Excellence doesn’t happen overnight. There is a curve to perfection as I highlighted in the first part of this series that takes time. Each element necessary to master a craft comes at different speeds. Some pieces click right away. Others take years. But what is exhilarating about sticking with the curve of perfection is that each piece mastered is not just one piece. Every skill that you work on until that “Ahha” moment happens is a quantum leap forward, not just another small step. Here’s an example from my experience in a sport that has nothing to do with endurance: surfing.
Many of you know me because of my time in triathlons. That was a very potent period in my life where my curve to perfection was shortened simply because I was putting so much time and energy into becoming the best I could. It was 15-years in total. And out of it came races that were “perfect” moments at the very pinnacle of a sport.
I first paddled into a wave 43-years ago. It was magical. By the ocean moving and propelling me with its energy, I experienced a dimension that could only be felt with that very personal interaction between a wave that had been pushed across thousands of miles of open ocean by an unseen storm and me trying to stand up on a piece of foam and fiberglass.
At first I was awkward, but the experience was amazing. In the moment of catching that first wave it was like shaking hands with something sacred. Years would pass and I would continue to work on trying to look more like I knew what I was doing on my board that a newborn giraffe. Eventually I could manage most situations that the coast of California would serve up.
I also watched my compatriots in the water. Over time something concerting struck me. There was a point where they were just not getting better no matter how many years they had in their surf logs. Why was that? And the worst part is that I was right there with them. I’d plateaued.
So I started looking at videos of the greats in the sport and what they were doing. I broke the elements down and looked at each one. There were about five. First was the takeoff where you actually catch the wave and stand up. There was a bottom turn that sets you up for what is coming next on the face of the wave. Then came the carve up the face and a turn off the top where the wave was breaking. A fourth element was a cutback to turn back into the breaking part of the wave if you got too far out in front. And then my favorite, riding inside the tube where the wave is at it’s most critical.
I made it my mission to work on one element at a time until I felt like I was doing it as close as possible to what I was seeing the greats of the sport do with each of those five parts of surfing.
It took me about three years. I’d work on one thing over and over and over as the main focus of each surf session until it finally clicked. It was about doing something as a practice until my DNA just responded as needed to make it happen.
I had all but one piece after that long period of focused practice on something that I had been doing just for fun but without focus for nearly 40-years. The bottom turn was easy. The carve up the face just took a bit of focus on getting there. A cutback had many elements depending on what was coming up next down the line. Riding in the tube was simple once I started looking directly at the exit.
Sometimes it was flawless. Other times I’d get to my feet but then keep going straight down the face and never make that critical turn onto the shoulder. And many waves just seemed to get too concave before I could get to my feet. But then over about a six-month period it all started to click.
If I looked straight down the face as I stood up, that was the direction I headed, and that was not good. But if I looked toward the shoulder where I wanted to end up after the takeoff, things got better.
But I still kept getting caught too high on the wave on more critical ones that turned concave quickly. So I watched the guys who were making those. They were paddling just a tick longer and keeping their board right at the middle of that concave before they stood up. I was trying to stand up before I got to that middle concave and was not making the drop. I was too high on the face.
So I followed suit, and it worked! Look in the direction you want to end up and paddle into the most critical part of the breaking wave rather than trying to play it safe and stand up early. I had my final element.
It’s about working steadily, relentlessly, with focus and balance to perfect what you are capable of. It doesn’t matter if you are the fastest person in a race or the slowest in terms of what the experience is. What is so precious is when any one of us strikes that magical cord and all the pieces finally click in a performance where we are at our best.
That doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t come by just working on the things that we like, but leaving huge potential on the side because there are a few things that we don’t gravitate toward perfecting.
I don’t like looking to my right or my left as I take off on a wave. I like to look straight ahead. But that has a 50:50 chance of success. I don’t like taking that extra stroke into the most critical steep part of the wave before I try to stand up. But if I don’t it’s a 50:50 chance that the wave will pass my by or that I will completely eat it.
It took me almost 40-years of surfing to be able to do all of those elements necessary to really SURF. Maybe no one but me will see the subtle differences. But that is not what is important. It’s about embracing a journey, sticking with the curve to perfection, and then eventually experiencing the power of knowing you are there.
Join us on your curve to perfection in triathlons at MarkAllenCoaching.
I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.