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Most clients around the world whom I mentor into better states of physical existence are surprised (and, perhaps think I am joking) when I say that I have never won a prize for sports in school… ever! No, not even third place! Soon after my last birthday I ran my first race as a ‘veteran’, where my competition was no longer 18 year olds but men my age (45+), and won a place on the podium (2nd place in an 8km race on flat roads). A few weeks later I ran my second race (25km on hilly roads) and found myself taking home a trophy for second place again. Sure, it’s exciting to win, but this isn’t what drives or motivates me – the novelty of winning, as I expected, wears out soon. Besides that, I’m all too aware of the contribution of luck and skill or effort.
Effort and Luck
In most human endeavours, your natural predisposition (your genetic material) decides ultimate potential. On top of that if you add regular development of skill, and volume of deliberate practice, when combined with appropriate psychological training you can move up the ranking table. For instance, if you happen to pick an endurance sport and are genetically predisposed to doing well at it (e.g. a high percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres along with a strong heart relative to your body mass) then your presence on the podium after the finish is still a function of who else entered the race. If you were lucky and the faster competitors in your age group were elsewhere when you raced, then the result of your effort is your absolute race time – the podium finish, on the other hand, was luck, not hugely dependent on skill or effort.
Societal improvements preferred to Individual wins
What really interests me is the real impact of such races on society and society’s overall levels of fitness. For instance, the fast exploding distance running phenomenon in urban centres in India has done wonders for raising the life expectancy of the residents in those centres over the short, medium and longer term. That it is becoming a part of the culture, albeit not mainstream (yet), is undeniable. May that long continue – the benefits will become more apparent as more time passes.
Extrinsic versus Intrinsic Motivation
An emphasis in our culture of awarding prizes to individual winners (a form of extrinsic motivation) does nothing to guarantee significant long term health benefits. You too will have visited friends whose mantelpieces are loaded with such trophies along with the commentary “in school and college I used to be a national level blah blah…(I’ve usually zoned out by this time)” but where, now, the couch and TV remote are used a lot more than the easily accessible apartment building gym. On the other hand, competition with yourself (a form of intrinsic motivation) has been shown by neuroscientists to have significantly higher success at ensuring long term sustainability in your improving at anything, including your health and fitness.
For me, my heroes in distance running are not the East Africans who have been dominating distance running for decades. My heroes are the busy urban professionals and housewives who juggle many balls to continue to improve their health relative to what they were (intrinsic) – not relative to others (extrinsic). Most will never win more than a participation medal, but for me, they are my true heroes and heroines. Perhaps you too are one of them?
What better could we focus on?
Every year, despite aging, I have a personal target to run faster, lift heavier, be lighter, move with greater agility, coordination and balance. But, of what good is that to the rest of the world? Perhaps not very much. And so, if I have to look beyond myself for a purpose that benefits society, a question pops into my head “would I trade a podium finish for a 1% improvement in everyone’s health?”. The answer necessarily varies from person to person – for me the answer is a resounding “yes”. Perhaps that choice itself is not so selfless after all. An improvement in health places a lower burden on society and I also argue that a healthier population is better for the environment too. Of course, a 1% improvement in everyone’s health is itself a significant improvement – difficult but not impossible to achieve. So, how could we do that?
Most problems, large or small, are best solved by good design – and that needs thought more than money. (Remember the joke, or perhaps it was true, about how NASA spent millions inventing a pen that would work in outer space? the Russians cleverly just used pencils!) The same is true when designing motivational tools for public health and fitness.
One area of application is the design of public fitness competitions (e.g. distance races), to increase participation by the general public. For instance
– greater recognition for improvement in relative performance (your own performance in last year’s race versus this year’s could win you a trophy even though your overall rank went down from 145 to 165!);
– diverting some money that would normally go to the traditional winners towards better route guidance for the stragglers on tricky race routes;
– better quality and sufficient race-hydration and healthier post-race snacks even for those who finish last.
These are but a few examples and they do not even target the disinterested population – even a little more thought and careful execution could yield noticeable benefits to the larger population, especially those at the dangerous right tail of the distribution.
Individuals Can Make a Difference
At an individual level you, yes you, can contribute too. Better “improvers” (note, I didn’t say “performers”) could instruct by leading by example – demonstrating process that leads to improvements. In fact, those who stagnate because of complacency in guaranteed repeated podium finishes set a poor example. And, let’s not forget, being good at something does not mean you can teach it well. If you can demonstrate good process (teaching by example) anyone can take advantage of your effort no matter where they might be in the population performance “bell curve”. And no matter where you might be in the curve.
Just do it…Podium finish not required!
And now, I’d like your (anonymous) opinion please?
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.