Month: July 2014

David and Goliath and American Gymnast Warriors

Making the rounds on the ol interwebs the last few weeks is a kick ass video featuring Kacy Catanzaro’s performance on American Ninja Warrior. Which is, apparently, a thing. I may need to watch more TV. You can enjoy all of the kickass-ness here. In addition, Kacy gives an interview where she talks about her sport background and her competitive drive, recorded before she hit that buzzer in Dallas.

Now I’m sure it would be fun (and easy) to devote an entire blog post to just Kacy. After that insanity ladder, she’s likely earned it. But as I watched the video of her finals performance and listened to the commentators’ reactions to what they were witnessing as she completed the course, I knew I had to write about a lot more than Mighty Kacy.

The key point that stood out to me was the degree of surprise, maybe even disbelief that people seem to experience in response to her performance. Not just being impressed with what is justifiably an amazing performance, but continually emphasizing that they just didn’t expect that she would be able to complete different elements of the course because of her size. “Just 100 pounds!” must have been said about 10 times (ok, honestly, I didn’t count). Which puzzled me. Why would her weight – specifically a low weight – be an issue or hindrance to completing the course? Height and wingspan seems to be much more of an issue, undoubtedly. But my no-PhD-in-physics self seemed to think that her low weight would be a huge benefit in completing the course.

Which leads us to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. Gladwell makes many interesting, stop and ponder a minute observations about the tendency inevitability of people to make mental errors. Honestly, we do this constantly. And where it gets important for athletes to take note: the trouble people often have in accurately assessing what constitutes a strength or benefit. In the story of David, we assume that Goliath’s size is the strength of which we are supposed to take notice. But Gladwell (with the help of some historical assumptions that are impossible to prove but seem pretty believable) points out that David’s skill with a rock and a sling are far more beneficial, particularly when David forces Goliath to “run his race” instead of meeting in the usual manner for hand to hand combat.

There are multiple points discussed in the book that are worth reading regardless of athletic goals or background. Go. Read. Prosper. I don’t want to over-share and ruin it for you. Also, this post is long enough already.

For athletes, learning how to pay attention to how you think about your strengths and assets is an indispensable skill. The next step? Questioning and perhaps rewriting how you’ve assessed strengths or weaknesses. Doing so creatively earns you bonus points. Given your sport, your body type, your skills (and a host of other variables) you will likely benefit from reviewing how you evaluate your ability to be successful. Because here’s the thing: Mighty Kacy knew she could slay that course. And Goliath would have made a crappy ninja.



The universe seems to be talking extensively on the subject of sacrifice lately. Fourth of July celebrations always hum along this theme; and along with other adventures (the details of which are unimportant here) I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the sacrifices of athletes. Sacrifice and its bestie commitment, are some of the most fascinating sport psych topics to me.

It has long been my theory that one of the most defining characteristics separating elite athletes from the rest of us is the ability to tolerate such total immersion in one activity.

In my opinion (I don’t believe that there is specific research out there offering evidence to support this, so just an opinion at this point), all other variables being equal – talent, coaching, conditioning, physical health and freedom from injury – the person who would be successful would be the one with the ability to accept the need for sacrifice and tolerance for the discomfort that this brings. It would be the person who could withstand making the same sacrifices over and over again for years. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that this is a very unpleasant thing to do at times; most of us could not cope with it.

Humans by nature struggle to accept discomfort. Buddhist teachings talk extensively on this subject: we typically want what we want and in the most expedited manner possible. We search out short-term comfort without thinking of the impact on big picture goals. We itch for new and novel experiences; too much of the same thing becomes tedious, prompting us to abandon the half-completed project long before achieving completion or mastery. But not so with successful athletes (and by extension, often coaches and other support staff).

After a decade of observing some of the highest level of sport, I have witnessed untold numbers of sacrifices made in the name of sport. While typical students escape for rest after a hard semester, many athletes only take a few days to go home or miss out on holidays altogether. Those who are able to take a day or two for fun often have to make arrangements for workouts and must avoid indulging in holiday revelry so that they can make weight or stay on track with their training program. They make decisions about injury management not according to pain scales or even the best long-term outcome, but often what works best with their athletic schedule. While many enjoy semi or fully funded college educations (although not nearly as many as you would assume), it is not unusual for athletes to spend less time considering what they would like to do for school and a future career because they are busy being athletes. And travel/competition schedules often mean missing out on class, having no time for office hours, and taking tests on the road. Trust me, there are nerdy athletes out there for which this is a real dilemma 🙂

For better and sometimes for worse, being an athlete often demands sacrifice for just the hope of a reward. And because rewards are never guaranteed, my encouragement to athletes is this: be intentional about the sacrifices you are making and why. Take that extra minute – or ten – to determine what values are prompting your choices. Sometimes these sacrifices will not end as you wished. Clarity about WHY you chose plan A, B or C, can help you feel less resentment towards your sport or the people around you (who often pressure athletes intentionally and unintentionally to make certain choices). Understanding your WHY also helps you cope with any regret you might experience later, reconfigure your plan, and move forward.

Being able to make and tolerate sacrifice, to delay gratification of what you want now for a more meaningful later, is a tremendous strength. Most of us would likely benefit from further refining this skill. No time like the present! Get out there and do not just what comes easy, but what matters most to you!