I just finished watching Spain defeat Germany 1-0 in the Euro 2008 final. They were the better team, had more attacking chances, and shut down Germany's top strikers. Had you not known anything about their history, you'd have thought it was the German team that was the talented underachievers and the Spanish team the one that performed well under pressure.
If you're not a soccer fan, here's the history. Spain is a consistently talented team. They have one of the top leagues in Europe with some of the best teams (Real Madrid and FC Barcelona being the most famous). They play creative, exciting soccer and consistently enter tournaments as a team with the potential to win. Then they play like crud and get eliminated way too early. The victory today was the first major championship for Spain in 44 years! Throughout that time, the expectation on the part of the entire country was for the team to let everyone down.
Germany, on the other hand, has won four European Championships and a couple World Cups in that time. They have a history of finding a way to win, even when they are not playing their best, and of imposing their will on the teams they play against. They are big, physical, and play skillfully efficient soccer. In short, the expectation is that they will come out on top, because they have a history of doing so.
The commentators covering the game said something interesting in the first few minutes. I will paraphrase here: "We have to see if the Spanish are going to play the jerseys, or the men wearing them. If they play against the 11 men on the field, they're the better side. If they play against the "Legend of Germany" then we don't know."
It became pretty apparent early on that Spain was playing the men on the field, and not the German "legend". Having already dispatched Italy earlier in the tournament--a perennial champion they'd not beaten in 86 years--I think the Spanish side came into the Final with the self-efficacy of a champion, having taught themselves that history only determines the present when you let it. From there, Spain's skill and strategy won them the game.
While soccer and track and field don't have that much in common, I think the notion of "racing the man, and not the legend" is an important idea to remember. Especially in a meet like the Olympic Trials. When you toe the line against a Bernard Lagat, or a Jeremy Wariner, or a Tyson Gay, you can't get caught up in the "legend" of that person. You have to go out and race the man wearing the jersey that day. Sometimes he's even better than his legend (as Gay appears to be after winning the 100 meters so convincingly), but that's something that has to be re-proven every race.
Past victories and personal records do mean something. They are indications of an individual's ability at some point in time. And as we all know, if you've done it once, it's easier to do it a second time. But for great runners, they can do more; they can establish a "legend" that creates a mental barrier in the minds of their competition. When you start running against a competitor's past and present, you've given your competitor an advantage.
Next time you step on the line, don't get psyched out by the mystique your competition has created. They still have to do it on that day. So race like the Spanish played football this past month. With pride and confidence in your abilities, and with no fear of what your competition has done before.