Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Decisions, De-cisions

“Do or do not. There is no try.”
- Yoda

The pic above is of Hernan Cortes. Cortes’ greatest claim to fame (at least from my perspective) was the famous incident at Vera Cruz, when, during his attempted Mexican conquest, after landing on the shore with his armies and hearing of the might of the local ruler, Montezuma, he made the decision to eliminate any chance of retreat by burning his army’s ships.

The word decision comes from the latin roots ‘de’ meaning ‘from’ and ‘caedere’ meaning ‘to cut’. In other words, making a true decision means to physically cut yourself off from the possibility of failure.

Do not fool yourself, we all have limits to our will power, as Gordo points out in his latest blog. It is not superior willpower that separates champions from the rest of us. I spent a good amount of time with the Aussie national swim team when I was back in Australia. Like any sample of society, there are a number of different personalities within the team. Some are “hard” as a rock, completely unyielding, thinking about swimming and their goals for the sport 24-7. Others are more ‘soft’, more ‘yin-yang’ athletes, a balance of ‘get down to business’ attitude when they hit the water and ‘regular guy time’ when they hit dryland. Personality is not the distinguishing factor that separates those who make it from those who don’t. So, what does separate achievers from non-achievers? Achievers put themselves in a position to make habits of the things that failures won’t do. To be real, in the world of swimming, it is often not the athlete who must summon the daily willpower to make these decisions.

I never really ‘made it’ as a swimmer. I was an above average local swimmer. I’d pick up some medals at local meets. I made a couple of representative meets but there were certainly other swimmers in my own squad that were at that next level. Some went on to make the Aussie national team. When I look back to what the difference between them and me was, I am forced to conclude that the biggest difference wasn’t in their own obsession for the sport. Rather, these athletes had parents that were OBSESSED with the sport. On occasion, when one of these swimmers put in an effort that was deemed to be ‘sub-par’, I have seen his mother slap the kid across the face when he got back from his race. When I started coaching elite juniors in Sydney (8-12 year olds that were the superstars of tomorrow) this level of parental ‘commitment’ was no longer the exception, it was the rule.

It’s an interesting position to be a coach in this situation. While I knew that these kids were missing out on having a loving, caring, soft parental figure, they were gaining something that I never had, the joy that comes with being the very best, but more than that, the joy that comes with becoming your very best.

Now, I want to make clear that I am in no way condoning corporal punishment, especially in this circumstance. However, I do want to say that in some ways I wish that my parents would have pushed me more to stick to a commitment that I made.

This reminds me of the story of world record marathoner Toshiko Seko. After a particularly tough stretch in (his coach) Nakamura’s training camp, in which Nakamura put Seko on a diet of a piece of toast and a piece of lettuce each day (notably, in an effort to lose the weight that he had put on after spending some time in the US college system), Seko broke and ran home to the perceived security of his parent’s abode. When he got there his parents closed the door on their son. The sent him back to Nakamura with a message “Do whatever you must with him: He’s yours”.

OK, so maybe we aren’t all willing to make those decisions; to convince one of our family or friends to beat us up every time that we don’t make a performance benchmark or to live on lettuce and toast in an effort to lose a few pounds, but the point remains that the laws of cause and effect apply to us all and that if you are not receiving the results that you want in your life, it is because you have not made the decision to put these causal, environmental factors in place.

A true decision is marked by a physical action, the physical action to, all extents possible, block off any source of retreat. This may mean throwing all simple sugars in your home in the bin. It may mean selling your car so that you are forced to commute by bike. It may mean joining a masters swim program so that you have a social burden to show up to your swim sessions. Whatever the action, it is important to note that we live in a society in which retreat is both easy and, to some extent, expected (think divorce rates), and in which a decision, like a New Years Resolution is rarely worth the paper it is written on (if indeed we even get to the point of writing it down). It is not a true decision until it is backed up with massive, immediate action.


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