Sport is as much art as it is science, the less tangible areas of performance are what often defines great champions and great moments in their careers are often achieved not through superior science or physiological qualities but through the power of a strong mind. A strong mental approach in difficult conditions, in less then ideal circumstances, under pressure from fans, sponsors or a nation, rebounding from defeat or living up to expectation (self inflicted or extrinsic) is what makes performances truly exceptional. It is those kind of performances that can teach us how to improve and perform ourselves in sport but also in life. Watching world class elite sport is usual interesting, but by taking a step back and really letting the little old gears in your mind turn we can sometimes pick up on little qualities, situations, circumstances and events that may define an athletes career but luckily for the sports fan teach you invaluable lessons that you may be able to apply in sport and life yourself. I’ve chosen three recent sporting performances that stand out as exceptional for varying reasons, many of which less then obvious. So feel free to comment with your take on each performance or your own examples of exceptional performance under exceptional circumstances!
1.- Ted Ligety, St.Moritz GS*, Final event before Olympic games
Ted is known as “Mr.GS”, he has dominated the discipline for years, 4 World Cup Titles, 2 World Championship golds and unseen margins of victory. But the 2014 races haven’t gone his way, errors in 2 rounds left it with two DNF’s something that hadn’t happened to him since 2008.
He’s the favorite for Gold in the event in Sochi but is medaless at the event in previous Olympics. St.Moritz was the final GS before the Olympics and after two DNF’s Ted could have been forgiven for playing it safe and skiing conservatively to guarantee a finish and gain some confidence for the Olympics. That’s not the approach or attitude though that gets you 20 World Cup victories though. Even though the conditions were horrendous with thick fog, deep ruts and huge bumps on the course, Ted stuck to what he knows best, attacking skiing, trusted his technique and tactics. He trusted his approach that has worked literally hundreds of times before and attacked a course that many struggled to complete.
His first run was exceptional and demoralised his competitors taking a huge margin over second place into the second run. Ted held his nerve and stuck to his approach for the second run and skied the fastest time in that run also. Locking up a dominating pre-Olympic victory. Shaking off two DNF’s in previous events, not worrying about exceptional difficult and dangerous conditions. Just calmly and methodically destroying the competition! Enjoy.
*GS is short for Giant Slalom, arguable the most athletically and technically complete Alpine Skiing discipline.
2. Fabian Cancellara – Ronde Van Vlaanderen 2010 – Final Attack
Ahh, Spartacus himself! Maybe easier to relate to MTB for some readers. He’s had some many amazing performances over his career that it’s difficult to pick one!
But he came into this race in 2010 in exceptional form, the outright favourite. After over 240km of hard racing up repeated short, sharp and brutal climbs that define the Tour of Flanders it was just Fabian and local superstar Tom Boonan left. 16km to the finish, one last accent of the infamous Muur van Geraardsbergen and a one on one battle between two cycling legends was all that stood between two cyclists and another spot in the history books!
With exactly 15km to the finish, after negotiating all the perils of the peloton and placing himself exactly where he needed to be, Cancellara attacks on one of the steepest parts of the climb. No sudden movements, no standing, no bravado. Just masterful precise pressure on the pedals at the perfect time traveling across the cobbles with ease. Tactically and technically it was perfect, but add to that the fact that the Swiss man in 4 simple pedal strokes in front of a huge, screaming partisan crowd on the most revered climb in Belgium dropped Boonen like a stone and you have an beyond exceptional performance
It’s subtle and easy to miss, but Fabian’s line choice, timing, pedaling technique and total calmness leading to his attack are what define this exceptional performance. 15% plus gradient, in amphitheater packed with Belgian supporters, the lion of Flanders waving in every corner and oh so smoothly Cancellara lays a death blow seldom seen in cycling.
From the crest of the climb, Fabian time trials his way to the finish line. Coming home in the end with a 1 minute 15 second advantage. Road cycling may not be loved by everyone, but this was world class, exceptional!
3. Aaron Gwin – Windham World Cup 2012
I suppose I had to include at least one DH performance! It would have been easy to choose Danny Hart or Sam Hill in Champéry or Gwin in Val di sole. But the point of this post is about thinking laterally and finding the subtle qualities that make an exceptional performance.
3 wins on the bounce, Gwin was having an unheard of season. That moment in an athletes career when all the pieces of the puzzle find their home and victory is yours to dish-out weekly! Looking for win number 4 in a row (seldom seen in World Cup DH), Gwin finds himself competing at home, the only U.S. stop of the series.
Being the clear favourite after destructive wins in the previous 3 races brings with it all the pressure possible. Add in a vocal home crowd expecting a Gwin win and a short, brutal course that demands total precision while severely punishing the smallest error and you have a stage set for exceptional performance. But that stage is just as easily set for exceptional failure.
But true to form that season, Gwin did what needed to be done and no more, clever, precise riding. Technical execution at huge speed under huge pressure. The home favorite risked just enough and brought home a qualifying and finals win for the full 250 points.
Forward the below video to 5:19 to see Gwin’s run.
They are just 3 examples of exceptional performances that athletes at all levels can learn from. Feel free to leave your own favourites in the comments below.