Bob Schul was in a room under the National Olympic Stadium, mentally preparing himself for the race of his life, the 5,000 meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. Schul was already filling a little uneasy. It was rainy and cold, so he spent most of his time in his dorm. Then he walked 200 meters in the rain, got on the bus and made it to the stadium, where his coaches ran up to him saying, “Where have you been?” Schul told me that his adrenalin shot up, and he thought he had gotten the time wrong. But they told Schul there was still over an hour before the race, which is exactly how much time he had intended to have. So calming himself down, Schul headed to a small room to prepare himself for his race. A member of the US track team and gold medal hope, Willie Davenport walked into the room.
“Willie Davenport, one of the world’s best hurdlers, was standing in the middle of the room dripping wet,” said Schul. “I knew he had just finished one of his trials. The first race for the US hurdlers should have been a cake walk for them. As I walked by and patted him on the back, I asked him how it went. His response was not what I had expected. He turned towards me and looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘Bob, I didn’t make it.’ Now, when somebody says that sort of thing, you don’t want to be there. I had a race to win and I didn’t want anybody saying to me ‘I didn’t make it’. But I couldn’t get away because he kept talking. I thought, ‘come on, I got to get out of here.’ Tears were coming down and he turned away. What do you say? I stood there and reached out and put my hand on his shoulder. I put my bag against the wall, and went to warm up. I tried to forget that.”
Fortunately, Schul was unaffected, winning the first ever gold for the US in the 5,000 meters. Davenport would recover after being eliminated in the 110m hurdle semis in Tokyo, going on to win gold in Mexico City, and bronze eight years later in Montreal.
The acclaimed author, Frank Herbert, once wrote, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” Herbert’s mantra is particularly true for high performance athletes. The anonymous author who wrote the book, The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, also spoke of fear, its particular odor and its negative impact.
“The physiologists can’t measure our sanity. Some of us are going well in training, quick and confident. Probably an equal number are struggling, working harder than they should to make the pace, and it’s those guys (some are friends, some rivals) who are starting to crack up. I can sort of smell this creeping fear of failure, an aura or a vibe around them. It’s like an elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about it. Some have gone very quiet; others are sort of manic. I can tell my best mate has been crying in the loos after training and back in the hotel sometimes. Not good for a grown man.”
The author, Anon, writes that everybody feels the fear. But you need to turn it around “even if it feels that failure is inevitable.” The author suggest that you “walk tall, hold your head high, maintain normal levels of eye contact and you’ll actually start feeling more confident. In turn, positive body language helps maintain and build the confidence of teammates, and coaches whose upbeat vibes feed your own beliefs – a positive feedback loop.”