by Joseph Maxwell
With college football gearing up, I’ve spend some time in the last few weeks getting myself excited for the upcoming season. Not originally a huge football fan when I started college, I’ve developed a love for the game over the past two years to the point where I’ll spend countless hours on YouTube watching game highlights, press conferences, practice footage and anything else that catches my eye. I’ve noticed that when they describe players, coaches will often say things like “he’s a great competitor” or “he rises to the occasion.” But what is a “great competitor?” This is a question I’ve asked myself many times throughout my college career as a shot putter on the University of Tennessee’s track and field team, and I think I finally have a good answer.
As I prepare for my junior year, I’ve spent time reflecting on my experiences as a student-athlete. Usually I find myself reminiscing on the struggles I faced as a wide-eyed freshman flung into an elite, SEC program, the likes of which I was not at all prepared for. I come from a remote area of Ontario, Canada and due in part to where I lived, I never faced much competition during my high school years. Even at the Canadian national level I was easily winning by 10 or 20 feet, sometimes more. This gave me a false sense of security, a feeling that I would walk onto campus and easily dominate the competition just as I had done back home.
Fast forward four months and my first collegiate season hit me like a punch in the face. At just about every meet we travelled to these huge, strong 300+ pound monsters were kicking my butt. My sense of security was instantly destroyed and I realized in a very short time just how competitive the NCAA is. I was in elite company. Everywhere I looked I saw world class athletes. One sprinter in particular caught my eye. He performed with perfection each time the gun went off, setting some kind of record almost every time. I was left wondering what made him such an exceptional performer.
By the time summer rolled around I was pretty sick and tired of losing. I made a firm commitment to become the same type of athlete as that sprinter I so admired and find the answer to the question I’d posed to myself. Right away I knew I didn’t have the physical tools to compete in the NCAA. Within the first three months of my sophomore year I remedied this and gained 25 pounds of muscle. Next, I needed to revamp my mental game. It had become obvious to me the previous year that I was grossly unprepared mentally to compete at a high level. When any competition rolled around I became a timid shell of myself, unable to seize the moment and do my job. I decided that this too would change. I met with a sports phycologist and told him what I wanted to do. I talked to my coach at length about the issue as well and between the three of us, we formed a game plan. A month or so before the indoor SEC championships I began “practicing to compete.” We set training up to mimic the competition as closely as possible. I had my coach act as an official. He would call my name when it was time to throw and measure the distance, in the exact way it would happen on meet day. I made a conscious effort to focus mentally the same way I would when the big day came.
After a month of this routine, I saw big improvements. I began to develop such strong mental control that I could turn my adrenaline on and off like a switch. I started to see the type of performances in training that I wanted in competition. I was getting myself comfortable with the pressure of a meet well in advance. On the day of the championship against many of the same guys who had shattered my naïve sense of security a year earlier, I surprised a lot of people, throwing a PR and finishing in the top 8. During my outdoor season I found even more consistency to the point where the distances from all 6 of my competitions were within 18 inches of each other. At some point during the season a teammate said I was “a great competitor.” When I heard that something clicked and I finally had the answer I was looking for. A great competitor is someone who performs exceptionally when it counts because they’ve practiced doing just that. They’ve put themselves in a competitive mindset hundreds of times in practice to a point where an exceptional performance isn’t a fluke but a habit. This is what I had been striving so hard to find and while I’m not at all satisfied yet, I’m on the right track.