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By Tom Demerly.


If there is one thing that typifies our sport over the past decade it is growth.

More people have become endurance athletes over the past decade than in the previous five decades. Participation in endurance sports, even in difficult economic times, has grown steadily. Perhaps endurance sports have become a social and individual catharsis. As individuals and society has been placed under greater strains, the need for this catharsis seems to have grown.

A few years ago you may have thought that people did triathlons because they had no other challenges in life. Things were too easy. Survival wasn’t a challenge. Endurance sports became surrogate survival. So much for that theory. With an economic crisis of international proportions suffice it to say there are plenty of opportunities for people to exercise their survival instincts. They don’t need triathlons for that anymore.

But triathlons continue to grow. Why?

Here in Michigan we welcome a new race series by one of the stars of our sport, Sheila Toarmina. Ms. Toarmina’s event promotion company EST Events adds 3 new and unique multisport events to the calendar in 2009. Randy Step of Running Fit fame brings a new series of three mid-week events to the table for the Michigan calendar. This year our pick of favorite races in the Michigan, Indiana, Ohio area is up to 26 events from only 17 last year. That is 35% growth in events we like with at least six of them being all new for 2009. Additionally, Jim and Joyce Donaldson of Elite Endeavors have seen steady growth in their participation numbers in classic events like the Ann Arbor Triathlon, the Sylvania Triathlon and their new Women’s Only Triathlon.

Ask yourself this: Why did you start this sport? What got you to your first start line? What did you hope to achieve, to take away from your participation in the sport?

Now, if you are an old timer with more than a few seasons under your belt, answer this question: Why have you stayed in this sport?

Steven Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” developed a concept called the “maturity continuum” that describes an individual’s emotional and intellectual growth from dependence to independence to interdependence. It’s a fascinating theory, especially when Covey discusses the difficult adult transition from independence to interdependence.

Triathletes, I suggest, go through a similar progression of motives for participating. I’ll call it the “Motive Continuum” to borrow from the esteemed Mr. Covey. This is how it may work:

Phase One: “Conspicuous Participation”.

Athletes enter the sport to improve their fitness, as a result of repetitive running injuries and/or to loose weight and regain fitness if they are a former athlete. Their motives are centered on gaining something from the sport that may benefit them: fitness, self esteem, camaraderie. It’s a noble set of motives often combined with a healthy dose of philanthropy in the case of athletes like Team in Training athletes who train and race along with raising money for a cause. Along the way they often learn a lot about themselves, a beneficial dividend for all parties. While there may be a conspicuous element to this level of involvement it is also a great time of growth and learning; about the sport and our self.

Also in this phase are a small sub-set of athletes who participate in the sport as a line on a checklist for life: They want to finish a triathlon, an Ironman perhaps, to check it off a “bucket list” of achievements in life. This culture of athletes may be transient in our sport, but they understand that life’s beauty is in the doing, the experiencing. They may have come to the sport from any background and may leave the sport headed for other horizons. They came, they saw, they participated. The experience shapes who they are and they own it forever.

Conspicuous Participation may have a superficial ring to it, but that is too shallow an interpretation of the motives of most new athletes. For most new endurance athletes, it is a voyage of discovery and growth. For the large culture of collegiate and high school athletes returning to athletics after starting a career and/or a family, it is a time of reaffirming the work ethics they learned in early sports participation and then applied to adult life.

Additionally, participation in endurance sports, especially when social and economic pressures abound in our society, is a very finite way of achieving a tangible goal. You commit, you train, you race, you finish. Few journeys in life are so linear, so clear cut. For those in the early phase of their journey through endurance sports Conspicuous Participation is a time of growth and learning and reward at many levels that bolster our life experience and self esteem.

Phase Two: “Competitive Actualization”.

The great cycling columnist Maynard Hershon once wrote about “Drawing the blanket of racing around one’s shoulders”. The culture of athletes who race anything- from Roman Chariots to Formula 1 cars to triathlons, is a tight knit society with unique norms, conventions and morays. When an athlete enters this phase of participation, they are a racer. Their emphasis shifts distinctly, albeit often inconspicuously, from participation to competition.
Competition takes on several forms, and while results are tabulated in an event based on a continuum of other participants, that is only one way to measure performance and tabulate results. A very constructive competitive motive is for self improvement.

Athletes in Competitive Actualization may not be trying to place relative to other athletes, but may be trying to improve competitively against some personal benchmark: “I want to do an Olympic distance triathlon in less than 3 hours”, “I want to finish Ironman before the cut-off time”, “I want to improve my bike split until I can average 20 M.P.H.”

Regardless of their level of performance, these people are racers. Their motives are noble: Improvement, performance, optimization.

This is an internal focus tempered with learning from internal and external resources and integrating these into personal performance. It is a time of concentrated growth with many rewards, but fraught with pitfalls as well.

One pitfall athletes face during this phase is focusing too heavily on specific performance goals. Whether it is an improvement goal, a competitive goal relative to other athletes or even a finishing goal, the nature of goals is that they are commonly not achieved. There is a great opportunity for athletes to learn and grow from the experience of falling short of a goal, but some athletes may not be able to cope effectively with the frustration and disappointment of failing to achieve a tangible goal. In all sports, the complete measure of a competitor includes not only their successes, but their response to inevitable failures.

The “Competitive Actualization” phase of development is an opulent one. Within the culture of people who race anything there are delightful conventions such as wearing special clothing, using exotic equipment, meticulous physical preparation and even unique vernacular shared only by “insiders” to communicate specifics of the racing experience. When columnist and author Maynard Hershon wrote about “Drawing the blanket of racing around you” he was certainly describing the snug feeling of being initiated into a time honored culture of athletes: The Racer.

Phase Three: “Tacit Integration”.

As the history of triathlons stretches into its third decade there is a small population of athletes who have been in the sport for more than 20 years. These athletes may have competed in up to six different age categories. For these athletes it is likely they have made a progression to another level or motive for participation: “Tacit Integration”.

For some of these athletes there may have been a period spent at the highest competitive level of the sport. They may have won their age category, they may have won races. Author, scholar and professional triathlete Scott Tinley, a member of the original, elite “Big Four” of triathlon that includes Tinley, Mark Allen, Dave Scott and Scott Molina during the 1980’s , wrote extensively about his experiences in triathlon and the transition from elite competitor to former elite competitor. His book, “Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport” chronicles a number of athlete’s experiences that competed for years and then left their sport.

This experience is contrasted by the other three of the big four, Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Scott Molina. Dave Scott coaches actively (as has Tinley) but also returned to the Hawaii Ironman as a Master’s competitor. Scott Molina was seen on the race course at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon in Thailand only a few years ago. Mark Allen continues to be active in the sport in similar ways to Tinley such as writing with his fine new book, “Fit Soul, Fit Body: 9 Keys to a Healthier, Happier You.” The book even includes a forward by Steven Covey, the fellow who coined the “Seven Habits” we originally talked about above.

The simple truth of many athletes in this category is that the sport has been integrated into their lives to the degree that it is part of their identity. Their motive to continue in it is tied to what defines them. It is simply part of who they are. Results are secondary to participation. The finish line is almost non-existent, or at least it is moving constantly in front of them. It is not so much about finishing a race, winning a race as it is about simply racing.

This is a graceful place to be in our sport but can be a frail one. When an athlete reaches this phase they may take their athletic gifts for granted. They have always been there, so they may always remain. For an athlete in this phase a physical disability or other obstacle to participation can be a serious obstacle that threatens one’s self esteem. It is tough to refocus on other activities when such an intense activity defined us, partially because it may take years to reach the depth of experience and appreciation in the sport to simply be at ease with participating. To be denied that hurts.

Often times the “Tacit Integrator” participates in many levels of the sport such as the Big Four do now: Coaching, writing, race organization, mentoring, volunteering at races and officiating become additional outlets for these legacy athletes. It is not so much that they are a part of the sport, but that the sport is a part of them.

It’s not the Destination, it’s the Journey.

If any of this theorizing holds true the common theme is that people may begin doing endurance sports for finite reasons, such as a goal of finishing an event or improving fitness. They may, however, continue in endurance sports for another set of reasons that have grown from their involvement, what they’ve put into the sport and what the sport has provided to them in return.

The value in examining this topic may lie with another one of Steven Covey’s interesting principles” Begin with the End in Mind”. If our athletic “end game” is one of improved health and fitness along with an engaging and fascinating pastime with many benefits, well then, perhaps there is no more reason to analyze our motives.



© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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