Atlas was a Titan carrying quite a burden. According to the mythology, he had the weight of the whole world on his shoulders.
The Ayn Rand book “Atlas Shrugged” which if you can wade through the endless speeches is about rational selfishness. This concept should be easy for any professional athlete to understand; it is the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one’s self-interest. The significance of the title is referenced in a conversation between two characters, one asks what advice he would give Atlas upon seeing that “the greater his effort, the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders”. The character then responds to his own question saying: “To shrug”.
Athletes face expectations every day that weigh upon their shoulders like Atlas’ burden. I have to some extent after winning a string of Ironman titles. Most of my expectations were self-imposed but some from media, fans, and sponsors. However the burden on my shoulders pales in comparison to that of the defending Ironman world champion as they are temporarily at the center of the tri-universe under the sweltering spotlight race week. The pressure may be contained in public but their friends, family, and confidants will tell you a different story of pervasive stress and anxiety. Why do some rise to become a Titan under the mantle while others falter under this weight? I think it comes down to selfishness and perspective.
The winning athlete uses the expectations to get the most out of him or her self and relishes the pressure. These athletes push their performance to a higher level when everything is on the line. A winner will perceive the expectations as a positive knowing that it means they have arrived. These athletes I also surmise have a bit of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness. They are able to focus solely on themselves and don’t consider anyone else especially on race day. This outlook will not only win world championships and Olympic medals but will go a step further and defend these titles successfully. The winning attribute is the ego to face another athlete on the line knowing that he or she is the best and will prevail. In life, this attitude may come off as selfish entitlement but on race day it is survival.
Conversely, the athletes that falter under the weight of expectations will shrug instead of rising to the occasion. These athletes may win all year but choke at the big championship events. Being less rationally selfish, these individuals are unable to focus on their own performance. Losing athletes are sensitive to other’s thoughts and often lacking the enormous ego required to win. These athletes don’t relish the challenge and when things start to go wrong they look for any external excuses to blame for their failings.
The real winner is the athlete that can enjoy the expectations, rise to the challenge but leave their sense of entitlement on the field of play.
8 x Ironman Winner Mary Beth Ellis will compete at the ITU World Long Course Championships in Motala this weekend.