By Chris Carmichael,
Founder & Head Coach of CTS
One of the habits that separates champions from everyone else is the willingness to do what they are the worst at. Your greatest strength will not be enough to overcome weaknesses you neglect or refuse to address. To use cycling as an example, being the best climber in the world isn’t going to matter if you can’t go downhill fast or are afraid to ride in a peloton. If you want to improve your overall performance, it’s time to start doing the things you are terrible at doing.
How big is the problem?
This might be the biggest problem holding endurance athletes back from achieving their goals. It’s fun to do the things we are good at, particularly when we have limited time available to ride bikes or run on trails. It’s fun to ride the mountain bike trails where we know every line and every berm. It’s more fun to do the strength training exercises you have the most expertise with and that make you feel strong. And it’s more comfortable to continue eating the way you are right now or following the dysfunctional sleep routine you have now.
Nobody wants to do the things they suck at, and that’s a problem.
The bigger problem is the disparity between what you’re best at and what you’re worst at. The more time you spend only doing the training or following the habits you’re best at, the worse you get at all the other things you’re not doing. As this gap widens, your overall ability to be a successful athlete declines dramatically. You don’t have to be the absolute best at every aspect of your sport. However, in order to maximize the impact of your greatest strength you have to be at least proficient, competent, and good at the other aspects of the sport.
Perhaps the best example in cycling is the road sprinter. People joke that the more heavily muscled sprinters who gather in the grupetto on mountain stages must be terrible climbers. They’re not. They spend a lot of time making sure they are proficient climbers so they can get over mountains and stay within the time cut, and get over hills so they can be in contention to sprint. A sprinter who can’t climb, for whom the disparity between their greatest strength and greatest weakness is too large, won’t reach the final kilometers in contention to win, or reach them at all.
What are you bad at?
Fall is a good time to focus on getting better at the thing or things you do badly. When you have the longest runway to your goal event your training is more generalized and less specific to the demands of the event. This leaves room for skill acquisition and changes in routine. But the first step is determining what you are terrible at. More precisely, you have to determine what you are worst at doing that has the worst effect on your performance.
Here are some examples from conversations with athletes:
- Getting enough sleep
- Consistency (avoiding skipped workouts)
- Going out to ride when it’s windy
- Challenging/redirecting negative thoughts
- Staying on a wheel/in the draft
- Going up the harder hill
- Taking the longer route
- Eating the vegetables instead of everything else
- Finishing the whole interval set
- Letting go of the brakes
- Riding in the group instead of solo
- Riding in the cold or rain
You’ll notice, some of the examples are relate to skill and confidence, like being comfortable riding in a group or going downhill. Most of them, though, relate to decisions and habits. Training outdoors when it’s windy isn’t as much fun, but events are held on windy days. The hill on the right might be more appealing because it’s not as steep, but you’ll only get stronger on the steep hill to the left by deciding to climb it.
You know all of this. You’ve done the hard stuff before, in school, in your career, in other areas of your life and earlier times in your training. And while I realize this is a generalization, what I see with athletes over 50 are trends toward complacency and risk aversion. I’m guilty to some extent, too. I don’t descend as fast as I used to on the road or take as aggressive lines as I used to on the mountain bike. But that doesn’t mean I avoid descending or stick to the easiest trails.
What you can do about it
My challenge to you is to push back against complacency. Pick something your terrible at doing or a change you’ve been avoiding, and commit to addressing it, starting right now. Don’t let this become something you’ll “get around to”. Take the first step. Go to the group ride, go out when the weather is less than perfect, turn out the light at 10pm, choose the harder hill.
Understand that in order to be successful at changing the things you’re worst at, you have to be OK with doing them poorly for a while. Many people talk about the benefit of having a growth mindset, where you continually seek new knowledge and skills (as opposed to having a fixed mindset that assumes your knowledge and skill levels are set). But the key for high performers is continuing to expand your sphere of knowledge and skill, not just continuing to grow in the things you are already good at or knowledgeable about.