Sometimes, you’re in the right place at the right time to watch history unfold. And the impact can be lasting.
Last week, I attended my daughter’s collegiate indoor track and field meet at The Armory in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The storied facility is home to so much of the sport’s history. The Armory hosts more than 100 meets each year and attracts some of the sport’s greatest competitors. Its banked track, made of a synthetic material called Mondo track, has been called “one of the fastest tracks in the world.”
And the action at the Dr. Sander Invitational Columbia Challenge meet held on January 27 and 28 reflected that reputation, which included both college and professional athletes. In the women’s mile invitational event, Olympian Alicia Monson made history with the No. 8 indoor mile performance of all time, clocking in at 4:23:55. The race lived up to the hype that preceded it, with four of the finishers breaking the meet’s record for that event.
Like many sports parents, I’ve watched my fair share of competitions. I’ve shivered through, sweltered during, and cheered on countless soccer matches, basketball games, and track meets over the years. But as I watched the competitions unfold at the Armory, I realized how much these athletes have to teach all of us about preparation, competition, and success. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from elite track and field athletes:
Follow your talent and ability
The events the comprise track and field include running, jumping, and throwing. Each requires vastly different skill sets, even within the types of events themselves. In throwing, the strength and speed required to be successful at shot put differs from that required to be a great javelin thrower. Similarly, the skill set of a pole vaulter is different than that of a long-jump competitor.
But there are places for many different types of power, agility, and athleticism to excel within this sport, just as there are many different paths for us all to follow based on our strengths. Just because you can’t run 100 meters in seconds doesn’t mean that there aren’t myriad other ways for you to reach the top of your game.
Preparation predicts performance
What happens in the seconds and minutes of an event is largely the result of what happened in the weeks and months before. Training, recovery, nutrition, mindset, and rest all play a role in the athletes’ performances on their big day. While preparing rigorously is essential for peak performance, overtraining without recovery can backfire.
In this respect, athletes must understand and accommodate the needs of their bodies and minds if they’re going to perform at their best. Similarly, we can all work toward understanding what we require to perform well—as well as what’s holding us back—and adapt accordingly.
Respect your competitors
While the competition can be intense in each event, there is usually a pervasive spirit of respect and collegiality among track and field athletes. I’ve seen fierce rivals encourage each other as they enter the throwing circle or hug each other after a run, even as they’re exhausted after making it across the finish line.
It’s easy to demonize the competition, something that has become commonplace in this divisive time. Sure, not finishing the way you want stings, especially after the blood, sweat, years, and tears put into preparation for competition. But they don’t lose track of their competitors’ humanity and what they all have in common.
Personal records count, too
At these events, everyone is there to do their absolute best. Sometimes, that means earning one of the top finishing spots in the competition and scoring points for the team. Other times, it means focusing on personal improvement. My daughter and three of her throwing teammates achieved personal records, or PRs, at their events, throwing farther than they ever had before. It’s evidence that what they’re doing is working and that their hard work is paying off. That’s a win worthy of celebration.
Winning comes in different forms
In the mile event that Monson won, there were other remarkable performances, as well. The second-place finisher, another professional, nailed the No. 9 performance of all time. And the third-place finisher, a runner from North Carolina State University, took the 10th place on that list and also recorded a PR that shattered the indoor mile collegiate record by half a second. In running, that’s a huge improvement. She took third place but won in so many other ways, especially as one of only two collegiate athletes in a field of professional runners.
Lessons from the track facility
As I watched these athletes compete with all of their might, I realized how many of the leadership lessons about which I write were playing out before me. They know something many of us don’t: Winning comes in many different forms.
Even when we don’t come in “first” or finish the way we wanted, we can still improve our own performance, understand our needs, and celebrate our own and others’ PRs. And if things really don’t go our way, we can let ourselves feel disappointment, but also refocus on how to improve for next time.
What do our bodies, minds, and systems need to help us get to where we want to be? The very same lessons that allow some of the world’s fastest, strongest, and most agile athletes to perform at our best can give our everyday performance a boost, too.
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