On my last day of plebe summer at the Naval Academy, I showed up with about fifty of my classmates to our first official cross country team practice. The varsity coach, Al Cantello, told us to sit down on the grass so he could talk to us before the rest of the team got back the next day.
For a few minutes he just let us sit there. Then he walked over, stood in front of us, and said, “You’re ten miles off the coast in your boat. Your boat sinks, leaving you in the water. What are your options?”
One of us said, “Wave your hands and call for help.”
Another said, “Swim to shore.”
And a third said, “Swim as far as you can toward the shore.”
“Okay,” coach said, “rank those options from best to worst.”
We all thought for a moment. Someone said, “Number one, swim to shore; number two, swim as far as you can and give yourself a chance; and number three, stay right there and drown if no one shows up.”
“Jesus,” coach said, “you’ve failed already. You don’t know anything. You have no idea what I’m talking about. Mikolay, what am I talking about?”
I had no idea.
“Well,” he said, “what should you do?”
“Swim to shore, coach,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “swim to shore. Failing that, you’re gonna drown. So how do you want to drown? Here are your last two options again: number one, drown right there, happy – and number two, drown closer to shore, exhausted. Those are your two choices. I’d rather drown right there, happy as a clam. If you’re gonna drown, you better embrace it. Why do you want to drown exhausted…so that you can give yourself a chance to live? What does that mean? That third option is an illusion; it’s a trick to make you feel better about yourself. When you start swimming you better not think, “Boy, I hope I survive. Wouldn’t it be great if I got to shore? When you start swimming, you better have only one thought in mind: get to the shore, get to the shore, get to the shore…and your head better hit the beach before you look up and think of anything else.”
Coach paused a second and said, “There’s no room during the course of a race for the mind to convince itself that it will try to do something. If you have that mentality, you’ll try until you get tired and then you’ll give up, thinking your pain and suffering mean something. That’s bullshit. You either commit to the race or you do not. I’ll say it again, you either commit to the race or you do not. Your mind can rationalize anything. You can win the race before the race even begins – or you can lose the race before it even starts. You have to get in the race and commit to the finish line.”
He paused again and said, “Yet we still tend to think that the option of swimming as far as you can is somehow acceptable in this world. We forget that it’s still failure. You either swim to the shore or you don’t, period. The rest is just commentary. You’re not out here to put on a performance. This isn’t a beauty contest. I’m not here to be your cheerleader. Your mother is still gonna love you when you tell her you failed. I’m not. I’m not gonna love you. I’m not gonna love you. Your mom will…but I’m not your pacifier.”
Another pause. “Now, Mikolay, do you understand what I just said?”
“No you don’t.”
He was right. I still had no idea. But I ran many races over the next four years, and from each of them I began to understand more about what he meant. I began to learn what it takes to compete at a high level, not just to run. Over time I learned the difference between getting to the shore and just doing my best. Coach Al said it best: the only way to compete for real is to get in the race and commit to the finish line. The rest is just commentary…