The Key to being Extraordinary

As sports fans we’re accustomed to witnessing extraordinary performances across the entire spectrum of sports. But all those highlight reels are a double-edged sword.

On one hand, highlight reels are inspirational. Many riders go out after watching an amazing cycling race like the Tour of Flanders, a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, or the Giro d’Italia win Flanders and have storming rides of their own. How many young basketball players watch March Madness games and go out onto the court themselves to play and practice?

On the other hand, highlight reels can make the extraordinary seem ordinary. They can delude amateur athletes into thinking that extraordinary performances happen on average days, from average athletes. The truth is, you have to train specifically for extraordinary performances. The extraordinary doesn’t just happen because you’re fit. It happens because you’ve planned to be extraordinary.

What does that mean? When you have a very specific competition goal, be it the local criterium, a State Championship, a World Championship, or a trip to Ironman Kona, you have to realize that you’re average performance – a “good” day – isn’t going to cut it. You need to have a great day, and that means you have to come into the event in great shape and with a toolbox of tactics and strategies.

Going from a good day to an extraordinary day is often less about fitness than it is about tactics. It’s in your head. Fitness is important, and you want to be optimally fit and rested going into a goal event; but your power at threshold or your sustainable running pace isn’t the thing that’s going to separate you from the competition (they’re fit too). To win on the big day, you need to be prepared to do something extraordinary – and that preparation comes from inside your head.

How do you prepare to be extraordinary?

1. Learn more about yourself as a competitor

Blithely telling yourself, “I’m going to attack and win!” is like saying, “I’m going to be rich!” What have you done that gives you any indication that you’ll be successful, especially when the pressure is high? What I do with the athletes I work with, and what I teach the coaches who work at CTS, is to design a series of progressive challenges for an athlete.

Not everything that a coach does to improve performance results in improved power or pace numbers. A lot of what we do is teach athletes to succeed by helping them discover both their strengths and the depths of their reserves. I remember once telling Jim Rutberg, now a CTS Coach and my co-author on seven training and nutrition books, to attack until he either won or got dropped. I didn’t care so much about the result of that particular race; I needed him to learn how many times he could attack, and how deep he could dig and still keep going. That day, he turned himself inside out and attacked himself right out the back of the pack, but he learned he had the strength to race aggressively. From there it was a matter of additional steps to learn how to gauge the timing, conditions, and frequency of those efforts.


2. Choose your weapon.

Those performances you see on highlight reels are purposeful, especially when they come from endurance events. You have to start the event with a plan. Going into a race with the attitude of, “Well, I’ll see what happens,” means nothing is going to happen; or at least nothing you’re involved in. When I say ‘choose your weapon’, I mean know what you’re going to do to make the final, decisive move that wins the race. Are you going for the solo attack? The last-lap flyer? The field sprint? Are you going to run from the front or ride conservatively to run the competition down in a triathlon? Even when you know the plan is likely to change, you’re still better off having a plan to start with. I like athletes to stand on the start line thinking something along the lines of, “With 20km to go, I’m going to leave you all behind on the final climb and solo in for the win.” That’s a more productive starting point than, “I wonder what’s going to happen today?”

3. Be opportunistic

How many times have you heard an endurance athlete answer the question, “Why did you make your move when you did?” with, “I just knew it was the right time to go”? Look back to the Tour of Flanders in 2013. Fabian Cancellara knew the Oude Kwaremont was a good place to attack. It’s the final hard, cobbled climb before the finish. It doesn’t take a genius to realize it’s a good place to attack. But if he attacked Sagan and it didn’t work, the effort could have drained him of the power necessary to win if they came to the final kilometer together. So, how did Cancellara know it was time to go? On the previous climb, Sagan had struggled but managed to get back to Cancellara’s wheel. At the end of the 250+ kilometer Classic, that’s a tell. Rest or no rest before the next climb, you’re not going to get stronger. So Cancellara pushed the pace at the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont and waited until Sagan showed signs of struggle, and that’s when Cancellara pounced.

Most likely, that was the plan and the plan worked perfectly. But either way, Cancellara was prepared to do something extraordinary at the 2013 Tour of Flanders. He wasn’t out to have an average ride with the hopes it would be good enough to win. He set out knowing something extraordinary had to happen, that he had the ability to do something extraordinary, and that he just needed to find or create the right opportunity.

All athletes have the ability to do the extraordinary, but very few take the time to learn and prepare to be extraordinary. Winning is a skill that doesn’t always come automatically with increased fitness. And if you have the passion for winning, you owe it to yourself to learn how to win.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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