This post attempts to consolidate my thoughts on the Mind over matter? post from Ross at the Science of Sport. He starts off the post with the following conclusion:
In short, excellence requires both physical and mental abilities. Lack either one, and you'll never be excellent. It is important, however, to remember that he is primarily concerned with norm-referenced excellence.
Norm-referenced excellence is excellence defined against external benchmarks, like one's competition, historical records, etc. It's counterpart is self-referenced excellence, which is excellence defined against one's individual potential. (For my detailed description of norm-referenced and self-referenced excellence, click here.)
The Scientist's View
So the question that Ross tackles is fundamentally different from the question I ask my readers to consider. He asks, "To what extent is mental strength able to overcome physiological limitations in the quest to be the best in the world?" And they come to the conclusion, rightly I believe, that the mental and the physiological are too intertwined to hazard a guess.
But this question only interests me as an hypothetical. I do believe that the great runners of the world are physiologically gifted in a way that most people are not. I'm not convinced that individuals from any region of the world are particularly more physiologically gifted than those from any other regions, but they are certainly exceptionally gifted. And they marry their physiological talents with incredible mental discipline, sometimes bordering on obsession, over long periods of time.
I also believe it's important for us to continue to study the "mind vs matter" relationship, to learn what is and is not effective, and use that knowledge to improve our training and racing. We still don't have effective techniques for measuring "mental strength", and assuming away what we don't understand to an individual's "superior mental ability" is a dangerous approach for anyone seeking to improve. (After some thought, the nearest parallel I could come up with is the tendency to attribute the cause of an unexplainable phenomenon to God, simply because no 'scientific' explanation is readily available.)
For a great example of our willingness to attribute accomplishments to mental superiority, see Ross's brilliant breakdown of the history of Bannister's breaking the 4:00 barrier.
The Athlete's View
This blog, however, is generally attempting to answer a different question, based on a different understanding of the word "excellence". Underlying any post is the assumption of a self-referenced definition of excellence. I attempt to ask the question, "To what extent is mental strength required to become your best and realize your potential?"
I prefer this question for two reasons. First, it applies to everyone, from the high school runner just starting out to the elite athlete trying to shave a second off of the existing world record. Second, I'm absolutely convinced that the best athletes in the world don't think about their talent at all. They may dream about what they could accomplish in the future, and draw some measure of confidence from the notion that they are physiologically gifted. But most of their thoughts are focused on the effort required to achieve those goals, and the mental discipline they need to apply to their lives in order to be successful.
Given that, the basic argument underlying most of my posts is that your physical talent, whether average or off the charts, can never be known unless you have mastered the "mental" side of the sport. We can guess as to what our physiological limits are, but until we've put in the years of disciplined work, that's mere speculation. From a norm-referenced perspective, your physiological gifts are absolutely crucial, but from a day-to-day self-referenced perspective, they're largely irrelevant. The same can't be said for the mental side of the sport.
Conclusion: Focus on You
Neither question posed in this post is more important than the other. They are related, yet fundamentally different. The first seeks to answer a scientific question, whereas the second seeks to motivate behavior. The more we know about the first, the better we will be able to adapt our approach to the second.
You may never be able to mentally overcome a physiological limitation relative to your competition. You may never be able to trick your brain into not slowing down when you start to overheat or out-sprint an athlete who is simply faster than you are in the final kick. But you can overcome the habits and lifestyle choices that keep you from realizing your goals and, someday, your potential.
And whether you are an elite athlete or you just started running as a 2009 New Year's Resolution, isn't that the goal?