At the age of ten years old, I was determined to learn the art of spinning a basketball on my finger. My hero was Pistol Pete Maravich and I wanted to do everything he could do. So I spent a few hours experimenting how to get the ball up and spinning. At first, it would teeter and fall off right away. But within a couple hours, there was progress.
My fingertip was sore from all that practice. But the next day I tried again. And the next. On the fourth day the ball was staying up there as long as it was spinning rapidly enough. Then it would slow and fall off.
The next skill to learn was how to keep the ball spinning. That took additional practice. After about a week it was possible to keep the ball spinning for as long as I liked.
People marveled at the trick. Most had only seen it on the Harlem Globetrotters broadcasts on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Granted, spinning a basketball on your finger isn’t really that useful a trick. It doesn’t help you play better basketball. But it does show a certain familiarity with the feel for the basketball.
That two-week period was a critical learning insight for me. Spinning the basketball on my finger was something I really wanted to do. I’d set my mind to doing it and worked on my own to accomplish it.
That type of persistence is critical in all aspects of life. When running entered my life in seventh grade I was able to run two miles in 12:00 on a cinder track. But that was done on sheer will and basic talent. I wanted to do it, but did not do any preparation other than tying on my Red Ball Jets.
By 8th grade in track, the lessons came harder. Other runners with as much talent could beat me. The improvement from training to keep up did not come easy. I can specifically recall a taut battle with a tough kid from a city school. The harder I ran, the harder he fought back.
Freshman year, I went out for cross country and learned how much I loved to run and compete. Doing well in running was something that I really, really wanted. The guys with whom I ran seemed to feel the same way. We had a coach that encouraged us all, and life in that realm was pretty simple. We set goals and worked to reach them. We won the sophomore conference meet and the future beckoned. We wanted to win the Varsity Conference meet the next year, and we did it.
No matter when your running career starts, in your teens in your 40s or 50s, you’ll encounter moments like these. Sometimes goals fall into your lap and sometimes they seem to just appear from the back of your head. Somehow a thought comes to you and you say to yourself, “I want to do that.”
It might be a 5K or it might be an Ironman. Obviously, those are two very different ventures. But the process of deciding that you want to do something is surprisingly simple. It becomes part of your personality. You want it. You work for it. You get advice on how to do things better. Perhaps you even hire a coach. Because you want this thing. You want to make it happen.
Understand that it’s also easy to overcomplicate the process. It’s possible to get too much advice or get so used to getting advice that you cease thinking for yourself. That idea of “wanting” something suddenly seems far away. Don’t worry. We’ve all been there. It’s inevitable. It’s part of being an athlete.
During my college years, I got confused in the head about running. These days I know the reasons why. We actually were training too fast and hard during the winter months. But peer pressure was such that my complaints (a mistake, grant you) got me nothing but criticism. So my roommate wisely told me, “Cud, you just need to shut up and run.”
And it worked. That advice simplified things enough that my painful autumn turned into a productive spring. I was able to determine what I wanted by eliminating all the complaint about… what I did not want. I found a group within our group with which to train and blocked out the rest. I knew what I wanted then.
For these reasons, we should not be surprised sometimes even top level athletes don’t seem all that literate about their achievements. The focus necessary to achieve success in sports is all-consuming. Putting that process into words is often impossible.
When you see an exhausted rider at the end of a mountain stage at the Tour de France, and a microphone is shoved into their face after 120 miles of all-out riding and climbing that would kill the average person, it should not be a surprise they don’t have much to say.
They’ve already said a ton in what they’ve just done. They wanted it. They wanted to ride the Tour so badly they trained 10,000 miles to prepare for the 2000 miles they’re engaged in riding. They want it despite cold winter rides and crashes in races that don’t seem to matter in the bowels of the Spring Classics. Yet they get up and ride again, often with road rash and blood on their bodies. Because they want it. Like no one else you’ll likely ever meet.
Yes, the same applies to running and swimming and triathlon racing too. All those athletes––and you too, work hard to do what they do. And sometimes success is as simple as knowing what you want. That’s what gets you out the door. And that’s what gets you to the finish line.
Go for it.