I’m sure most would agree that often things are not what they seem to be. We think we’re going to get a raise at work, and we get fired. We think someone is going to propose to us, and they leave. We think someone is a friend, and then find out they have said bad things about us. Or we think the family next door is normal, until one of them goes on a ballistic shooting rampage.
The same is true in our pursuit of athletic endeavors, in that what you see at high levels of proficiency is different than what is happening at the molecular level. Take Davis Love at the 1993 Ryder Cup in Belfry, England, where coming down the 18th hole he felt as though he was literally going to puke his guts out. Somehow, he held it in, and remained composed through sheer will power, and didn’t let his nerves show on the way to clinching a victory for the U.S.
Then there’s what Michael Phelps was going through when his goggles filled with water in Beijing, and he won the gold. We couldn’t see that his field of vision was totally obscured and that he had to gauge the distance to the wall by feel, trusting his trained instinct. But that’s what was going on under the water, in his world thrown asunder.
Or how about Serena Williams, who after coming back to tennis competition a couple years ago, after all she had been through with depression and a blood clot almost taking her life, was being written off as washed up. They thought she should retire, but she didn’t listen. She still believed in herself as she fought and grinded it out internally, on her way to winning both Wimbledon and gold at the Olympics this summer.
And finally, as golf fans we got spoiled by all those winning years of Tiger Woods, seeming to coast in smoothly to victory at many majors. What we didn’t realize is that Tiger put his own expectations on himself, and didn’t listen to ours. Although we may think he had the tournament won after 3 days and a 4 stroke lead, he knew he had a lot of work ahead of him. He didn’t think he had it won, or take it for granted, he knew it would be hard those last 9 holes and he was steely, determined, and ready for whatever may be thrown at him.
This all leads me to Adam Scott, who had a 4 stroke lead going into this year’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club, but couldn’t hold on. Perhaps he listened to, or fell into, what all the sportscasters and newspapers were implying, that he’s the best player not to have won a major and it was his to lose. If you think the win should already be yours, there is only one way to go from there.
Adam was not armed and ready for his larynx to be stuck in his throat, to feel a lack of oxygen, and to have a highly escalated heartbeat. These feelings are inevitable when leading down the stretch of a major, an Olympic race, or a Wimbledon final. You need to know these uncomfortable feelings, expect the unexpected, and do whatever you can to keep going and stay focused.
It helped Tiger down the stretch in tournaments, that his Dad had angered him as a kid by rattling keys and talking loudly while he was teeing off at junior tournaments. Tiger never knew what to expect from him, or when disruption would happen, so he had to learn how to deal with those unsettling feelings. Likewise, Phelps’ coach of 16 years, Bob Bowman, trained him for just such a mishap that happened in Beijing. There were times when he either hid or intentionally cracked Michael’s goggles right before a meet, or had the driver pick Phelps up late the night before a meet so he’d miss dinner. During an interview, Bowman admitted to messing with Michael so as to make him, “familiar with chaos”; because as he knows, nothing ever goes as planned.
It appears easy when athletes pull out victories, when businessmen are successful, or when a school teacher wins an award, but it isn’t. They have all had their failures, difficulties, and doubts to contend with. Many times in life we can’t count on smooth sailing, no matter how much planning or work we have put in. Sometimes we’ve just got to pull through in an unconventional or unexpected way, getting something done however possible.
So the next time someone makes something seem easy, or when you think someone has it easy, realize that is the façade that masks the determination, perseverance, and tough inner will that they have developed to deal with what has been thrown at them. Smooth sailing is just a fictional term in a fantasy world.