Perhaps a DNF (Did Not Finish) is the lesson an athlete needs. Perhaps being pulled out of competition by their coach is required so that once and for all the athlete learns that there are limits to poor training, consequences to poor pacing, to egotistical racing, to not following race strategy, or because the athlete is frankly unable to retain emotional stability in competition. There is a time to throw the towel into the ring, and no, its not a sign of weakness, it can be a sign of self-respect, as well as a sign of respect for both competitors and the spirit of competition. It reveals an understanding that training is a continuum, and that competition is simply a means to assess how far along that continuum the athlete has traveled.
True champions and their coaches understand that the point of competition is to engage in a test to assess who was most prepared to endure the challenge of the event, and the efforts of competitors on a particular day. Where is the glory in a win which arises from a competitor falling, by a competitor failing the test? There is no glory in such a win, so why is there any expectation that finishing no matter the cost is obligatory.
A champion would prefer to lose then to win dishonorably.
During the 2003 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s bike handlebars caught a spectators souvenir feed-bag jack-knifing his bike, throwing Armstrong to the ground.
Germany’s Jan Ulrich (green jersey) who was trailing Armstrong at the time in the overall standings by only 15 seconds didn’t attack. Ulrich in fact, “slowed to wait for Armstrong to pick himself up, dust himself off, and get back in the race.” Now that’s a true competitor. That is the spirit of competition. When all lights were green to take advantage of Armstrong, to take advantage of an unfortunate situation, the true champion refuses.
True champions want to engage their opponents head to head, not win due to disqualification, by default, or failure on their competitors part to execute on their training. How else does a true competitor know in their heart that they were the victor on the day if they win in a questionable manner? They wouldn’t, and such a victory is no victory and that is why Ulrich waited for Armstrong.
“It’s OK lose to opponent, must not lose to fear.” -Mr Miyagi
Now juxtapose the actions of a true competitor such as Jan Ulrich in the 2003 Tour de France against Macca (Chris McCormack) and Normann Stadler during the Ironman World Championships a few years back. In a follow up interview, 6x Ironman Champion Mark Allen commented that Macca and Stadler seemed to be competing not against the others athletic ability, but they were each trying to beat up the other [on a personal level]. Allen reflected on the disrespect that has developed amongst the pro men. Looking back on his own competition with Dave Scott which played out during the 1989 Ironman on the Queen K, Mark Allen states: “we had a respect for each other (Allen vs. Scott) athletically, and we were competing against the perfection that the other one was going to bring into the race, that’s in my opinion a healthy rivalry, it brings the best out of you.” In the same interview, Dave Scott shared: “I don’t think there was the internal friction that we see today with the top guys.” The difference… Scott and Allen competed against the training of the other, not the ego of the other. It was noble, there wasn’t anything personal, because they didn’t see it as a zero sum game. Today its personal: if you win, I lose.
Not long ago, Lionel Sanders in his blog shared that he completed a race despite being in a state where he questioned the value in continuing. Apparently Sanders had no kill-switch, so he continued despite concerns over his well-being, because he felt like his competitors were owed.
Owed what? Lionel pointed to a Youtube video of Sebastian Kienle in which he states that competitors owe it to each other to continue on, to race. Really? When did competing to the point of self-inflicted injury become an unwritten rule of competition? When did self sacrifice become a demand of competition? Why do athletes need to win so badly that they demand their opponents press on despite being in a weakened state, in a state which could be detrimental both to them as athletes, and as human beings [and their life outside of sport]?
Any athlete who demands such sacrifice out of competitors is not a worthy adversary. To take a win when your opponent is injured, to claim victory when your opponent is grounded, when your opponent is not at their potential is cowardice. The fact that another athlete feels that he has to sacrifice himself in order to be considered worthy should sound an alarm that something ain’t right. When peaked, athletes no different than Natascha Badmann will jump back on her bike, because they have trained to be unstoppable, but sometimes stopping is the right thing to do. If you as an athlete know you will not make the right decision when competing, then for the sake of yourself, your future, your family take on a coach so that you do have a kill-switch. It could end up saving your professional career, if not your life.
Unfortunately, it seems pro athletes today along with age group and masters athletes who emulate them cannot see the point in competing unless it is to win. This is because they aren’t training or racing in the spirit of striving for their potential, its training and competing to build the biggest ego. The problem when you compete with your ego is that you cannot lose. Because you cannot lose, you cannot learn anything when you do lose, because your ego won’t allow it. An ego cannot take a loss. When you compete with your ego, if someone else wins, you by default lose (in every sense of the word). The outcome of this mentality, is that retaliation is required: if you win and I lose, thus you hurt me, therefore I must hurt you back. To inflict pain on competitors becomes the point of competing, retribution becomes the focus. The outcome is as an unhealthy mindset as you can imagine. Its a mindset that winning must happen, will happen at any price… leading to the rationalization of using PEDs, techno-doping, or self sacrifice to make it happen. It may make for good TV, but good TV has nothing to do with leading an healthy life, with achieving or becoming or discovering your potential.
In contrast, competing with a steel sharpens steel mentality, is not a zero sum game, because when you lose with this mindset, you commit to training more effectively, more intelligently, with even greater attention to detail, with greater respect for your body. With this mindset, athletes focus on the nuances, seek meaning, significance in the process, drive to uncover abilities, skills, determination, and attributes they never realized existed, and would never have experienced if they had won.
For champions, losing and failing are looked upon with reverence: losing and failing are experiences to be studied, dismantled, dissected, recreated, reviewed, analyzed, assessed, and then reconstructed so that every ounce of learning can be withdrawn. This is how we grow in life, proceeding with greater knowledge, wisdom, understanding, appreciation, and most importantly respect for ourselves, and one another.