The Need to Win, the Desire to Win, the Sting of Loss

What gets you up at five in the morning to go for a swim, a ride, or a run most days of the week?

For many athletes just starting out in the sport of triathlon, it’s the thought of getting fit enough to finish their first race, as well as the camaraderie you build with like-minded people and the mix of experiences as you begin to discover multisport. As you grow in the sport, it might turn out you actually enjoy swimming, cycling, and running as part of a healthy lifestyle, and the people in the sport become good friends. It has a way of positively infecting your life from a social and physical perspective.

I think it starts like this for everyone, whether you end up as a pro or not. At some point, especially for myself and my peers in the professional ranks, the goal of laying claim to a title and beating the competition soon supersedes any desire to be just fit. Fitness is simply a product of the workload that comes with pursuing competitive goals.

For myself this evolution happened over time. When I was in college it was a huge part of my social fabric, but my life focus was directed elsewhere. Triathlon was a great way to be healthy, hang with friends and satisfy my competitive drive. I enjoyed a very nice balance of life, study and sport. At that point, triathlon was not my business or profession; it was an outlet that gave me freedom from where I thought my responsibilities lay, which was to find success in school and then work.

When it became my profession, it started to envelop a larger portion of my life, which meant I drew on other things within my life to get the outcome that I was looking for. Soon enough it was my occupation, it was where my friends were, it was what consumed all my time, it was everything.

Taking the path of professional athlete was not a common one in Australia, and most certainly not the life my parents had envisaged I would pursue. To some degree, the pressure of pursuing this direction in my life came with disappointing the vision my family had for me. The way I engaged in sport as a child was how sport was perceived in my family: it was something you did on the weekend as an outlet of fun and friendships.

So what motivated me to change my life that much and pursue it as a full-time profession, and what motivates champions in the continuous pursuit of winning for a living?

They Need to Win

“Everybody loves a winner.”

As a professional athlete you just don’t get paid if you fail, so you must care about the outcome. We all like to say in those interviews we give that we are process-driven individuals, but I have yet to meet any professional athlete who is not influenced or moved by race-day outcome to a great degree. Failure has trickle-on effects: maybe your bike or shoe sponsor drops you to go with the new winner, maybe you needed that race success to be selected for a team or qualify for a championship that influences your future racing and income-earning capacity.

Prize money is just one of the many ways race-day outcome drives professional athletes to win.

My father once said to me, “Don’t be the fittest guy in the unemployment line, son. If you are going to call this your profession, then treat it as such.” Pushing for success was paramount if I was going to be a professional athlete, considering what I was walking away from: a stable and secure job with potential to climb the corporate ladder. Triathlon came with significant risk and unknowns, but at a young age, it also filled my aspirations and dreams and was the path less taken. I wanted to do this more than anything, and I wanted to be successful at it.

In my head I knew I had a finite amount of time in the sport. It’s not like a corporate career that can span 40 years. For professional sport it can be a fourth of that. I could either be in it to make friends, or be in it to win titles and commercialise any success I had. So I took it very seriously. It was in every sense my profession, and I treated it like a corporate start-up from the beginning.

While age groupers can be ridiculously competitive and just as driven and motivated as professionals, they’ve got multiple outlets through which to let the steam out and it’s not all singularly focused on triathlon. They can be personally disappointed, but it doesn’t dig as deep because they go back to work on Monday.

A whole bunch of things are attached to competitive outcomes for professionals, as opposed to those for age groupers. Sure they are similar, but without being melodramatic, there is a lot more skin in the game once you get your pro card.

Katie Zaferes gave up a teaching career to pursue triathlon and the Olympics.

They Want to Win -- and Hate Losing Even More

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.

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

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 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 needed to pretend as if those titles I wanted were mine already. That’s what got me up every day to train, that’s what made me do what I was doing, that’s what made me say the things I said, that’s what made me race as hard as I raced. In my head I was the winner of Kona before I’d actually won it. In 2006 even though Normann Stadler went on to win it (besting me by 71 seconds in one of the closest-ever race finishes – watch it here), I treated that as if it were mine. I spoke about it like I already owned it, I defended it like I already owned it, and I did that every race I ever did.

I truly believe that most athletes think the same way, but keep that inside their tight-knit group or family and don't state their ambitions. I just went about it differently and vocally. 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.

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.

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.

In a sprint finish, the one with the killer instinct to shut out the competition wins.

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.

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 filtered or self-censored.

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.

Losing hurts!

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.

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.

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 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.

Part 2: Answering the questions "Who's better?" and "What's possible?"

Chris "Macca" McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, and founder and executive director of MX Endurance.