success. Gladwell examined the lives of many successful people and concluded that there is more to success than talent and hard work. He proposed that people succeed not just because of their own efforts. It is because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances. Gladwell argued that this is an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea, because it means that we, as a society, have more control over who succeeds — and how many of us succeed — than we think. This view of success is particularly meaningful for those of you who are raising children and mentoring people in various areas of life. However, it does beg the question whether those of us who have already lived through a few decades can still be successful in spite of not having had the right circumstances, best opportunities and mentors?
Matthew Syed, three-times Commonwealth table-tennis champion, gives us “old timers” hope. He too studied the lives of many successful people and compared current research on the topic of success. Syed concurs with Gladwell that opportunities and circumstance play an important part in success. He also agrees with Gladwell that work hard is essential to succeed. Gladwell postulated that successful people have committed a minimum of 10 000 hours (10 years) to their field of expertise before they begin to excel.
An analysis of the top nine golfers of the twentieth century showed that they won their first international competition on average more than 10 years after they started golfing. The same finding has been made in fields as diverse as maths, tennis, swimming and long-distance running. The consistent conclusion is thus that there is no fast track to success. Jack Nicklaus, one of the most successful golfers of all times, adheres to the same philosophy: “Nobody – but nobody – has ever become proficient at golf without practice, without doing a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots. It isn’t so much a lack of talent; it’s a lack of being able to repeat good shots consistently that frustrates most players. And the only answer to that is practice.”
Although Syed agrees with Gladwell’s conclusions regarding success. He argues that circumstances, opportunities, mentors/coaches and hard work are not enough to explain success. Syed found that Gladwell’s 10 000 hour rule, is necessary but not sufficient, to explain success in a given field. The difference between the above average and the average performers in any field is that those who excel above the norm all have in common a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve their performance. The fact that athletes continue to break the barriers of what we believe is humanly possible is therefore not because people are born more talented. Athletes keep breaking records because they are practising longer, harder and smarter. This means that it is the quality and quantity of practice (more than the genes) that is driving progress.
Syed argues that committing ten years or more to a given activity will lead to proficiency but it will not ensure excellence. He uses the example of the hours most of us have clocked driving our car. Many of us have passed the magical 10 000 hour barrier yet most of us are not world-class drivers. Why? Because, in driving as is true of many of our jobs and in most sports, it is possible to clock up endless hours without improving at all.
When we are learning a new task, such as driving, we concentrate to master the skills. At first, we are slow and awkward, and our movements are under our conscious control. As we familiarise ourselves with the task, we absorb the skills in our implicit memory which means that we no longer need to give much thought to performing the task. We can switch on our autopilot and think of other things while performing the task. For example, we can listen to music, plan our day, talk to our passenger while driving without having to concentrate on the skills required to drive.
This is the way many of us play sport. We get on our bicycle, go for a run or a swim without giving much thought to the skills required to perform these tasks. Dedicating the time to these activities will definitely ensure your fitness. If fitness is all you want from your sport, stick to this approach because it is easy, fun and enjoyable. But if you are striving for improvement, this approach will not work.
Top athletes have an entirely different approach to their training. They engage in purposeful practice. Their training sessions have a specific and never-ending purpose – progress, improvement. When many of us train, we focus on what we can do effortlessly whereas elite athletes train differently. Their training focuses on specific and sustained efforts to do something that they cannot do well or even at all. These athletes confirm what research across various domains show, namely that it is only by working at what you cannot do that you turn into the expert you want to become. World-class performances are thus the result of striving for a target just out of reach, but with a clear awareness of how the gap might be breached. Over time, through constant repetition and deep concentration, the gap will disappear, only for a new target to be created, just out of reach once more. Top athletes push themselves harder for longer.
With Ironman 2013 behind us and the next event a year away, it is a good time to take stock of your goals for 2014. If your goal is to finish the race in 2014, you can continue doing what you have always done to prepare yourself for the gruelling day. If your goal is to improve your performance, you need to commit to more deliberate and purposeful training.
Acknowledgement to Gladwelll (2008) & Syed (2010)
Paddy Cloete (Psychologist and Ironman)
082 413 6649; (041) 581 1318