On the surface, it might seem like sport is a purely competitive affair. Athletes compete against one another, so all athletes must be extremely competitive people. To be honest, though, I must admit that I am not a very competitive person. Sure, I would rather win than lose; and in a race, if someone is just ahead of me, I will find energy from somewhere to try to make up the distance.
But for me, sport is more about competing against myself, to improve every day. I visualize the highest level I could reach if I did everything perfect, if everything went my way. And then I compare my current level of performance to that version of me. In every workout, I try to come as close to that version as I can. If I don’t, then I note what is keeping me from being there, and what I need to make up the difference.
The majority of the year for a Nordic athlete is spent just training. The season starts in late November and ends in mid March. Outside of this period, any competition or time trial is purely for evaluation purposes. A win in July or September is only worth a little positive mental reinforcement. It is for the winter that we’re all training.
Since I do most of my training alone, that perfect version of me is whom I pursue. When I am shooting, he is shooting clean in 28 seconds prone, 25 seconds standing. (That’s how long it takes to shoot — from when a biathlete arrives at the shoot mat, shoots five shots, and leaves.) When it is windy, he adjusts his sights appropriately. When the trail steepens, he quickens his pace and skis more powerfully. On the downhills, he stays in a tuck so low it seems physically impossible to reach. He always has perfect technique; it looks effortless and is the most efficient. After training, he does everything right, too.
When I am having a good day, I am skiing right behind him, shooting shot-for-shot with him. But he is always a stride ahead, a split-second quicker on the shooting range, a point better on the precision shooting test. He keeps me motivated. He reminds me that, even if I am having a good day, I can still do better. I can still train harder, recover better, or innovate in some new way.
On days when I don’t have my act together, he looks at me with a stare that makes me both acknowledge my failure and look forward to a re-match in the next workout.
To be honest, each of us has different talents, backgrounds, and goals. Some are blessed with mutant physiological traits. Some have insatiable appetites to train. Some grow up in regions with strong athletic programs. Some have wealthy parents. Some have none of these, yet always find a way. Regardless, each of us can do a little better, if not a lot better. While we might not do our absolute best every day, the key is to come as close to that level as often as we can muster. To keep improving, to become our own best.