Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“He’s a Winner”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 1, 2014

At the gym where I work out, there’s a program called Pro Camp that specializes in training professional athletes. They train basketball players, football players, hockey players, track athletes. And they train high school and college athletes whose ambition is to make it to the pros.

TR

T.R. with some of his Pro Camp athletes

I was standing with the chief of Pro Camp, T.R. Goodman, watching a 15-year-old high school football player go through his workout. “He’s a winner,” T.R. said.

I was immediately curious. I asked T.R. what he meant. What qualities did he see in this young boy that marked him as an athlete with a future? What is the difference between a pro and a non-pro? What did T.R. mean by “winner?”

Of course I was thinking about writers. Athletes and writers face the same challenges. Both—meaning the readers of this blog and the athletes at Pro Camp—are aspiring to be thoroughgoing pros.

Here are the points that T.R. called out:

1. Focus

“Why did I say this young boy is a winner? Because he has tremendous ability to focus. Every great athlete I’ve worked with has that capacity. Not only do they have the ability to focus on a task in the moment, but they can stay in that focused state for a long period of time.

“I train many people who are not professional athletes. The best ones, the most successful ones, bring that ability to focus from their professions. They can transfer it to their training and apply it to their workouts. The difference between the average athlete and the superstar athlete is the ability to intensely focus and to retain that focus until the exercises are over or the workout is over.

“This young kid is only 15 years old, yet he has the ability to focus very intensely on the exercise as he’s doing it and he never loses focus until the workout is over. That’s why I say he’s a winner.”

2. Coachability

“So what do I mean by focus, what is it about focus that allows these people to become really successful? I think focus starts with listening. That means that they have the ability to listen and understand what you’re asking them to do, what are the keys to executing the task successfully. In working out, that means understanding exactly what their body needs to do.

“They are very receptive to instruction, they don’t doubt what they’re being asked to do, they don’t question what they’re being asked to do, they accept what they’re asked to do and they do it well.”

3. Confidence

“Underlying all of this, supporting all of this, is an inner knowing that they can do what you ask of them. There’s no self-doubt. They don’t wonder if they have the ability to do it. It’s just a matter of time.”

4. Concentration

“Another key component of focus is the ability to not be distracted. The best athletes are not distracted by anything going on around them. Their energy is completely directed in the task—not on the task, but in the task. They are immersed. And they have the ability to maintain that concentration for as long as necessary.”

5. Self-evaluation

“The last component that these exceptional athletes bring is the ability to evaluate what they’re doing right and what they need to improve on. And they make the improvements without self-doubt. So I guess that could be summarized or characterized as they have the ability to self-evaluate.”

What was fascinating to me about what T.R. said was that he never mentioned athletic ability or strength or speed. The qualities he cited were all mental. They were deeper than mental. They were psychological, emotional, and spiritual. They were qualities of aspiration, of commitment, of intention, of will, of intensity, and of perseverance.

These are all qualities that you and I have control of in our writing and our artistic lives.

We can’t choose how smart or how pretty or how verbal we are. But we can choose what we want and how much we want it. We can choose how hard we’re willing to work to achieve our goals. We can elect to tune out distractions. We can decide how much we’re willing to sacrifice and over how long a period we’re willing to make that sacrifice. We can commit over the long haul and in the face of adversity.

Those capacities are all within our power.

The exercise that his young football player was doing when I was watching him was a drill for the deep muscles of the shoulder, the throwing muscles for a quarterback. He was lying on one side on a bench with a five-pound weight in one hand. The drill was to move the weight very slowly and very smoothly (no jerky motions or cheating by using momentum) through a range of motion that permitted only the small muscles deep in the shoulder to participate. Watching him, you could see exactly what T.R. was talking about. He never cheated, he never took a short cut. He dug deep, moved smoothly through the pain, and didn’t quit or lose focus no matter how hard it got.

It sounds crazy but it was absolutely inspiring to watch him. You wanted to go back to your own workout and work twice as hard and with twice as much focus. It made you feel a little ashamed of yourself for not focusing as intensely as you knew you were capable of.

And you could see exactly what T.R. meant when he said, “He’s a winner.” Above and beyond God-given athletic ability or strength or speed, you could see that this young man was going to achieve great things in any enterprise he tackled.

They don’t call it “Resistance training” for nothing.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

31 Responses to ““He’s a Winner””

  1. January 1, 2014 at 6:07 am

    Hi Steven,

    A great summary of what it takes to be successful at anything.

    Very inspiring for 1st January 2014!

    All the best,

    Chris.

    • January 1, 2014 at 10:31 am

      Happy New Year, to Steve, the Black Irish Team and all of the faithful followers. Love this! Thanks for taking the time to observe and write about this inspirational athlete to get our year started off right. Resist Resistance! Yes!

  2. January 1, 2014 at 6:19 am

    This is great Steven. I get through a tough workout the same way I get through a novel–one rep, one word, one step at a time–with intense mindfulness of what I’m doing at that moment and a deeper focus on one thing: completion.

    May the sweat angel bless you in all endeavors!
    (Sweat angel: http://goo.gl/DE2v8t)

  3. Mary
    January 1, 2014 at 6:21 am

    This is a great message as we start a new year: show up, do the work and keep on keeping on.

    Over the holidays I watched the old BBC “House of Cards Trilogy” from 1990 (novel by Michael Dobbs, screenplay by Dobbs and Andrew Davies). Francis Urquhart, the diabolical politician at the center of the story, utters a line that perfectly embodies our fight against Resistance. Anticipating the contention of an upcoming election, Urquhart declares that there is nothing like it “to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood.” (You gotta love the British – no American writer would come up with that line!) I had to hit the pause button and write that one down. It is now posted on my writing table.

    So here’s to all of you who show up here each week – good luck to each of us as we begin 2014 – let us resolve “to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood!” Happy New Year to everyone, and especially to the Black Irish team – Steve, Callie, Shawn and Jeff – looking forward to spending another great year with you all – thanks for everything!

    • January 1, 2014 at 6:35 am

      LOVE IT. “to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood”

    • January 2, 2014 at 2:48 am

      Just thought you’d like to know that “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” is from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1. It’s in the famous speech beginning ‘Once more unto the breach…’ Happy New Year all. Pauline

      • Mary
        January 2, 2014 at 6:08 am

        Thanks Pauline!

  4. January 1, 2014 at 6:27 am

    “They don’t call it ‘Resistance Training’ for nothing.” For me, a summary of the “whole nine yards” of everything. Thank you.

    All the BEST and HAPPINESS that CAN BE for everyone being on the 2014 ride and journey of your dreams.

  5. January 1, 2014 at 6:39 am

    Good Morning Steven,

    Thank you for the reminder that I can’t choose how smart I am, but I can chose how hard I work.

    It is time to focus.

    All the best,
    Pamela

  6. January 1, 2014 at 7:09 am

    Thanks Steve!!

  7. January 1, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Thank you, Steven-

    You reminded me of a story I tell my students about the power of focus.

    For my son Ben’s sixth birthday, we got him a telescope. He complained to me that it wasn’t working. Then I showed him how to rotate a lens and voila! Everything came into focus.

    It made all the difference.

    Happy New Year!

  8. January 1, 2014 at 7:42 am

    If I could insert a bit of personal experience from being a pro athlete. My Dad was always saying: “It is all in the head.” All your game, your attitude, your values.
    Over a decade after quitting playing pro, I use same ‘wiring’ in my body and mind to do any work I deeply care about.

    It is also important to have a coach as T.R. is, who can see the importance of ‘the head’, because if they view the world through different lenses (muscles, speed, height, vs. focus, dedication, intelligence etc.), it is very hard for the athlete and the coach to connect with each other and for them to grow.

    …till one of them quits to find new area of shipping her art.

    Happy New Year, to all!

  9. January 1, 2014 at 7:47 am

    I had a great talk with a sports coach over the holiday. He coaches college tennis, and says their main challenge is helping the athletes maintain a lose, flexible, playing-to-win, willing to take risk attitude. He said the athletes mostly have it during practice, so the key is helping them retain it during competition.

    He said that if an athlete’s personality changes right before a game–if a quiet one gets talkative, or vice versa–then that was a sign that the athlete will probably NOT do well.

    Before games or writing, you really want to stay calm and zen – attached to the process, but not necessarily to the outcome.

  10. January 1, 2014 at 7:50 am

    Perhaps that should be a common resolution for us all: to commit to and increase our resistance training. You’re right that the 5 qualities – focus, coachability, confidence, concentration, self-evaluation – are “psychological, emotional, and spiritual…qualities of aspiration, of commitment, of intention, of will, of intensity, and of perseverance.” I also note that they are interdependent. (By the way you see them in the great chess players – the amount of calculation they do, which flows out of the 5 qualities – awe-inspiring.)

    What’s the difference between “focus” and “concentration”? The dictionary defines a “focus” as ” a central point of attention.” “Concentration” is defined as “exclusive attention.” (The verb “concentrate” means to “bring all faculties and efforts to bear on an activity.” Thus focus is directing attention to the central point, and concentration is an exclusive attention to that point. Hence, focus comes first. It’s also clear why both are needed. One can concentrate on an extraneous or secondary point. All attention goes to a distraction. (For the athlete, a bad officiating call, for example.) Resistance wins. One can focus on the central point, but not exclusively. The if-then becomes part of the picture. (I see this a lot with beginning students. Instead of focusing on the process of writing – why isn’t this sentence working, what’s wrong with the word choice, what’s the structure of the argument – they focus on the grade. (If I just fix this and that, then I’ll get the A.) So their focus is bifurcated: part on process, part on result.

    We can find similar interdependencies: without confidence, self-evaluation becomes either depressing or self-deception. Confidence follows coachability – just watch how a child learns to ride a bike, for instance.

    I think even the order of the qualities is important.

    I also suspect that part of resistance training is exercising the five qualities.

    Thanks!

  11. January 1, 2014 at 7:55 am

    And coachability is HUGE. There are many people out there who are super serious about their goal but who can’t take advice. There are two main reasons: ego and ambivalence.

  12. Laura M
    January 1, 2014 at 8:27 am

    My favorite quote from T.R.:
    ” There’s no self-doubt. They don’t wonder if they have the ability to do it. It’s just a matter of time.”

    Love that. We all have the ability, we just need to give ourselves the space and time. And lose that doubt!

    Happy New Year, everyone!

    • January 1, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      Laura, I like how you focused on the lack of self-doubt. When I read that I felt a pang of “Oh no!” because there are times when I practice my sport of capoeira that I so doubt my ability to ever learn to master it. It would do me well to practice confidence in my body. I do have confidence in my writing, overall, though have gone through periods of self-doubt — will I be well-received? Does the story ‘work’? That last one is haunting me right now — a clear sign I need to see for myself.

  13. January 1, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Thank Steve! A good reminder to focus and work hard.

    Fran

  14. January 1, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    Thank you Steve. I coined 2014 as my “year of focus” and this post was validating for me.

  15. January 2, 2014 at 3:56 am

    Thank you Steven. This is great.
    I wonder if you know Shakespeare’s magnificent assertion of the power of Orpheus to summon the world into presence by his poetry. What makes Shakespeare’s take on the primordial poet is that he stresses the physicality of what the poet works with.
    For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinew,
    Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
    Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
    Forsake unsounded deeps, to dance on sands.
    The Two Gentleman of Verona, III,ii.

    In that splendid, painful metaphor, Shakespeare is saying that the instrument which subdues leviathans, the monstrous sea beasts that are manifestations of nature’s defects, is said to have a corporeal physicality: his lute is strung with sinews. And that strong, muscular instrument is the poet’s body. Instrument and agent are one. To create an art which has the power to bring the world into being as if for the first time, you need… muscles.

  16. January 2, 2014 at 3:58 am

    Thank you Steven. This is great.
    I wonder if you know Shakespeare’s magnificent assertion of the power of Orpheus to summon the world into presence by his poetry. What makes Shakespeare’s take on the primordial poet is that he stresses the physicality of what the poet works with.
    For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,
    Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
    Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
    Forsake unsounded deeps, to dance on sands.
    The Two Gentleman of Verona, III,ii.

    In that splendid, painful metaphor, Shakespeare is saying that the instrument which subdues leviathans, the monstrous sea beasts that are manifestations of nature’s defects, is said to have a corporeal physicality: his lute is strung with sinews. And that strong, muscular instrument is the poet’s body. Instrument and agent are one. To create an art which has the power to bring the world into being as if for the first time, you need… muscles. Taken from my Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama

  17. January 2, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Mental over physical, so often so true.

    However, while I’m sure we all get it, it’d be nice to delve deeper into “in the task” vs. “on the task.”

    Great stuff Steve,

    Pat Lange

  18. January 2, 2014 at 9:12 am

    Nice. Just realized that I, with a background as a personal trainer and fitness coach, recognize those essential qualities in those that will progress their physical accomplishments, yes–but as a marketing writer, I realize I’ve set out that same criteria for my ideal clients! These are simply solid traits for anyone who wants to get ahead in business, sports, life–and yes, it’s important that as artists we also recognize the value of cultivating these qualities in ourselves.

    There’s one more I’d say is missing: enthusiasm or enjoyment. Winners love what they are doing, ultimately. Someone quoted Shakespeare, here’s another: Things won are done, joys’ soul lies in the doing.

  19. January 2, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    This sounds like the “growth mindset” Carol Dweck writes about.

  20. delores Newton
    January 2, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you Steve for giving me some “Food” for my thinking.I will focus on the Qualities to be a Winner list, and do my daily exercise on each one daily.

  21. January 5, 2014 at 12:18 am
    • January 5, 2014 at 12:25 am

      Oops, something whent wrong with the HTML-coding and the 2 links I’ve added, anyway the one that’s added to the text goes to the TED-talk, and for the test and article on ‘Visual Alignment’ simply hit the hyperlink that’s attached to my name. cheers, m.

  22. January 6, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Thank you Steve!!

  23. Janis
    January 29, 2014 at 9:55 am

    God, if I had a nickel for every amateur musician who whined about fast-twitch muscle fiber and hand size as an excuse for why they don’t sound like Itzhak Perlman …