In one of my many past athletic lives, I was a Division I volleyball player. I played enough games to earn a coveted Varsity letter, but not enough to avoid becoming frustrated with spending a good portion of my time on the bench. Sometimes I look back and wish I had pursued track instead of volleyball—but then again, I have yet to touch a volleyball since 2009 and I still love to run. Trade-offs and what-ifs—do they actually matter?
One of my most vivid memories (of many) from the days playing for Penn Volleyball was one brutal practice where the coach, whom I happened to dislike greatly, had us performing push-ups for each missed serve in a practice. But in the most diabolical way possible, the "penalty" went up by 10 push ups for each missed serve.
First missed serve? Each player on the team had to knock out 10 push-ups. Second missed serve? 20. And then 30, then 40 and so on. The catch was that with each missed serve, each player's arms got more and more tired and so more and more balls went into the net or careered out of bounds.
I remember when we hit 100 and we looked around and I wondered if the torture would ever stop. Would the Coach pull the emergency brake and end practice, or would we keep going until by some miracle we managed big lollypop easy serves in-bound that meant a reprieve from more push-ups.
I can't remember how it ended—other than useless arms for the next few days—but the final pushup tally was somewhere approaching 1000. Afterwards, we sat around in the locker room, dazed. Some of my hardest training sessions pre-Ironman were with the Penn Volleyball team and this one still sits pretty high up on the torture list.
I honestly don't know if that episode ultimately taught us anything, or if it had any affect on our team's performance across the rest of the season—but I think about that day quite a lot in my triathlon training.
My long rides have recently had a number of hard intervals to hit, longer and higher wattages than I am used to seeing in training. And, frankly, I have missed quite a lot of them. But each time I miss them, whether within an individual bike session or across several, I always make a point to take a deep breath, refocus and attempt to hit the target, regardless of whether or not how tired my legs are or how uncertain I am that I will hit the outcome.
Missing the goal happens. It's not a reason to get frustrated and give up and walk away from the training session. Yes, it may make things harder but it's no reason to stop or to deviate. You can start to realize that so much of what you are attempting to do (within reason) is more about finding the calm within yourself and executing, whether it's getting the ball over a 7'4 net or holding 2X0 watts for 20 minutes.
I listened to a great Finding Mastery podcast a few weeks ago with Bob Bowman, in which he describes a similar process by which he had a female athlete swim as many 100s as it took to go under a specific time (I believe she was trying to break a minute for the 100 free). The goal is to create an environment in training by which athletes are asked to raise the bar and perform at a level that truly tests their abilities.
On Number 24, after several missed splits and even crying behind her goggles, this athlete swam a 58. Clearly it was not her fitness or strength that kept her from breaking through that performance barrier—it was her focus and mindset. By putting her in a situation where she had to figure it out under high stakes, the coach simulated a typical race day environment and forced her to learn how to solve a problem under stressful situations.
The more I train and the more I experience failure in my training, the more I come to realize that performance is all about learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable and learning how to access the edge of our athletic capabilities. Not every day—that would be a recipe for burn-out—but enough where we are able to show up on race day, think to ourselves "yes, this feels familiar and yes this is achievable" and we are able to go out there and execute.
While I would never voluntarily subject myself to so many pushups that I can't wash my hair for a week, I love the new targets that are set in front of me and have embraced my many failures as a way to keep trying, and trying, and trying again.