By Dr. Jack Daniels
Entering the 1956 Olympic Trials in the Modern Pentathlon I had been training for the riding, fencing and running events for about four months. The Olympic Trials was actually my first ever Modern Pentathlon competition (I swam and shot during college years). I took to the horseback riding event (5000 meter cross country with over 20 obstacles) very well and in the Trials we had the ride last rather than first because we only had 15 horses for 32 competitors. Only the top 15 after the first four events got to ride. I was in 8th place going into the final event but I was not trying to make the team, I just wanted to concentrate on having a good ride.
Many of the competitors put too much pressure on themselves before the ride rather than just concentrating on having a good ride. 1st and 2nd place going into the ride ended up switching places after the event. 4th place went out too fast and fell off his horse a few times. Each fall deducts 80 points from your overall score. 3rd place took his horse out too fast as well and his horse basically quit before the finish line. Those two athletes failed to make the top four and go to the Olympics (top 3 compete and 4th goes as alternate). 5th place going into the ride had a good ride and moved up to 3rd overall. 6th place had trouble controlling his horse and basically the horse ran away with him. 7th place rode OK, but I rode a little better and beat him, moving me up to 4th overall earning the alternate spot on Olympic team.
I thought, this is great, I get to go to the Olympics and don’t have to compete, so I can finally learn what this sport is all about. The next week before we left for Melbourne the guy who had won the Olympic Trials had an accident in a practice ride and broke his leg. I ended up competing in the Olympics and won a Team Silver Medal (with a 2nd place in the ride, only 2 seconds back of the winner). The lesson I learned, which applies to athletes in every event, is to focus on the task at hand; not the end result or whom you hope to beat, but what you ARE doing while competing.
I got my Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology in 1968 and have and coached runners (including several Olympians) all my life. I have coached an Olympic medalist in the marathon, 30 NCAA National champions and 8 NCAA National Championship cross-country teams. The last thing I always tell my runners is to focus on the task at hand. You have no control over your competitors and they have no control over you. Only you have control over what you do, so focus on how best to do that. If someone beats you that person just had a better performance than you did; that happens to all of us now and then.