This article is presented in partnership with Nike.
It goes by many names. Mental toughness. Resilience. 'Clutchness'. You can't quite define it (and neither can the scientists) but you know it when you see it, when you feel it. It's what lets athletes overcome a deficit in size, strength, and abilities to triumph over their opponent. It's the marathon runner pushing through the wall in the final kilometres when every part of their body is screaming in pain. It's LeBron James finding something in the waning minutes of a tied Game 7 to make the series winning block. The late great Muhammad Ali called it 'the will', and—unsurprisingly—he probably described it better than anyone when he said, "the will must be stronger than the skill."
What does it take to reach and maintain that competitive edge at an elite level of competition? You can train your body, but how do you train your mind to consistently reach your peak potential? To find out, we spoke with three Nike athletes about how they fine-tune their desire to win with their ability to performlevel on the track, in the gym, and on the field.
VICE Sports: Aussie Rules is a sport that requires a really dynamic skill set and range of abilities. How do you go about designing your training regime to meet all of those demands and get an edge on your competition?
For me, it's all about purpose. I try to do everything with a game-like focus in mind. When I'm in the gym, I'm envisioning how each motion will help me on game day. Everything you do needs to relate to your end goal. But balance is also really important. If I become too focused on football, it can throw me off mentally. Getting away from football is important for me, especially to give my mind a break.
The footy season is a long and gruelling challenge—how do you approach your training to make sure you don't peak too early in the season, staying fresh and ready to win at the end of the year?
The season is long. I think it's important to listen to your body. Sometimes doing less will equate to more on game day. I train harder when I feel fresh and try to taper back if I'm starting to fatigue. Our trainers are taking RPEs (Rated Perceived Exertion, a scale used to measure the intensity of exercise) every session to ensure we're hitting the right load. We want to win the last game of the season so it's a continual build up until that game comes.
You play the full forward position, which is a massive role in your team's offence; the pressure to perform and kick goals is with you every time you step onto the field. How do you gain the mental edge to perform and score for the team every week?
The mental side of being a forward is the toughest element of all. Your entire team puts everything into working the ball down to you and it's up to you to reward them. It can be a lot of pressure, but knowing that my teammates believe in me is everything. I try not to put pressure on myself to kick goals and focus more on how I can help the team score. I think I get more satisfaction out of score assists than kicking them myself.
What motivates you to push through the long hours in the gym and on the training ground to reach your potential and gain an edge on your competition?
Knowing that every little thing you do outside of match day will help the team. When motivation is hard to find, I just think of how the team will benefit from me challenging myself. When I'm on the field, I trust that the training I've done will give me an edge. I think it's important to fully believe in your own ability and remember that you wouldn't be playing the game if you didn't have the ability to perform.
Running is a sport where your opponent is not so much other competitors but the clock. At the end of the day, all of your training and the work you put in is reflected in the time on the board. How do you stay motivated when the difference between a good and bad performance is literally tenths of a second?
I think the key to staying motivated, especially in winter, is to surround yourself with a group of like-minded people. I'm lucky to have a committed and hardworking training squad, we help each other stay positive and motivated on days where it may be lacking. Goal setting is also a big factor in staying motivated. By setting a goal and writing it down, it helps keep me accountable for all that I do in my training and when racing.
Runners don't have the luxury of being able to work into a rhythm over the course of a game, it's a sport where you spend a lot of time waiting and then have to be able to deliver your best performance on demand. What are you focusing on in those crucial pre-race moments in order to gear yourself up to win?
Pre-race is all about getting in the zone and focusing on the task ahead. My race is over in 2 minutes; if I am not focused and ready to go when the gun goes off, there is not much time to make it up. I use a lot of positive self-talk where I remind myself I am good at what I do and I can win the race. I try to focus only on what I can do in the race and try not worry too much about my competitors as you can only control what you do.
Middle distance running events see a pack form on the inside line after the initial bend. How difficult is it to maintain your race strategy within the pack and focus on both running your race and responding to the pace and tactics of your competitors?
When the gun goes all competitors are in their own zone. Everyone has their ideal race plan however with racing it is very rare things go to plan. I make sure I am responsive and adaptable to changing race environments and I always make sure I have a plan A, B, C and D as they often come into play. It's about relaxing as much as you can whilst still trying to executive your race plan whilst covering moves from competitors. It's a tricky one and I will be forever learning but I guess the unknown is one of the things I love about racing.
You're a central midfielder so your passing ability is crucial to your game. How do you train to improve your vision and instincts to adapt to in-game situations?
To be honest it's tough to train your vision and instinct, I think that just comes naturally. As for adapting to ingame situations we practice moments that could possibly happen in competitive games at training every day to prepare ourselves for different situations, so we are as prepared as we can be to deal with them correctly.
Obviously a game plan can differ significantly from week to week. After training and game planning for days before a game, how do you stay loose and ready to adapt and adjust under pressure?
It's very difficult to adjust a game plan during a game if things aren't going to plan, but as professionals that's what we get paid to do. As you get more and more experienced it becomes second nature.
What about before matches. How do you get into the proper mindset?
I listen to music and chill out… I'm pretty laid back and relaxed before games and don't get nervous, so I find it pretty easy to get in the zone for matches.
The travel schedule, especially playing in Australia, can be immense. How do you adapt your training around your travel and how do you stay fresh and ready to perform under those conditions?
The travel for away games in Australia is like nowhere in the world and it definitely takes its toll on your body. But the coaching staff adjust the intensity and volume of training according to the distance and amount of travel we have to deal with week to week. You also have to take care of your body off the field like sleep and nutrition, it's a massive part of being a professional and keeping your body healthy and in great shape helps you perform at the highest possible level.
Last question. How do you define and measure your individual performance within a team sport when your role can change significantly week to week?
It's difficult to judge your individual game and personally I don't really take notice of my individual performance because at the end of the day it's all about the team winning. Obviously I know myself if I've had a good or bad game but it's all about the team in football. I sometimes watch the game back and analyse my performance with the coaching staff and talk about what I can do better next time, I try to stay honest with myself and set high standards and keep my performances as consistent as possible.
All photographs by Ben Clement
On Saturday 20 August, running, training and football will come together in one epic final celebration at the House of Unlimited in Sydney. Register here.