Wednesday, September 4, 2013

If You Aint First, You're Last

Ricky: Hey, all those races I won, that was for you. You know that? I did just like you told me. If you aint first, you’re last.
Reese: What the hell are you talkin’ about?
Ricky: What you told me that day at school for career day.
Reese: (looking lost)
Ricky: You came in and you said, “If you aint first, you’re last.”
Reese: Oh hell Ricky, I was high when I said that! I mean that doesn’t make any sense at all. If you aint first, you’re last? You can be second. You can be third; forth. Hell, you can even be fifth!
Ricky: What are you talkin’ about?! I lived my whole life based on that! (pauses) Well now what the hell am I supposed to do?
Reese: Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? (pauses) Good luck to you son. (walks away)

When Will Ferrell says anything it sounds funny. The man doesn’t have a serious voice. ‘If you aint first, you’re last,’ uttered by Will’s iconic character Ricky Bobby seems instantly preposterous. From the first time he said it in the movie Talladega Nights, most of us realized how nonsensical the statement really is.  I say ‘most’ because I believe that most of the people I know realize that there is more to life than winning, that winning isn’t everything, and that there are certainly varying degrees of success.
For professional athletes however, (those people whose profession is being an athlete) this can often be a hard distinction. The goal of many professions is proficiency in a specific skill set and, while this is also true for athletes, the goal of professional athletics is to win. That’s why we play the game. We are selected, evaluated, and ranked based on our ability to win or to help the team win. In a professional sense winning is everything and there is a very clear distinction between first place and every other place. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that for many athletes it becomes difficult to separate their worth as a professional (an athlete) and their worth as a person.
One example of this which sticks out vividly in my mind occurred during a bobsled race my rookie season. After recording a start on our first run which was admittedly slower than we had expected my teammates were furious. They described the start as, “pathetic,” and one said that he was, “embarrassed,” by it. Calling the start pathetic is understandable. Pathetic is a judgment of the quality of the performance, a harsh judgment, but a judgment none the less. Being embarrassed by the performance on the other hand implies that the athlete feels somehow shameful about the performance and indicates a direct connection with self-worth.
It has been my experience in athletics that more often than not this is the case. Athletes feel their performance is tied to who they are at a deep level. If they perform well they feel good about themselves but if they fail to perform up to expectations then they feel somehow less valuable as people. This is why ‘morale’ is such a big issue at coaching clinics across the nation. I heard this over and over playing college football, “What can we do to keep morale high?” What coaches really meant is, “How can we keep athletes feeling good about themselves as we traverse the inevitable ups and downs that come with any season?”

Truth be told, there are many, many more failures in sport than there are victories. In bobsled there will only be four athletes who will win Gold in the 4-man bobsled event at this year’s Olympic Games. Four! Every other athlete in the entire sport of bobsled will fall short of that mark. It’s the same in every sport. Of all the athletes involved in a sport, only a select few will even make it to the pinnacle of their sport (the NFL, the NBA, the Olympics, etc.), and out of that small number only a fraction will ever win a championship. Coaches know this and they’re actively developing strategies to deal with it. My question, and what I want to address here, is what can we do as athletes to help ourselves avoid these pitfalls and keep performing at our best throughout a season, a career, and beyond that.
A good place to start, I think, is with how we define success. In general if you ask an athlete what success is they will say, “Winning.” Merriam-Webster’sonline dictionary defines success as a favorable or desired outcome: the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence. Neither of these definitions really helps the situation at all. Both are focused on the achievement and not the effort. The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden came up with his own definition of success which I think hits the nail squarely on the head. Take a minute to consider the definition and video below and see if you agree or disagree with how and why Coach Wooden came to define success as:
I believe that what Coach Wooden said is true. I believe that if we focus on things which are out of our control it will adversely affect our ability to perform to our best. I believe that an athlete, or a person, knows when they have truly given their best (and when they haven’t) and when they have there is nothing more that they can do. I believe we must have faith that things will work out as they should, providing we do what we should and we must have the patience to wait for that. And I believe that winning is not a product of trying to win but rather a by-product of doing things the right way over and over throughout a season and a career. If the goal of an athlete (or team) is doing things the right way then success will follow on its own.  
I have learned through a career in athletics that there are far more times when we will give our best yet fall short rather than achieving the desired outcome, and while we must never cease in our pursuit of excellence, we must also take time to enjoy the self-satisfaction gained from the knowledge that we made the effort to do the best of which we were capable for that is true success.

“For who can ask more of a man,
than giving all within his span.
Giving all it seems to me,
is not that far from victory.”

-Joseph Moriarty


Important Notes From the video:
00:47 – We are all unique in size, intelligence, and appearance. We each have unique gifts.

02:35 – 3 rules on guiding your ambitions

02:52 – Thy Best, poem

03:09 – Definition of Success

03:28 – Character and reputation

09:01 – Pyramid of Success

09:25 – Faith and Patience

10:53 – The Road Ahead, And The Road Behind, poem

11:58 – Don’t whine, Don’t complain, Don’t make excuses

12:35 – When a game is over you shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the players which team won

13:10 – The score of a game should be the by-product of doing things right and not the end itself

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Summer Travel And Injury Management

The last 4 weeks have been a whirlwind and I'm just starting to get my feet back on the ground. I've been to Lake Placid (NY), Calgary (Alberta), back to Lake Placid, and now to California. I've racked up 9,088 sky miles, my wife, Ashley, has graduated from Air Force Commissioned Officers Training, we've sold our house, and moved (Ashley drove cross country) from the great state of Kentucky to California where we're living in temporary housing out of suitcases until we can find a rental home and get all our household goods out of storage. On top of all that I've been managing a minor training injury I got doing physical testing in Calgary.

We see athletes get injured all the time on TV. The football game stops and someone gets carried off by a couple of the linemen (it's always linemen right?). That player just disappears for the rest of the game. We don't see them because they're in the back getting X-rays or an MRI or whatever. Later in the game the camera might show them on the sidelines with crutches. We get some brief info on the injury and they disappear again. They might be gone for a game or two and then one day they're magically back, just like new. We see this disappearing and reappearing act all the time and unless that particular player is on our fantasy team we don't think anything of it. The show must go on, as they say. But what's it like to be that athlete? What's it like to 'dissappear' suddenly and have the game go on without you?

It sucks!

For most of the guys I've competed with, myself included, it's extremely depressing at first. You've worked your butt off for weeks, months, maybe years to get where you are and then in an instant you're out and whoever was waiting there to take your place (and there is always somebody) gets their chance. Imagine if you took a sick day from your job and when you came back they had already given your job to someone else. It happens that quick. As soon as I strained my groin in Calgary I thought, "That's it. My season is over. I've missed my shot at the Olympics."

Then almost inevitably the next thought is, "Why me? I did everything right. I worked hard. Why did this have to happen to me?" One of the worst parts about getting injured is that, often, it wasn't something that you did 'wrong' that caused the injury. It's one thing for an athlete to be replaced because they made too many mistakes or because their performance wasn't good enough. We can understand that, we know the expectation is perfection. But injuries happen unexpectedly and to everyone. It's part of sport. What we're left with then as athletes is the struggle to reconcile how we did everything, EVERYTHING, within our power the right way but somehow it still turned out bad and we're still out of the game.

It's easy to revel in that thought and to give up on yourself; to feel like a victim. You see that at lower levels of sport, in high school and even in college. Athletes suffer injuries and just never come back. At the national team level though something is different. We have too much desire to be defeated very long. Deep down inside we all believe that we can and we will achieve greatness. There truly is no quit inside a Team USA athlete. I've seen that in every American athlete I've met so far. We have the will to win down to our bones.

What happens next is the best part. Without fail, we athletes take that pain of defeat, that feeling of suffering and failure and we turn it in on itself. We use that emotion and memory not to create our demise but to fuel the fire inside and ignite the spark which will drive us back to where we were. An athlete returning from injury is the hardest working athlete on the team because failure is fresh in his mind. He believes that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain and he has a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove those wrong who said we couldn't return or hoped that he wouldn't return. He wants to prove those right who had faith and knew that he could return and that he would return. Sore becomes irrelevant to him, fatigue is not an option, weak is dead and gone because he has tasted defeat and he damn sure isn't going back for seconds.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Summer Push Training

Usually when I tell people I'm training for bobsled I get the same response, "How do you train for bobsled in the summer when there's no ice?" Then people usually make a funny face while they start trying to imagine just what it is we do with no ice. I always have to laugh to myself a little because in my head I'm always sure people are imagining this:

Well... its not exactly like that. What it actually looks like is more like this:

And this:

We call this nifty little training tool a 'push track' because it allows us to mimic what an actual push start looks and feels like without ice and without having to take a trip all the way down the real bobsled track. During the summer we spend hours at the push track pushing sleds of different weights individually and in 2, 3, and 4man combos. All the major countries who compete in bobsled have push tracks for training. Many countries even have push tracks with ice surfaces which identically mimic real bobsled starts.

Canada has an indoor ice facility in Calgary and that is where we will host the US National Push Championships this year on August the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. During that time the top US Bobsled athletes will compete individually and in teams for the fastest push times in the country. The data collected during the push championships will play a large part in the creation of teams for the US National Team Trials in October where US teams race each other to see who is the fastest down the track.

When I get back from Push Championships in August I'll post full results from the competition and give you an idea of how things went down. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Some Wednesday Lifting

I get a lot of questions about how I train for bobsled. Most people have seen Cool Runnings where the athletes just push wheeled carts down grassy hills all summer and then go to the Olympics. While I wish I could say that was true, it's not really like that. We actually train just like a 100m sprinter would except with slightly more weight training. That means lots of speed sessions at the track (pulling sleds and running sprints) and lots of heavy weightlifting in the weight room (squats and cleans).

Here's a quick look at my typical Wednesday lifting:

First things first, Heavy Power Cleans. A power clean is where you lift the bar from the floor to your shoulders in one quick motion like below.

After power clean I'll do some additional heavy back work like RDL (Romanian Deadlift). A deadlift is where you lift the bar from the floor to your waist. RDL is a variation of the deadlift that works the hamstrings and gluts harder, which in turn helps us push faster.

At the end of the workout I'll usually finish up with some lighter accessory work for the back and legs like pull ups, good mornings, or weighted hip extensions. Pretty straight forward right? I'll post other training videos as I get them so you can see what the other training sessions look like.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Recreating an Olympic Training Center

Olympic Training Centers (OTCs) in the USA are great because they provide everything an athlete needs under one roof. Our OTCs all have dorms for the athletes to live in, cafeterias where the athletes can eat, training facilities like weight rooms and gymnasiums, and sports venues such as bobsled tracks, ski jumps, soccer fields, and swimming pools. In addition each OTC is staffed with all the sports professionals that an athlete could ask for like strength and conditioning coaches, dietitians, chiropractors, physical therapist, massage therapists, etc. On top of all that, it is generally free for most athletes to live in the training centers provided that they are ranked high enough in their respective sport. For instance I qualify for free access to any of our training centers due to my position on the US National Bobsled team. So, given all that, why don't I live and train at an OTC? Sounds like the place to be right?

Well, yes and no

There are 3 OTCs in the US; one in Colorado Springs, CO, which is our main OTC and houses most of the summer sport athletes; one in Chula Vista, CA, which houses summer sports which require a playing field (soccer, baseball, softball, track, etc.); and the one that I most often go to in Lake Placid, NY, which houses most of our winter sports. So if you want to live and train at on OTC you have to move to one of those places. In case you don't know me personally yet, my entire family and family-in-law (I'm married) live in Kentucky which isn't on that list. So training at an OTC means being a full days travel from the people I care most about. While I can (and must) tolerate that for parts of the year (up to 8 months), I cannot tolerate that for the entire year, year in, and year out.

Secondly, the flip side of having all your training needs under one roof (and in Lake Placid it literally is all in one building) is that as the weeks and months roll by you can begin to get very claustrophobic and board. Life at an OTC is monotonous. You see the same people and do the same things in the same building every single day and the stress of that can hinder your training and your progress after a while. You have to be in a good place mentally to perform at your best and sometimes that requires a change of pace.

So what's the alternative?

I'm not someone who can tolerate mediocrity. I have to try to maximize everything that I do. Its why I'm an engineer and why I'm an athlete. So for me, going without a training center was out of the question. The solution as I saw it was to build a training center in Louisville, KY. Now before you start thinking I rented bulldozers and a construction crew, I don't mean bricks and mortar. What I do mean, is the only way I could see training at my best at home was to assemble all the things that make a training center great in a way that I could use them in Louisville and maximize my training. That meant I needed to find room, board, a gym, a track, coaches, and doctors all within easy driving distance.

Room and board was an easy one. We already owned a home when I began my career with USA Bobsled and thankfully we've managed to keep it that way (though there were a few times over the past years when I worried we might not). For me coming home to my wife and dog, sleeping in my own bed, and enjoying quality meals day in and day out beats living alone in a dorm room with an extra long twin bed and eating cafeteria food every time. So I feel like I come out ahead on that deal. It took a lot of faith to walk away from that good paying job with UPS and join the US team but I wouldn't have changed a thing.

The second thing I needed was a gym where I could train but not just any gym would do. Its true you can lift weights anywhere, but what I needed was a gym where the coaches were knowledgeable enough to coach me through my workouts and make sure I got the most out of all those training hours I put in. I found what I was looking for at Derby City Crossfit. Head coach Ryan Brown and his staff are as good as anybody I've met at strength and conditioning coaching and Derby City Crossfit has the equipment to match that expertise. They made sure I was performing my training in the correct way, using quality equipment, and getting every percent of improvement possible. I can't thank them enough for all the help they've given me.
I also needed a track where I could do my speed training. Finding a track in Louisville proved to be the hardest part in building my own OTC. I got told "no" by virtually every coach and athletic director in the city until I finally got in touch with some the Lacrosse Coaches at Bellarmine University. Coach Gleason and Coach Burns must love America as much as I do because they gave me access to Bellarmine's track (pictured below) just when I needed it most. The facility at Bellarmine is excellent; one of the best tracks in Louisville if not the best. I deeply appreciate the University allowing me to train at their facility (whether they knew it or not). Go Knights!
Lastly I needed a medical staff who could keep me going while I was training beyond the threshold of what's normally safe or healthy. After some searching a friend led me to Chiropractic Worx. Doctors Rich Lorenat and James Harding are amazing. There were times during training when I thought I would be out for days because this or that was sore and then one visit with these guys would clear it right up and put me back on the right track. They're excellent at treating every joint and muscle in the body. I know that because at one point or another they've probably treated just about every joint in my body. I owe much of my success thus far to these guys. Without them I know I wouldn't have made it this far.

So there it is. The Louisville, KY OTC; a network of professionals who have helped me get to where I never dreamed I would. I can't thank them enough or recommend them enough to other people to ever repay what they gave me. If you're in the area and looking for one (or all) of these services, please stop in and tell them Adam Clark sent you. They loved to meet you and I can promise they'll be able to help you, just like they helped me.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thanks for Tuning in!

Thank you to everyone who heard the Greg and Hollie broadcast this morning and came to check out my blog. I know there's not much on the site yet but if you're interested in sharing this experience with me please keep coming back. I'm going to post as much content as possible here and hopefully cover all the bases so that you know as much as there is to know about the USA Bobsled Team. If you have a question about something I haven't covered please ask in the comments below. Your questions and comments help me know what to post. Thank you for your support and for sharing this amazing experience with me.