When you are sitting right on the edge of something daring and scary and creative and powerful and perhaps wonderful... and you blink and take a step back.
That's the moment. The moment between you and remarkable. Most people blink. Most people get stuck.
All the hard work and preparation and daring and luck is nothing compared with the ability to not blink.
I went to the NCAA Championships last weekend, in part because I love track and field and had never been before, but primarily I went to see Austin Ramos run. He's a junior on UCLA's team and he's made great strides this year, culminating in his qualifying for the 5000m final last weekend.
The more I think about his race, the more I'm convinced he blinked. He earned the opportunity to do something remarkable. His moment was at hand. But he hesitated, and the moment literally ran away from him.
Here's what happened. The race went out in 30 seconds for the first 200m, and 63 seconds for the first 400m. Rather than get in the lead pack with the guys he wanted to be running with, he hung back and ran a 65. In the next two laps, as the pace settled into 66s, he needed to get up into the lead pack. But he didn't. He hesitated. He blinked.
After the 4th lap, he started to move toward the front. But before he could get there, the top 7 runners separated from the rest and he got stuck leading the back pack as the first group got away from him. He didn't lose ground on the front pack, but he didn't gain any, either.
In the end, he fought hard to get back in the race, but it was too late. He ended up carrying a group of guys to a solid time, and was outkicked by a few, finishing 10th. He almost ran a personal record and he'll be an All-American, so he certainly didn't run a bad race. But he missed his opportunity.
Races (and all sports, really) are essentially a means to create "moments". Championship races are different only in that the pressure increases, the stakes get higher, and how you handle "that moment" can ultimately define your career (think Billy Mills).
For the race favorite, the moment might be no more than the decision to execute when the race is at its toughest point. For the underdog, however, the moment is often incredibly daunting. The urge to back off, to be more conservative, to doubt yourself may be overpowering.
But it doesn't have to be. Our ability to both recognize and act on "that moment" is eminently learnable. You can prepare for it. You need to prepare for it.
I wrote a post called Risk and Performance Rewards in which I posted the graph to the right. Where your race lies on that graph should never be the result of random circumstance. You should never go into a race thinking, "I hope this one turns out risky." You need to have a plan. And that includes planning for "the moment."
If you know "the moment" is coming--and if you run competitively, it is--then there are a number of things you can do: visualize it, develop alternative strategies, talk about it, identify the signs that tell you its coming, or even run simulations to try and experience it. Or you can try to dictate the race, so that "the moment" comes on your terms.
I can't speak for Austin's race preparation, his strategy, or what he was thinking during the race. I'm sure it was only in hindsight that he realized "that moment" occurred in lap #2, and not lap #10 where he expected it to occur. But the end result is what it is. The moment came early, he blinked, he ended up running a Medium Risk race, and he settled for a Good Enough performance.
I'm sure Austin has learned a lot from this experience. I hope for his sake he gets another shot, and that next time he's more prepared.