Riding home today, I thought about what it takes to win. Way back in the way back, I used to play rugby, up to a pretty decent level. When I was young, in my mid-20's, I had several years of really good play. Nobody schooled me (except for a couple international level players from Wales & NZ) and I hung in, even against athletes who were better gifted than I was. I was very tenacious, but more than that, I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, to pick up a dropped ball, to snatch a tipped ball out of the air and run off with it, to blast an unlikely opposing player who had suddenly found himself in possession of a ball that bounced errantly. While some guys were very talented and stumbled into wins, I busted my ass, used my limited talents and will power to prepare well, and often made key plays to help the team to a win. I *always* played on winning teams. I didn't make it happen myself, but prided myself on identifying the guys who could work together, and we'd form a cadre of like-minded competitors, and do whatever it took within the rules to beat the other guys. Sometimes I got beat, but I can tell you I never, ever, lost. In short, I played like a winner.
It's been a long time since I put in the kind of preparation it takes to play at that level. Tonight, pedaling through a tunnel of light provided by my excellent Blackburn XR-6, I remembered what it takes. It isn't just working out, though working out, being as fit as I could get, always formed the foundation for success.
It took a constant effort of dieting for one thing. I like to eat wayyy too much (interpret that however you like, your impression is accurate no matter how you understand that phrase) and I had to basically starve myself into near-peak fitness, then eat carefully when I got there.
It also took steady effort on the fitness. Not just practicing rugby, but doing the other little things that it took. In cycling, riding is the main thing, but you have to do core strength work, a little lifting for your upper back and arms and wrists, and a lot of stretching if you want to peak.
It all came down to focus, to organizing the organize-able parts of my life around playing up to my full potential, and winning. But there was one other part to it.
I used to spend some times before games going through all the possible likely game situations I could imagine. Dropped balls, good and bad passes, tipped balls, places to burst through the line, hard tackles to drop the other team's star player, kicking extra points and penalty goals properly, the whole deal. My teammates often thought I was weird - while they ran around yelling and getting psyched, I preferred to sit quietly and just think about the game.
I didn't just think about it though. I ran and reran the scenarios in my head until I saw myself, in my mind's eye, doing them correctly. I would envision something like the other team's center - the equivalent of a fullback in American football - catching the ball, and dodging me. As I sat with my eyes closed, he dodged, stutter stepped and sidestepped. After he beat me two or three times, I imagined myself drilling the bastard and dropping him in his tracks. When I could picture the play succeeding three times in a row, I'd move on to the next phase of play and do exactly the same thing. I'd imagine it with the opposing player making the play correctly, and me playing textbook offense or defense, then I'd imagine him screwing it up. I'd imagine myself doing it right, and sometimes blowing the play - but then I'd imagine how I could turn my screwup into an advantage. Drop a pass, and fall on it then pass off the ground to kill play and prevent the other team from capitalizing on my error. Miss a tackle, and run on a sharp angle to catch the guy further down the line, or to cover some other player running support. But the theme was the same, always, always think about playing like a winner. Envision success, and envision failure, but only let yourself envision failure insofar as it is necessary sometimes to cope with failure, overcome it and use it as a building block toward success.
Riding home, I pondered how this applies to bicycle racing. It became clear to me that I don't know jack about properly finishing a race - when to go, exactly how to go, and so forth. A couple of the Coppi sprinters are working with me and others to pass on the knowledge concerning how to drop the hammer at the end of the race. That is a learned skill that I will learn, by osmosis or tutoring, or by hard experience. It's one of the game situations I can prepare for. But cycling success relies on so much else.
That's where re-learning to think like a winner comes it. It occurred to me that part of my problem - not losing weight right now, missing some workouts, feeling sluggish and a bit ambivalent about my training - comes from a lack of mental focus. I'm thinking like peleton fodder, rather than thinking like a winner. What does a winner think like in bicycle racing? I don't know, I guess I'll have to ask Lance Armstrong if ever I meet him. In the interim, I believe part of thinking like a winner involves focusing on every aspect of the training in an appropriate manner. This includes eating for racing - visualizing myself struggling and gasping up a hill carrying 50 extra pounds as I do now - which will make pushing away from that apple pie easier. It involves doing my core strength and light weight workout every day or so, consistently, and knocking out those situps with images of an end-of-race sprint, or next year's 'cross season in my minde. It also entails doing my hard intervals, my stomps, my VO2Max hill intervals with near-race-level intensity. It also includes keeping focused while doing long slow distance aerobic work, and not letting my need for speed cause me to work too hard on rest days (a syndrome that precludes proper hard work on hard days).
What it comes back to, is making a commitment to winning, or at least to putting everything into a tiny needle's eye of a focus point, with the goal of winning or coming as close as my potential allows. Do I have to kick my family and job to the curb? No. But I have to take the vast majority of my time, and refocus what I can on being a better racer. I have to refocus my training so that I train harder when it's a hard day, and ride easier on rest days. I have to think about those painful sprints, and the bloody hills in the races, when I need an incentive to keep the fridge door closed. Winning may not involve podiums. I don't know enough about racing yet to really know what I can do, nor do I know my own limits or potential. But I'm not a terrible rider, and I have a lot of upside. Winning for me will involve doing a lot better, and seeing how far I can go within the constraints imposed by age and ability - and I know damn well I can beat a lot of other people along the way. I can visualize it now.
The point, as much as there is a point to a fat, nearly 40 year old novice roadracer plotting his improvement, is that winning is an attitude that affects your whole life, and that attitude and way of doing things is something that can be controlled, unlike racing luck and genetic gifts. And since it can be controlled, it has to have a beginning. That beginning is right here.
Winning begins right here, right now. Take responsibility for winning at the outset, and all the other stuff seems to fall into place. My broader goal for this winter and the upcoming season is to approach this racing thing like a job, a fun job that is my passion. That's where it starts, that attitude will take care of 90% of my problems, and the other stuff I can solve along the way. My first year of racing was about seeing if I could do it. I found out I can. This next year is about getting good, or at least as good as a second year, cranky knee-ed old bastid can get.
I realized tonight on the way home that I'm really up for this challenge. It's going to be hard, and arduous, and I may not come out on top. But I don't care, the gauntlet has been thrown, perhaps by my memories of my youthful self, and I realize that I want to win.
Are you up for the same challenge?