You might have heard this story. For decades, no athlete was able to run a mile in less than 4 minutes, as if there was a physical limit to what a human body can do. Then Roger Bannister came and did it in 1954. He ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds — only six tenths of a second under 4 minutes.
Less than six weeks later, John Landy joined the club by finishing in 3 minutes and 58 seconds. Since then, some 1500 people have broken the mark!
Physiologically, today’s athletes are no different from their pre-1950s counterparts. So, what made the difference?
Was it deliberate practice?
Today, we understand a lot more about human physiology and how the human body adapts to stress. This knowledge allows coaches to create deliberate plans laser-focused on producing the biggest improvements for each athlete.
James Clear wrote a wonderful article on deliberate practice, you should definitely check it out later. What’s important for us here is that the most distinguishing characteristic of deliberate practice is timely and detailed feedback. Without that critical evaluation of every aspect of your practice, you’re stumbling in the dark, unsure if your training will lead to peak performance.
Feedback is key during practice!
But if you’ve ever performed competitively, even if the only person you wanted to beat was yourself, you’ve undoubtedly experienced coming short of your goals, despite consistently nailing it in practice. Why’s that?
Most of us were taught that we must push harder and put more effort into it if we want to achieve extraordinary results. But ask any elite runner, and they’ll tell you that the faster you run, the more relaxed you must be. Pushing harder and tensing up just wastes energy and slows you down.
Pushing harder mentally has the same negative effect. The more mental effort you put into your performance, the more invested you become in the outcome — you start to constantly evaluate how you’re doing and how you measure up to the ideal picture you’ve created in your mind. And the more you evaluate, the less you focus on what you’re doing and more on the consequences of failing at what you’re doing. Once again, you waste mental energy and slow yourself down.
What about believing in yourself, believing your outlandish goal is possible? Surely, Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute barrier helped others believe in themselves enough to achieve the same? Without a doubt! But we have to question whether that belief helped them perform or simply motivated them to train more deliberately.
You see, when you perform at the limit of your abilities, the odds of failure are enormously high. Each subsequent failure challenges your faith, making you believe just a little less. And soon you’re thinking, “Just because Roger could do it, doesn’t mean I have it in me too.”
It turns out that nearly any form of evaluation has a detrimental effect on performance. So to perform at your peak, you must find a way to stop evaluating yourself.
After you’ve put in the hours, days, months, or years of deliberate practice, it’s time to let go of any expectations of a particular outcome, trust in the process that brought you here, and find simple joy in playful, effortless performance.
You’ll know you’re there when time stops registering and you find yourself fully immersed in your task.