Discipline: The difference between good and great performance.

by: Sean Garick

“Misapplied Self-Discipline”: You are mentally tough, disciplined and extraordinarily physically fit, so why aren’t you reaching your potential on race day?

Lisa is the most gifted athlete I’ve ever been associated with. A college runner, she has amazing form and runs with remarkable efficiency. Mentally, Lisa is one of the toughest people I have ever known- and I’m a United States Marine, so that is saying something! She possesses unbelievable pain tolerance and the ability to push through physical discomfort that would have long ago stopped everyone else. Lisa’s body can accept more stress than yours- both volume and intensity. On any given day she can and will beat every other athlete out there- on any given day, that is, except race day. On race day, she will fail to maximize her potential and she will get beat (again) by inferior athletes-or more appropriately by physically inferior athletes; because on this day, at this time, they were the superior athletes.

Many athletes do not reach their potential not because they aren’t mentally and physically tough, but  mental and physical training are applied through the framework of discipline. This framework of discipline is the key to maximizing potential. It’s not that poor performers don’t have discipline- almost every athlete has extraordinary self-discipline- it’s that their discipline is misapplied. For example, an athlete may be very disciplined about hitting every workout on their training plan, however, a better application is to be very disciplined about listening to the body and allowing yourself to miss a workout in favor of recovery when necessary.

The essence of discipline is rejecting what you want today, to achieve what you want tomorrow. In other words, to put off ‘instant gratification’ in order to realize ‘long-term (and greater) gratification’. This can be tricky to understand and even trickier to apply. For example, it takes mental discipline to drag oneself out of bed every morning (the ‘instant gratification’ of staying in bed) in order to train and increase fitness and abilities (the ‘long-term gratification’). Therefore it appears that someone who does this is highly disciplined. That’s a great start but it’s only the entry level of discipline that is required in order to reach your ultimate potential. It takes and entirely higher maturity of discipline to let slower runners pull away from you on a training run (‘instant gratification’ would be to crush them!) in order to achieve the ‘long-term gratification’ of maximizing your abilities in this weekend’s race- something that crushing these runners today would sabotage.

A loose but useful definition of self-discipline is “the ability to make yourself do the things that should be done.” Where most athletes fall short is in the understanding of “the things that should be done.” There is a permeating mindset within the endurance community that “the things that should be done” equate to “more and faster” every time! Strong discipline applied within the wrong overarching framework can be disastrous. Mental toughness must be brought under control and kept in line by appropriately applied discipline or it will destroy an athlete’s performance.

Athletes who fail to apply the appropriate discipline often have the following characteristics.

  • Short-sighted. Doesn’t see the big picture (Not even weeks. Certainly not months and years down the road.)
  • Will sacrifice tomorrow in order to win today. This includes sacrificing tomorrow’s race in order to win today’s training session.
  • Controlled by pride and ego because they fail to apply that mental and physical toughness correctly.
  • Cannot stand to see a slow pace- EVER! Training with GPS/timing often adds stress and depression.
  • If it hurts it must be good for me. If it hurts more it must be better!
  • Doesn’t believe or trust the process. Only trusts going faster and further. Hammer down all the time.
  • The mindset to go all out every time and never give up has served them well in the past. It has been praised and re-enforced by teammates and coaches their entire lives.
  • Mentally and emotionally struggles with recover days. Feels guilt or sees them as a waste of time.
  • Rarely listens to body. Doesn’t include balanced feedback in training- such as, pace (or power), heart rate and RPE. Only pace (or power) matters.
  • Will often try to ‘train through’ an injury.
  • Hates to lose. Even when training with athletes of differing abilities at different stages of their training and different training goals. Doesn’t take into account that other athletes had different volume and intensity over the last few days.
  • Believes in an inflexible training plan. Will execute every session on the training plan regardless of how the body feels or ‘real world’ events that are happening (job, family, lack of sleep, etc).
  • Doesn’t integrate the entire scope of training. See’s little value in long, slow runs; hydration/fueling plans or the need to train to them; recovery days; or a disciplined taper prior to race.

The end result is someone who is over-trained, fatigued and under-recovered. Someone who will not reach their race day potential.

Mental Toughness is an absolute necessity on race day. However, it must be overridden in day-to-day training by appropriately applied discipline so that week-to-week, month-to-month and season-to-season improvements can be realized. Improving athletes trust the entire process and bring all training into that framework.

  • Athletes who apply discipline in this way have the following characteristics:
  • Mental discipline to override pride and ego.
  • Will sacrifice today in order to win tomorrow. Meaning will let others pull away on today’s training run in order to win the race tomorrow (or next week).
  • Embraces and trains to the entire process- the training plan. Understands that all the aspects: recovery; longer, slower runs; rest; hydration/fueling training; and disciplined taper are necessary and produce a greater level of physical health which will lead to better race results.
  • In tune with and listens to the body when it comes to fatigue, soreness and injury.
  • Incorporates all available feedback- pace (or power), heart rate, RPE, etc.
  • Training plan is flexible and tailorable based on how the body feels and real-life events.
  • Far sighted. See’s the big picture. Understands how each training session builds and adds to the overarching goals. A long-range mindset.

A complete understanding of all aspects of training and more importantly a complete TRUST in those aspects is essential. It requires full buy-in. As you begin to trust the process you will discipline yourself to follow it and mold your efforts within that trusted framework. You may feel ‘less successful’ in day-to-day training, but you will soon see that you are more successful on race day.

More importantly, you will see your overall performance improve season to season as you finally begin to achieve your full potential!