My high school track coach once said something that has really stuck with me.
He was always a great guy – someone who I knew genuinely had my best interest in mind. And as someone whose primary passion was the football field (he was recently selected as the high school coach of the week), he wasn’t typically too intense during the track season.
But the day before our regional track meet during my senior year, a different side came out.
Some of my teammates had been complaining about soreness, or how they were starting to get sick. And he finally had enough.
He pulled some of our top runners aside and shared a simple lesson:
The regional track meet was our one chance to qualify for the state meet. Even if we didn’t feel like we were at our absolute best, we had to find a way to get past that and run our best race anyways. He didn’t want to hear that we were tired, sore, sick, or any other excuse; because when the gun went off, it was time to perform.
That lesson has stuck with me.
I typically like to listen to my body. If I start a workout, and something feels off, I’ll stop. Or if I’m starting to feel rundown, I have no problem finding a few extra hours to sleep so I can recover.
I like to think that I’m playing the long game. It’s rarely worth risking an injury, or making a cold worse than it needs to be.
But on that day, my coach made a key distinction. There are times to think long-term, and make sure that the conditions are just right. But there are some times when you just have to suck it up and perform.
The regional track meet is a great example of the later situation. After training all season, we had a single opportunity to qualify for the state meet. We either performed at the regional meet, or our season was over. It was that simple.
So sure, some of us might have been banged up, or starting to develop a bit of a cough. And typically, that’s a fine excuse for pulling out a race, or justifying a sub-par perform.
But not on the biggest stage. Not when it mattered most.
We had to dig deep, and get past any obstacle we had in our way.
Since that meet, I’ve come back to this idea at a few key times in my life.
In one of my sophomore engineering classes, the final exam was designed so that almost no one would finish. The teacher built a test that would take three hours to complete, and gave us 90 minutes to take it (who knows why). Grading was purely based on competition – the students who earned the most points would get A’s, the next few would get A-‘s, and so on down the list.
We all knew going into the exam was that it was going to be a crazy stressful 90 minutes, so my game plan was to basically try to sprint for the whole thing. I planned to work my way from the easiest problems to the hardest, thinking and writing as fast as possible.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad plan.
Until I hit a roadblock.
Not five minutes into the exam, blood started gushing out of my nose. It was one of the worst scenarios I could’ve imagined.
What could I do? I needed to take care of the blood and make sure it didn’t cover my exam and get on my desk. But I knew I was already strapped for time as it was.
Ultimately, I had to waste 5/10 minutes in the bathroom taking care of my nose. Priceless test-taking time that I couldn’t get back.
And in that moment, I remember thinking back to my time as an athlete.
Here I was with a perfect excuse for why I couldn’t be my best on the exam. I just had to deal with a stupid bloody nose. Who could blame me if I didn’t get one of the top grades in my class?
But I thought back to the times when my teams had fallen behind early, and to that regional track meet, and something inside me clicked. I made the decision right there that I would suck it up and perform on that exam, regardless the circumstances.
This ability to perform in critical situations is one of the key things that seems to separate top performers for the rest of the pack. There’s almost always a valid excuse for why you can’t do your best. But when it’s all on the line, the top performers find a way to get it done – just like Michael Jordan did in his iconic flu game, or Kirk Gibson did in the World Series..
So next time you’re in a critical situation, and you find yourself starting to make excuses for why you can’t be your best, take a step back.
And realize that sometimes you just have to suck it up.