I normally never listen to the radio in my car. Like most people, the umbilical cord to my phone extends even when operating a vehicle. Consequently I have a permanent bluetooth connection between my car’s audio system and my phone’s Spotify app, or Audible, or YouTube. Every once in a while I might start my car before I’ve run inside to grab my own holy trinity of keys, wallet and phone. In the meantime, if the car strains for too long to lock into that bluetooth connection, it will stop trying and switch over to whatever default radio station the built in radio happens to be tuned to.
This happened the day after Superbowl Sunday. I’d lost my phone at Jill’s place after her Superbowl party and had to endure a morning without a smartphone, which is sort of like enduring a morning without coffee. It’s no easy task, and is probably like standing outside the methadone clinic waiting for it to open. Adding to my frustration the radio station happened to be tuned to some sport radio affiliate and the Colin Cowherd show, who I normally find pretty obnoxious.
I was forced to listen, and the more I listened the more I became fascinated. He had a particular thesis to that day’s particular show. His point was that the performance of the Chiefs was actually scary. It was scary in the sense that it was unnatural. It shouldn’t be possible. It defies norms. It is sacrilege. In terms of statistical relevance, and this was his argument, if a football team dominates the line of scrimmage, if they put more pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback than the opposing team does to their own, if they force more turnovers, if they get more total yardage, if they open more holes for their own running back – that team is statistically all but guaranteed a victory, over 95% of the time. The Chiefs did none of these things, and were actually outplayed for the first 75% of the game, but they still won in convincing fashion. And this isn’t an anomaly or a product of a small sample size. The Chiefs have apparently done this ALL YEAR, consistently.
In a sports world – and a world in general – that is governed more and more by the predictive value of data, data analysis, machine learning and artificial intelligence, here the Chiefs come along and completely upend it all. So, if it’s not a statistical anomaly, what other factor is at work?
It got me thinking about a book I’ve been reading by Alex Hutchinson, who is a former collegiate runner, physicist and longtime columnist for Outside Magazine and Runner’s World. He’s made it his life’s work to study the myriad factors that define human endurance performance, and, in his book Endure, he defines endurance as, “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” Towards the end of his book he dedicates a chapter to the idea of belief, or what we could more scientifically describe as self efficacy. In it he shares his own collegiate running history, and which was at the time his more pragmatic, planned, strategic – even data centric – reliance on strict pacing.
On the one hand he was satisfied that strict pacing and staying within himself and negative splits were a sound approach to achieving consistent success in his races, much the same way we will often be wedded to our power meter or heart rate zones when training or racing, but there was a nagging feeling, a sense that his performance was not so much dictated by the combination of his own physical and psychological limits, but a strict and arbitrary adherence to a predetermined strategy. In a sense, his outcome was determined before the race even started.
In contrast he shared a story about the dominance of Kenyan runners in distance running events that go back generations. They take an approach to training and racing that is completely different from the Western tradition of strict pacing and negative splits. Rather than race to a number, during their fartlek training runs on the desolate dirt roads of Eastern Africa, the pace is often unsustainably torrid, and runners will attempt to stay with the leaders – often international champions – until they simply can’t anymore and then just drop out.
There is a key fundamental difference in this approach compared to the Western planned strategy. These runs by Kenyans are designed to elicit failure. They force the athlete to reach his or her limits with the goal of every once in a while exceeding them. Part of the success of the Kenyan running culture comes down to belief. The Kenyan runner may get dropped one day in training, or have a poor race, but nevertheless wakes up each morning with the firm conviction that today is the day. They run with the leaders because they believe they belong with them and can beat them, and if they fail, they try again the next day without the that failure creating self-doubt. That belief often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Take a lesson from the Chiefs … or Kenyan runners training on dirt roads so they can earn enough money to buy a milking cow. Self-efficacy – or belief – is just as powerful a determinant of success as anything else, including skill, talent, training.