Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Performance demands time and dedication. Both of these things are valuable resources, especially in parallel with everything else life can throw our way. So it's only normal we get emotionally invested in the process (and the outcome). In a vacuum, that' doesn't mean much, but what if other people start playing a role in your relationship with your training? Idols and rivals occupy a big part of Arne Dumez's brain as an athlete. On the one hand they can be a positive driver, but on the other they can be a paralytic. Use with caution! It's a thin line.
I have actually based this little read on a blog I wrote a few years ago now, so clearly these thoughts are not new to me. It's a loose thread in my jumper that I keep pulling on, and as the jumper unravels it becomes clear just how truly awful this metaphor is... Anyways, the fact that I'm correcting and editing a lot of what I wrote back then here is a good sign. They've had time to mature and evolve. Maybe even to the point that they actually make sense. Let's see...
Comparing is what we do as humans and it's kind of what sports is all about, really. The whole point of a race is to see who is better on the day.
If you occasionally race on your local circuit, the same faces will pop up every once in a while. You may know where they finished last time, you may recognise that women who pipped you on the line a month ago, or the instigator of that surge you couldn't quite cover. Did a face and name just pop into your head? It did for me. Let's call him Buster.
There are a few people like Buster who I compare myself to all the time. I build up a rivalry in my head so that when I'm feeling unmotivated or flat, I can tell myself "Buster will be out there training, so if you don't head to the track this morning he'll beat you again next month." Most of the time, this works wonders.
However, it's a bit of a double-edged sword. The very foundation of such a rivalry is respect. I only care about beating Buster because I think he's a fantastic runner and beating him would mean that I've made a huge step forward in my growth as an athlete. It can be the source of a huge amount of confidence. But it can easily tip over into being a paralytic. A few times, I spent too long obsessing over beating someone and completely froze when I saw their name on the start list. All of a sudden, the comparison isn't in my head, it's real. It's right there, about to unfold. No more simulations, this is the real deal. Can I beat him? Even more debilitating is the thought that they probably don't respect you the same way you respect them. In all likelihood, you're not Buster's Buster. There goes the confidence, there goes the discipline.
You may be a lot more mature and sensible in how you handle your fictitious rivalries, but Michael Jordan had one-sided blood feuds in his head and he did alright for himself so hush. What I've been trying to do since I wrote this original blog is differentiate my own progression from that of others. I can still compare myself to Buster, but I have to realise we are on two different curves. We may intersect every now and again, but 90% of the time we're doing our own thing. The race is just a comparison of our performances on that day, we're not deciding who's the better human being. At the end of the day, we're just doing a bit of running, Christ!
Idols are a whole different thing. Their progress is completely separate from ours because we don't consider them to be in our league, within our reach. Hell, they might not even be the same species!
My personal sports hero is triathlete Jan Frodeno who holds an Olympic gold medal and countless World Champion titles. He also owned the Ironman world record until a certain Norwegian had something to say about it. He beats my half marathon PB after swimming 2km and riding 90km in TT position - there is no way I'm comparing myself to him! Not seriously, anyways. Any comparison made is just to highlight how far away from you they are. And that's fine, that's inspirational.
I will never obsess about trying to beat him because... well, first of all I don't do triathlon. But mainly because that's an unrealistic and, quite honestly, foolish goal to hold as realistic (for me). These people exist to show us the very frontier of what's possible. They should fill our eyes with sparkles, they get us excited and they set the right example. They are living, breathing examples of what great training can do in combination with oodles of talent.
And that's where idols can tip over onto the dark side. All of a sudden, you might catch yourself thinking "hang on, I train really hard too but I'm nowhere near this sort of performance". You might catch yourself thinking they define your sport. An inexperienced amateur might think Jan is the baseline, what a 'good' triathlete looks like. Never mind the fact that he does this stuff for a living and has an army of professionals to keep him afloat and healthy throughout the year - the circumstances don't matter. All you know is that you're slow. And blam! You've got yourself another paralytic.
The point I am trying to make here is that, as far as I'm concerned, it's important to have both rivals and idols in sight to achieve sustainable growth. Sticking to the example of Jan, he wouldn't be where he is now without rivals to beat and idols to inspire him. But the asterisk is this: you've got to keep the boundary between them clear. By that I mean, you can't obsess over a rival so much that they paralyze you or beat you before you've even raced them. You also can't build it up to the point where you loathe their success and progress. It's a hobby, at the end of the day. "Chill out", says the hypocrit.
Idols are a fantastic way to keep you passionate and interested in the sport, but you can't let them be so 'real' and tangible to you that you start genuinely comparing. That might lead you to believe there is no point in being at your level. Just because Kipchoge runs under 2hrs for the marathon and you can't do that doesn't mean there is no place in the sport for you. Just because Serena Williams has 23 Grand Slams and you don't have a single one doesn't mean there is no point in training. Let them be mental tools, nothing more. You control them, they do not control you.
Anyways, I'm off to rewatch shakey mobile phone footage from my last race to see if Buster was hurting at the 3km mark when he kicked past me. God, I hope so...