Champions and Killer Instinct

Jul 16, 2020 | Bahrain Victorious 13, supertri

Before he migrated directly into the sports consulting, media, and high performance development space, MANA CEO Chris McCormack was a Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame athlete and four-time World Champion with a career that spanned the better of 20 years. It was McCormack’s innate ability to build a brand and elicit huge partnership deals within the sport of triathlon that made his move into the corporate world an impactful transition.

In writing about what makes champions tick, McCormack noted the reluctance from triathlon’s elite athletes to own their desire to win, and laments the hiding of this killer instinct.

I always believed in putting your ambitions and goals out to the universe, of going after what you want, openly saying you want it and how you intend to get it. There is a lot of power in this. It makes it real — in your own head, to the people around you and it holds you accountable to an outcome (which can be quite overwhelming). 

This concept was the driving force behind everything I did, and I needed that. A lot of the time by putting it out there I wasn’t picking a fight; it was just a matter of taking ownership on something before I’d actually achieved it, which obviously upset the other people who also saw themselves as potential owners of that title or that goal.

For some reason the sports world is not as receptive to a person stating intentions openly. Being ambitious (and to some degree impatient) is scorned, especially if the status quo believes you haven’t “paid your dues.” It was very different to international banking where ambition and impatience led productivity. In the corporate world this is part of the operational DNA of any company, woven into their fabric as a road map to where the organisation is going.  Name a single company in the world that doesn’t state what they intend to do, and how they hope to shape the market. 

I would often read that I was a confidence athlete, almost cocky, because I was ambitious. I did find it odd that this behavior was shunned in an environment where we were chasing perfection, excellence and world titles. 

I was bewildered that to many of my peers, being openly ambitious was considered a negative. I saw this as a huge weakness on their part, almost a spotlight on their internal nervous energy or fear of failure. If you are too scared to admit it openly, then it is going to be tough to deliver it on game day.

If you are too scared to openly admit you want to win, then it is going to be tough to deliver it on game day.

Chris McCormack

I recall being interviewed after my first ever World Championships as a professional in 1996. I had finished just outside the top 10 and was asked if this was “better than I hoped for.” My reply took the interviewer back a little because I said, “I don’t hope for anything. Hope is not a strategy. Hope is an emotion. I didn’t train all year and quit my job to come 13th place. If anyone is happy with 13th place, then maybe they should look for a new occupation. I don’t intend to build a career on 13th place finishes. I want to win, and won’t be happy until I do.”

I needed a certain desperation and flight-or-fight type response to racing to keep me engaged and active. I needed that mindset and hunger in order to deliver in training what was needed to beat athletes who were highly talented and successful athletes in their own right. I went on to win that ITU World Championship final the following year. I stated my intentions to the universe, and the universe answered. Chris McCormack, World Champion! Funny how that happens.

I like to talk things out, instead of privately whinging to a group of friends and publicly pretending winning or losing doesn’t matter. It most certainly does; that’s what gives champions the extra edge to execute a race strategy with confidence, or close out a sprint finish.

It’s a killer instinct, and I think all champions in any sport have that. They may publicly portray it differently but when you know them personally and you’ve been in those private conversations with them and there’s no one listening, it’s there.

People paint a public persona of themselves, which is fine; back in my racing days we used to have to use the media and engage certain individuals to help us shape our tone and brand. Nowadays you have social media platforms to build it for yourself, which has its strengths and weaknesses. 

Garnering Likes and Followers for the pretty pictures seems very important these days, but a bunch of comments and a few thousand followers do not replace an athlete’s results. Winning and success are what brands and potential partners buy into, and the framework you build around this both in a social media sense and an authentic sense is critical.

When you try to present a perfect facade because you believe this is how you can show your commercial value or what you think people want to see, you hide the warts and scars of battles, and the uniqueness, passion, and emotion of yourself as an individual. The long-term outcome of this is a disconnect in the understanding of the reality of what success looks like and what it takes to pursue it. Sure you have a Hollywood-perfect snapshot of a life, but none of it is reality. 

Still I do feel that beneath what many of these star athletes portray themselves to be, there must exist a killer competitor. Those emotions that at times can be ugly and almost brazen (but exist within every one of us) are the main fuel to the mongrel that drives every endurance athlete.

There are competitors like Kristian Blummenfelt, Javier Gomez, Daniela Ryf, Katie Zaferes, Jan Frodeno, and Alistair Brownlee (to name just a few off the top of my head) for whom losing hurts. You see that in the way they finish when they have not broken the tape first. That fake smile they give and that almost-rehearsed post-race interview when they say, “I was beaten by the better athlete today and I am happy with the result…” But you can see how the loss marks them. 

A loss is like a tattoo or a scar; you bear it for a long time. It is not in any way disrespectful to the athlete that beat you. Sure your friend might have won and you can feel happy for them, but it still hurts when they win at your expense. Never in your visualisation of your success do you place them ahead of you. The perfect outcome is your friends finish just behind you, but you are the winner. It is always that. For champions, it burns inside.

Any athlete that doesn’t feel that sting of loss is never going to be a world beater.

Chris McCormack

Any athlete that doesn’t feel that sting is never going to be a world beater. I think even the publicly-perceived world’s nicest athletes like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal still sting when they lose, and behind closed doors are mortified by underachieving against their own expectations and perceived potential. If you get a chance, watch the 2017 Australian Open Final between those two and watch Rafa’s face at the podium celebration. Despite having played one of the greatest tennis matches ever, he lost in a five-set thriller by literally a single mistake. Rafa is not much of an actor, and these two are best friends. The pain is real. It says everything about why he is who he is. It is why they are champions.

Hiding from this is acting, and if you look for it you can see why they are athletes and not actors. I know this is part of the game, to put on a brave face. They say all the right things to the press and congratulate their competitors on the media feeds, but trust me when I say they are devastated. In that inside circle, in those after-race conversations where the disappointment or elation pours from the heart, unfiltered and raw, this is the magic. This is when you see the ingredients and authenticity that make up a champion. I just wish we saw a little more of that today.

To get to the top of any mountain is not easy; it can be ugly and problematic. But beauty and inspiration can be found in the honest telling of that journey, and that should not be blunted or hidden away.

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