Why the potential to fail exists despite your perfect programming

Every athlete will eventually meet a crossroads in their sport: to either shelve it as a hobby, or to make the push to compete at the highest level. Consequently, one must accept that the population of truly successful elite top tier athletes is abysmally low. The simple logic is that to be the best, you must beat everyone else, therefore making elite competitors a very exclusive demographic.

I have met plenty of athletes, both adaptive and able-bodied who are disillusioned about their potential to be the best. Even more comical are the ones who think they’re elite because of their various sponsorships, or their selection to a certain camp, or even onto a national team.

There is a difference between “elite” and “success”.

Success is a broader and subjective term that is incredibly useful in tracking and setting goals. You can set a goal to run a mile. If you finish it, you are successful. You can set a goal to make the Paralympics. If you achieve it, you are successful. I encourage anyone and everyone to find ways to be successful. It helps with self-esteem, planning, goal-setting, and self-improvement, and ultimately a healthy mental lifestyle.

However, being elite is not subjective and there is no compromise. You either won a gold medal, or you did not. You are either the best, or you are not. By the grace of free-will, nobody in this life is forced to become elite, and there are most certainly plenty of easier and equally fulfilling paths to finding happiness and purpose. If you’ve read this far and recognize these conditions, I have no problem being frank: on the path to being elite, you are not done until you are the best.

I made a personal goal to play on the National Team, and the demands of that tier of play are astronomically high. I remember vividly going from a threat in division I play to struggling to meet the caliber of the USA Talent pool. A big crux of “bubble” athletes who are in these shoes is a poor grasp of their strengths and weaknesses. To counter that, a lot of time must be spent reviewing effort and focus. The simpler analogy is asking two people to run a mile. One is an Olympic Track athlete, the other, an average sedentary person. Both can feasibly run a mile and take pride in that accomplishment, but one is most definitely engaging their full body, delivering better form, and have trained to pace themselves to exhume a maximal amount of energy in that several minute window. Likewise, two athletes running the same programs can experience drastically different results. The difference in these two programs is focus.

Focus is the ultimate mental ideology that will give the greatest chance of success.

Every training session is a lesson in focus. If I slack at all, I have to accept the reality that I can’t go back and fix it, and that for that day’s yield, I’ve compromised my dedication and ability. If I do two sets of 5km in my 40 pound rugby chair at a 23:00 pace, how can I feel like I’m elite if I come in and do a set that’s 28 minutes? I can’t just check off that I did 10k for the day; the difference between elite and casual is the standard you hold your work to. Nowhere in that 23 minutes is there room to slow down a single push stroke. Sprint workouts are even graver; any compromise in that 10 second stretch will contribute to the inability to fulfill my maximum potential.

How does someone train focus?

The easiest way is take out your headphones and pause your music. Count the seconds in your rest periods. Count out loud the tempos in your lifting schemes. Focus on every movement in your conditioning. Stop looking in the mirror. Break your mirror if you have to. Turn off your phone and buy a 10 dollar analog clock with a second hand. Focus on yourself. Be aware of every movement and muscle in your body. Count your breaths.

Too boring? Yeah, it’s pretty boring. But if you can’t beat boredom for the sake of improvement, you’ve already let yourself down. If you can’t beat boredom, how can you win in the 4th quarter when your opponent is trash talking you because your last turnover tied up the game? Eventually popping in the headphones won’t be an issue, but like anything else, a strong mentality comes from building a strong foundation. Use those silent sessions to your advantage. Every athlete’s worst competition is themselves; stop competing against yourself. After all, the voice in your head who begs you to slow down when every muscle in your body is on fire is yours alone, so shut yourself up and focus.

James Sa is an APS athlete and wheelchair rugby player for San Diego Sharp Edge. He works full-time as a grant writer and enjoys reading, trying new food, and video games. He doesn’t enjoy training because he trains the right way with 100% focus. James failed to be selected for the 2016 USA Paralympic Rugby Team. He is working hard to not fail a second time.