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"Be Ready for Anything"
You've probably heard of Murphy's Law, but what about Sod's Law?
Two weeks ago, I was engrossed in watching the World Athletics (i.e. track and field) Championships, and googling interviews with competitors when I was struck by British sprint-star (and 2019 world 200-meter champion) Dina Asher-Smith’s advice to a “newbie” on the top-tier track circuit, known as the Diamond League:
“Be ready for anything. I think that’s the most important thing with Diamond League…Sometimes, you know, we’re on TV, and they just go: ‘Ok, yeah, sprinters, we don’t really have time for practice blocks; we’ve got to keep up with the TV so go, go, go.’ You’ve just got to be really flexible. Sometimes you think the crowd’s really noisy, but you’ve still got to run. It might be running late — you’ve still got to run. So be flexible, be open, be ready for anything. I think that’s my biggest tip.”
I love that simple lesson. I covered track at two Summer Olympics for Sports Illustrated, and I was always fascinated to see how athletes responded to the unusually large stage. Most track and field athletes are not regularly competing in front of large crowds. (The Diamond League is an exception.) As a result, most competitors at an Olympics or World Championships are facing tens of thousands of fans, and dozens of television cameras, for the very first time.
Imagine you’re used to giving work presentations to a small group of people you mostly know, and then suddenly you’re delivering your highest-stakes presentation in a football stadium during a live television broadcast. Just a bit jarring.
To add to the anxiety-inducing surroundings at high-profile track meets, an athlete’s typical warmup routine is likely to get disrupted. When I was a college 800-meter runner, my typical warmup would take around an hour; that included some jogging, stretching, plyometric drills, getting into racing spikes, some short sprints, accidentally stabbing myself repeatedly with a safety pin while affixing a race bib, and then getting to the start with time to spare.
Then I ran at Penn Relays for the first time. That event includes high school, college, and professional athletes, mostly from the US and Jamaica, and draws tens of thousands of fans. There are an enormous number of races happening in close succession, and athletes have to stand pretty much shoulder to shoulder in a “holding pen” awaiting their event. It’s basically like waiting in an amusement park line, except you’re waiting to run a race. You can’t really leave to go to the bathroom or get water, and — depending on whether things are running on schedule or not — you might be in there for a few minutes, or you might be in there for a long time. To make matters more complicated that year, while we were in the holding pen, then-NBA MVP Allen Iverson turned up with an entourage. It caused a crush of people near the holding pen and a brief schedule delay. Plus, reigning Olympic 400-meter champ Michael Johnson was racing at Penn Relays, and ESPN was televising it, which caused yet more scheduling shenanigans.
Long story short, I had to warm up in fits and starts. I ended up in the holding pen for a long time, burning through nervous energy. It was long enough that I cooled down and tried to warm up again by basically running in place. Each fit and start only added to the anxiety of racing in front of an order of magnitude more people than I’d ever experienced before.
I ran poorly. But it was a great lesson. I only ran at Penn Relays once more. But, in general, as I got into more competitive races, I realized it was increasingly likely that something in the pre-race schedule would go sideways. The remedy: Just like Asher-Smith advised, you need to have a flexible mindset and to expect something to go wrong — you just don’t know what it is, yet. For me, a flexible plan meant that I would make sure I covered the most important parts of a pre-race routine, no matter what happened; if I got to all the details, that was a bonus. Expecting something to go wrong also meant that, when it inevitably did, I could meet it with a laugh (“Knew it!”) instead of a cringe.
To this day, I keep in mind “Sod’s Law”, a more extreme, British variant of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the most inopportune moment. It’s pessimistic, but also helpful, because once you expect it, it needn’t be a disaster.
Whether I’m speaking at a conference, or visiting or calling someone to interview them, I favor the Asher-Smith mindset in general. (When I interview people, I’m often unsure how much of their time I’ll get, so I identify a few must-get-to topics in advance. Once I have those, I can adjust to how the conversation is developing.) Almost nothing goes precisely according to plan, or schedule, and — Sod’s Law — the more important the conference or interview, the more likely that is to be true.
Or, at least it can feel that way, so better to be prepared, and flexible.
Thanks for reading. And thanks to readers who have been sharing thoughtful feedback in the comments on recent posts. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it: “This Substack is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”
…Ok, I edited his remarks slightly. But I have been playing with different types of posts. I’d put this one in the very simple “riffing-about-a-personal-lesson” genre. Basically: reflective conversations I would’ve had only in my own head before I had a newsletter. Let me know in the comments below what you think of it. And critical-but-civil comments are always welcome.
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Until next time…
In an unusual example from the recent World Championships, a buggy carrying sprinters — including triple gold-medalist (100, 200, 4x100) Noah Lyles — crashed en route to the track. The athletes, including Jamaican Andrew Hudson who got glass in his eye, still had to race after a short delay. It’s not usually that, but it’s often something.