The Professional State of Mind. (A Letter to Aspiring Pro's)
Dear Aspiring Athlete,
Please do yourself and your career in sport a favor and read the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield (after reading this post, of course…). This book was written as a kick in the behind for wannabe writers and artists. Since success in sport is more of an art than a science, I thought the message of the book was on pointe for athletes too. In fact, I wish I had read this book when I was a “pro runner” training for the Olympics. I know both professionals and amateurs, and the difference between the two is never obvious, aside from the fact that one makes money while the other doesn’t. But this book provides an inside look at some of the traits that separate the pros from the hobbyists, and surprisingly: Talent is rarely a part of this equation. Unexpectedly, super enthusiastic and passionate people, might be at a disadvantage!
A healthy dose of reality does us all a world of good, especially if we want to really live the dream and reach our full potential. As you read this try to identify areas where you can improve and use this information to help you make the jump from amateur to professional. Sit tight for a gut check and see if you have The Professional State of Mind. If you want to honor your passion, quit messing around and turn pro today!
The difference between Amateur and Professional has little to do with making money.
Amateur: a person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis. From Latin amator ‘lover,’ from amare ‘to love.’
Professional: a person engaged in a specified activity, esp. a sport or branch of the performing arts, as a main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
The above dictionary definition might indicate that an amateur plays the game for love where a professional plays for money. What is fails to mention is that a professional also loves the game. In fact, they love the game so much that they dedicate their life to it. Pro’s don’t need to talk about their love of the game (it is a given), but speak through action instead: they dedicate their life to the pursuit of excellence through their work, their long term commitment, their passion, and their energy. Every day, year after year. Love, after-all isn't a big thing, it's a million little things.
Both pro’s and amateurs love their work and “look” the part, but that is where the similarities begin and end. The true difference lie in the steadfastness of commitment in the face of adversity...read on to get to the nitty gritty!
Professional Enemy #1- Resistance
Isn't the internal world fascinating? The way in which our thoughts affect our performances, relationships and our quality of life is really remarkable. Our goal at Believe I Am is to help you to become Super You! We do not expect to completely dissolve the destructive forces that exist within each of us, but we work to provide usable tools to keep those forces from limiting our potential. We refer to these self-sabotaging thoughts as “weeds”. They are present in everyone and have the power to wreak havoc if allowed. In The War of Art, the author refers to these same dream-crushing thoughts as “resistance”.
Resistance is an athlete’s number one foe. Forget about your competitors - your rivals actually make you better by making you raise your game. But resistance is self-defeating: the endless excuses, that inner critic, and the doubting voice in your head that tells you you are not good enough. It is part of human nature, and both pro’s and amateurs alike have to deal with it. Resistance, according to Pressfield, “is cunning and ever present”. It shows up everyday in an effort to sabotage your attempts at using your gifts. Pressfield describes resistance as “the great shadow that your dream casts”.
The difference between professionals and amateurs lies in how they deal with resistance. Pros train, compete and live out their passion despite resistance, while amateurs are easily beaten down and discouraged by it. Amateurs believe they must completely rid themselves of resistance before they can get their work done. For example, after months of preparation, as a big event approaches, the amateur will start to find excuses on why they should skip the event. But the professional, who also has these same doubts and fears, will follow through and compete, trusting that once the guns goes off, resistance will (hopefully) subside. Anyone tapering for a marathon will know what I'm talking about. As your body is preparing for "performance" a whole host of hormones and bio-psycho changes are taking place. If you were to believe every outrageous thought that arises during this time, you would swear the world was out to sabotage your preparation. You now have a name for this, thanks to Pressfield, it is Resistance. That mo-fo shows up stronger as we come closer to achieving our goal. Name it and shame it, and it loses it's hold over you. (The biological explanation of this is that performance triggers our body to create extra testosterone and other hormones that can make us more irritable, but really those hormones are preparing us for the competition).
The Critic- The Personification of Resistance
Resistance is a shapeshifter and can show up anytime, anywhere. Critics are a personification of this. The only way to silence the critics is to face them and keep moving forward. They will always exist, but the professional does not need them to go away in order to do her work. The professional has enough self belief and self validation to remain unaffected. Instead, (if she bothers to listen to them) she filters their advice and uses it to her advantage, learning from them and allowing them to make herself better. The professional’s level of tough mindedness is rare and laudable. In contrast, the amateur allows the opinions of the critics to destroy her sense of self. She needs to be validated by others, and when she’s not, she crumbles. Rejection is felt at a genetic level: we are programmed to want to feel accepted by others. It is as if resistance “uses this fear of rejection to paralyze us and prevent us from exposing our work to public evaluation,” as noted by Pressfield. Essentially, tough-mindedness needs to be cultivated in order override this genetic disposition.
The fulfillment and contentment we feel when we achieve our goal and our dreams is absolutely priceless. But, in order to reach that happy place an athlete needs to know that the road will not be rosy the entire way. An aspiring athlete knows (or should know) that by committing to her calling she will learn how to be miserable, and what she has signed up for might be considered hell to others (just see what happens the next time you tell a “lay person” that you ran 80miles last week :). As Pressfield says (he is referring to artist, but I think athlete is a good proxy), “the (athlete) will be dining on isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, humility, contempt and ridicule.” He reckons we should adopt the mentality of a marine and enjoy being miserable. So the next time you feel hard-done-by for making a sacrifice in order to do your work, embrace it and get your work done anyway. Take pride in this self-inflicted misery and know what athletes face can be grueling and part of the job description. Knowing this upfront prepares us for those less than fun days. It’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable!
Commitment - The Tortoise vs. The Hare
Too much enthusiasm can be a hindrance, making you overzealous with unrealistic ambitions and timeframes. This high intensity is not sustainable. I’ve seen many athletes fall into this trap - they take the leap to focus on their sport and then think they need to go hammer and tongs at it, doing high intensity training that is not sustainable. Sport doesn’t work that way. Thus, many super enthusiastic, motivated athletes will fail to be consistently successful, falling instead into overtraining and injuries. The most successful athletes do not have epic training stints or try to continually outdo themselves every day. Rather, they have consistently good weeks, months and years. The pro’s prepare mentally to be committed for the long haul. They conserve their energy and enthusiasm to ensure its longevity. They are the tortoise, not the hare. And they therefore maintain their success consistently over the long term.
Does this mean that people who are super passionate and enthusiastic cannot be successful? I don't think it does. Rather, it means us over-emotional-passionate types, need to adopt a more arms-length approach to our work. We need to stop over identifying with our passions and conserve that energy and ration it for the daily grind. That's easier said than done for some of us.
Fear of Failing
The hardest thing about following your dream of becoming a professional athlete (artist, writer, you-name-it) is dealing with the knocks, the failures and the under performances. There are so many losses to be had in a competitive environment, even if you are a star player (Google "Micheal Jordon failure"). But in order to become a professional you must embrace the blows, the rejection, and judgement. You must instead see it as validation of your existence within the competition arena - You are doing it! Failing does not make you a failure. It simply means you are learning. This is the real world! So stop complaining and be grateful (even if it doesn’t sit well and stings to be beaten). Fall down. Stand back up. Repeat (no one said it was going to be easy). Build your resilience, not resistance.
Control What You Can / Let Go Of The Rest
The professional knows that ultimately success is out of their control. They work instead on that which they can control directly- improving their technique, showing up for workouts, recovering properly. They know that success shows up when it wants to, so the pro gets her work done and prepares the way for success to appear.
“You have the right to work only, but not for the results of work” - consciously or unconsciously the professional adopts the advice of the Bhagavad Gita. And as the old adage goes, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.” So yeah, admittedly luck and success does play a part- an unreliable roll that shows up only when it feels like it. We are not in control of the outcome, but are in control of our efforts. So prepare for the worst, and go ahead and allow yourself hope for the best.
If you are an athlete embarking on the quest to achieve your dream, at whatever level of sport, you need to know the reality of the roller-coaster you are riding. Sport is risky! Success is never guaranteed. BUT, having the guts and the tenacity to take your passion and live your dream will be the thrill of your life. Studies have shown that the happiness you get from working towards a noble goal, makes you happy at a genetic level. Conquering your inner demons and the overcoming the daily obstacles that arise will set you up for success. With no regrets, no one to blame, and no bitterness, you can truly cherish the process of giving your best!
Note: The author doesn’t mention talent or giftedness as determining factor between amateur and professional. There are varying degrees of talented people in the world, but that what matters for long term success is the daily approach, the mindset, and the commitment.
So its time to quit complaining, quit criticizing others and stop succumbing to resistance. It’s time to turn pro. It’s free, but it’s not easy. Do you have The Professional State of Mind? (click the chart below, print it out and identify where you fall on the Pro-Am spectrum. Identify areas where you can improve).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what makes someone a professional. Is there something the author has left out? Also, tell us how you keep resistance at bay. How do you ignore the doubts from the dark side?
This video sums it all up!
Fight the good fight and get after your goals,
p.p.s. The book "The War of Art", by Steven Pressfield can be purchased here.
p.p.s.s. You can read more about two of the most professional athletes I know, Olympians and national record holders, Molly Huddle and Kim Smith.