How purging your ego is a critical secret to being a good athlete
Time and time again I meet guides who brag and boast that they have been on the river 5, 10, or 20 years and they haven’t flipped since their first season. This never sat well with me and I couldn’t understand why. Before I get to the why I feel compelled to share an anecdote from some years ago when I was boating with a guide I will call Mr. Clean.
Every time I would have a swimmer Mr. Clean would tear into me mercilessly. He would usually demand a beer fine from me or sit there mocking me from his boat while he told me to pick up my mess. During those years I just started expedition boating and I would come back from hard class IV or V runs with tales filled with carnage…stories for which he would summarily rip on me.
At the time I also realized that he only ever boated on easy class III and IV commercial runs. When I questioned him about getting out on other rivers he would say something in the vein of “I’m not stupid like that” or something equally condescending involving my lack of skill or intelligence. Needless to say our relationship as coworkers was often strained. I found this this disturbing since he was one of the senior guide staff and I looked up to him often seeking advice.
Fast forward several years, a big water season rolled around, and we hopped on the South Fork of the American River for a big water trip. Since Mr. Clean was a senior guide he selected the crew of beautiful and scared sorority girls he could flirt all day. I was given the rowdy Marines that were loud, obnoxious and nobody wants to deal with. There were a chain of mistakes throughout the day on both his part and my part that contributed to a very exciting day. I will start with Mistake #2: Grab a scared crew for big water. Marines are awesome BTW!!
When Ego Takes Over
I had been boating all winter at that point so I was getting used to the big water and a little cocky. We reached an infamously munchy feature called Cornholio. My crew was fired up so I decided to go for meat of the rapid and dropped in. Mistake #3: Poor choice of my available options. Boom! Sneaky hidden lateral out of nowhere. The boat is rotating sideways, angry hole dead ahead. BOOM!! We hit so hard 3 guys on the left fly to the right. The boat tube stands with my whole crew on the high side and washes out. I ended up with 3 guys in the water so I grab my swimmers and pull into the eddy to get ready for more swimmers. Whew…so close.
Mr. Clean is up next…following exactly how I went in. Mistake #4: Don’t follow other guide’s bad options. Mr. Clean’s boat hits the lateral. 4 of the 6 girls jump to the floor as he yells get down. BOOM!! He plows the hole dead sideways. The hole slams the boat to an instant stop and kicks it back into the abyss. 2 girls swim. Cornholio slams the boat again and again like a dog fighting a chewtoy. FLIP!
The Marines start paddling after the girls while I am counting heads. We grab the first two 2 girls and paddle back to the eddy. Our trip leader throw bags 1 girl while another boat goes after the remaining 3. Where’s Mr. Clean? Maybe he is on the other side of his boat? As his boat was floating by, I finally heard him blowing his whistle in short panicked blasts while swimming to shore on the opposite bank. 2 of the 3 girls still swimming end up swimming the next 2 rapids.
Lessons From The Trip
You will notice I started with Mistake #2. So what was Mistake #1? Ego and Hubris. My mistake was allowing myself to feel bullet proof after running some hard whitewater (Ego). Mr. Clean’s critical errors were caused by value judgements. His values based on a company culture which fed people’s egos based on a simple false dilemma logical fallacy:
“Good boaters run clean lines and never have carnage.”
Mr. Clean’s ego was inflated from thriving in an extreme beer fine culture. At this company punishments for simple mistakes were swift and harsh. Swimmer? Beer fine. You swam? 6 pack. Drop your paddle? Beer fine. Flipped your boat? 12 pack. I can only speculate as to his motives, but at many times I felt that he tried to publically prove me as an inferior boater (Ego). Perhaps he genuinely felt that he could run a rapid cleaner than I could any day of the week (hubris). Perhaps he just couldn’t fathom the fact that he might have carnage (Ego). I can only wonder but what I can say for certain: Was he generally good boater? Yes. Was he a highly experienced boater who could he perform at a high level of proficiency within his spectrum of ability? Yes. Did he know how to handle carnage? No. I kept wondering how could a guide with 10 seasons under his belt not handle a flip, but the key here is: within his spectrum of ability.
The egos, opinions, and emotions of himself and his fellow boaters created an environment that was hostile to expanding his worldview to new ideas in boating. Consequently it limited his spectrum of ability to only commercial trips on the South and Middle Forks of the American River. There was no need to train on flips because…nobody flipped. If you did you were out. Mr. Clean spent 9 years rafting upright after his first flip his very first season.
I want to address the logical fallacy at its core. This fallacy offers two states: You run rapids clean or you don't, thus you are either a good boater or you suck. This precludes any other possibility about what makes a good boater. Thus, I have come to believe that: Running everything clean all the time and never having carnage does NOT make you a good boater, it makes you a liability.
Mr. Clean did not develop and hone his skills in adverse situations. He did not train or prepare for a flip. He became a liability
Fight The Image
The purpose of my anecdote is to highlight a critical element of ego. Ego is emotional and when people cannot control their emotions they will engage in a violent fight or flight response. This often takes the form of emotional or physical abuse of a person or objects in their vicinity. One of Bruce Lee’s movies features him shattering a hall of mirrors. This serves as a metaphor for the following: To defeat any enemy, you must fight the image of yourself (your Ego).
The lesson here is Mr. Clean was so afraid of the idea of carnage on the water that he lashed out at me verbally for even discussing the notion. When I had carnage, He would lash out at me through making my life harder financially (beer fines) or simply not offering aid to me (letting me take a physical beating). This is personified in a simple axiom: What you hate in yourself you hate in other people.
When the day came that he was faced with a reality that was so diametrically opposed to his values and self-image (his ego), he broke. Lashing out at the river physically or emotionally was impossible so his fight response was pointless, he was left with one last recourse…RUN! What was clear was that Mr. Clean’s skills had hit a plateau.
Many athletes feel a plateau in their abilities at some point in their career. It is a difficult place to be since it is hard to break out of it and athletes tend to feel a certain comfort in being there. To transcend this plateau an athlete must shatter the emotional responses of their ego. The best athletes may make the perfect shot, swim a perfect lap, or perform a perfect run; however for them that is never enough. The logical fallacy that Mr. Clean operated under was that perfection was attainable like a medal you get to pin on your chest for all to see. For a true athlete…
Excellence is an aspiration.
Perfection an illusion.