Enthusiasm: Strong interest or admiration for a purpose or a cause. Great eagerness.
I was looking for a word to describe those people who always seem thrilled to be training, who look forward to competing and who always have a smile on their face because, to them, sport is fun. I have always admired the athletes who maintain high levels of professionalism and consistency in their sport, a champion’s mentality and a commitment to being the best athlete they can be. We can all experience, on our own level, the true essence of athletic success, by focussing on the experiences and by allowing ourselves to tap into the joy and possibility of sport. Enthusiasm for a chosen path means we approach our endeavours with an energetic attitude of learning and never-ending challenge.
I saw this quality once when I watched world class divers from Britain training at my pool. They were doing intense dry land skills, practising on boxes and mats, displaying phenomenal focus, strength, balance and grace as they coiled and flipped into the air. Their faces were full of concentration as they prepared for each practice flip, but immediately afterward they would visibly relax and look towards the coach and their peers for feedback. One woman executed her back flip then stumbled awkwardly on her landing. She accepted this gaff with a wide laugh, not a self-conscious giggle, and it occurred to me how light-hearted the athletes were, even while training such difficult skills. They seemed to be playing, like big kids. I thought to myself how lucky they were to be so skilled and so competent, yet be so able to enjoy it.
So I started to explore what is the quality that allows some athletes to be focussed on the process of success in a positive, creative way. I say creative, for there will be anxiety and distraction in most athletes’ lives, but athletes can learn to view so-so days and setbacks in a way that is not crippling to their path or their self-esteem. Being an athlete is hard sometimes: there is discomfort and goals unmet. Being a parent is hard too, but nobody said that you can’t enjoy the things that are hard. Most athletes and parents will tell you that the positive payback from what they do far outweighs the negative aspects.
There are those athletes who show up to workouts and march through the drills and sets with discipline and pith. Unsmiling, never satisfied with themselves, their environment, or their coach, they can’t work hard enough, and are rarely satisfied. These are the athletes that in races are fierce, grimacing and uptight, needing to produce a great result to justify their dedication and path. Then there are the athletes who can create a fulfilling career out of serious play and keep it in perspective. I have watched kids run. They run invigorated and full of the joy of pumping their little arms and legs, full of a joy for what their body is doing and how fast they are going. Kids don’t think about what anybody else is thinking of them, there is no self-conscious focus on outcome. Watching young children play, during that time of their lives when they are not yet cognisant of the concept of win or lose has got to be the clearest illustration possible of the joy of human movement. Running is fun.
When I think about my career as an athlete, I think not about the countless races that I have won, nor the money that it pays. I don’t even focus on the many disappointments anymore; they are now experiences that made my career richer. I reflect mainly on the path, and the process that has led me to this point in my life right now, the reason for the many decisions that I have made along the way that have kept me in sport and not moved me out of it. In many ways, I could say that I have found my niche. Being involved in personal excellence, either my own or through coaching others is my mountain to climb. Being part of a vibrant healthy community of athletes and coaches gives me great joy and sustains my enthusiasm for this lifestyle.
I see enthusiasm amongst new and young athletes, both recreational and elite. When I start working with new athletes, I sense this enthusiasm in their voices as they receive their first training schedules and complete their first training sessions. They are proud of themselves for getting out there, are intoxicated by the sense of goals and possibility that they have placed in front of themselves. The first few times we talk about training and racing I wish I could capture their spirit and energy in a bottle. I remind them often of the feelings that they have now; I ask them to remind themselves about this passion during hard training weeks or times when things are not going so smoothly.
I believe that training for success requires a certain amount of discipline and a good work ethic, and that it is impossible to sustain this dedication without really enjoying your path. But how can we as athletes train so hard and with such dedication while maintaining this lighthearted attitude? How can we keep working so hard day in a day out? What drives us to take such care of our bodies, to get enough sleep, to eat well and keep planning seasons full of intense competition? I believe it is more than discipline and determination, hard work and effort. I believe that work ethic is derived from a sense of enthusiasm and that comes from feeling that your training and racing has a purpose, even if you are the only person who knows what that purpose is. It comes from having dream goals and from believing that no matter what happens you are on the right path.
I look at great athletes, and I see a people who are dancing with the challenge of competition and improvement. I see people who have taken adversity and obstacles and made them into part of the path, not walls or prisons. I see athletes who share enthusiasm willingly–not hoarding their successes–and who reap the rewards of having a hugely supportive community who share their passion and enthusiasm for life. I’m sure you know someone like this in your life, someone who you admire and look up to, not for their success, but for their attitude.
As you look toward the biggest part of your year, I urge you to remind yourself of your goals and dreams for yourself in sport. Your sense of purpose in your training is what is going to fuel your enthusiasm for what you do, it is what is going to give you mental energy to train during the day when it doesn’t come to easily, or the to run on when the discomfort sets in, and the times when you feel busy, tired and pulled by any of life’s great demands. When you see enthusiasm in your peers, recognize it and name it, and hang around that person in practice, learning from them. Just because someone is smiling and having fun doesn’t mean that they aren’t serious.