“Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.” That quote by Lance Armstrong became my mantra as I prepared to run my first marathon several years ago. My best friend, Ashwin, and I had decided to take on the challenge of running a marathon and our predominant goal was to finish without walking. Yes, we started small, no time goals, just finish without walking. As the race approached I came across that quote and it really inspired me. I thought, “That quote is going to get me through the wall.” Armed with my new mantra I was extremely confident. My confidence only increased as we cruised through the first half of the marathon. Then we hit mile 17 and…SMACK, I ran face-first into the wall. Ashwin, who was feeling great, did all but put me on his shoulders to get me through the next few miles. Between his encouragement and Lance Armstrong’s voice in my head I was intent on fighting through the pain. I WAS going to run the entire race. That bravado lasted until mile 20 when I ran into a much harder and thicker wall. At that point running six more miles seemed impossible. Still, Lance’s words kept running through my head. Unfortunately, those words were the only things that were able to run. Despite all the promises I had made to myself I began to give in. I needed relief and that would only come from walking. So I walked…really I quit. That’s right, I’m a quitter…and I was never happier.
I was reminded of my marathon experience while watching game 6 of the Cavs/Celtics series. As the game wore on I could see LeBron James and his Cavs teammates slowly starting to give in. With one minute left they ignored Mike Brown, who was imploring them to foul, and essentially quit. Of course their chances of winning at that point were slim but their lack of fight was shocking. Watching it all happen, I thought to myself, “The Cavs are walking the marathon”. Just like me, when the going got tough they took the easy way out and quit.
Personally, LeBron James had a similar dilemma. Amid all the speculation about his impending free agency he seemed disengaged and exhausted throughout the entire Celtics series. In the end, he really struck me as someone who just wanted it all to end. No more questions, no more worrying about breaking the hearts of everyone in Cleveland. He wanted it to be over and the sooner the season was over, the sooner he could move on. Essentially, he wanted to walk the marathon.
Let’s be honest, in some situations quitting feels great. It certainly did for me. The pain subsided, my body felt better, and the difficulties seemed to be over. In sports, quitting provides an easy solution to challenging situations. Quit, and it will be over. Try to stick it out and you have to deal with the pain and suffering and there are no guarantees that you will be successful. You might endure all that agony for nothing. Quitting, however, provides you with one guarantee: The pain will stop. That’s what I saw from the Cavs and LeBron. They just wanted it to be over. They had a choice: Take on the challenge, fight through the pain, and try to win or quit and it would all be over. Just like me, they quit.
So why don’t all athletes quit? Well, as I found out it’s because Lance Armstrong is right. The pain eventually went away but I’ve spent years dealing with the guilt of quitting. I can’t shake the urge to run another marathon and make it right. “This time,” I tell myself “I’m not stopping.” As good as it felt to quit in the moment, that feeling doesn’t compare to the remorse I have felt since then. The whole experience has made me realize one of the characteristics that makes elite athletes unique: They never walk the marathon. No matter how difficult things get, the best athletes never give up. That’s what separates Michael Jordan from Kobe Bryant. Jordan never gave up while Kobe has quit several times in his career (most recently in the 2008 NBA Finals). In 2007 Peyton Manning and the Colts fell 23 points behind the Chargers in the first half. Did Manning pack it in? No, he kept fighting and only Adam Vinatieri’s miss on a 29 yard field goal prevented him from winning the game. While it took me a marathon to realize that the immediate satisfaction of winning is not worth the long-term guilt, most elite athletes are either hardwired not to quit or learn not to at a very young age. I wonder if LeBron and the Cavs learned their lesson. I wonder if they regret quitting. I wonder if, like me, they can’t wait for an opportunity to make it right. I wonder if they will ever allow themselves to quit again. I wonder if LeBron will eventually regret quitting on Cleveland. I’m glad I have so much to wonder about; it gives me something to think about as I train for my next marathon.
Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA. He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004. Gentner served as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College. During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology. In 2009 he began his current position at GSU where in addition to coordinating the graduate program he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education. He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences. Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques. He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels. For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the graduate program at Georgia Southern he can be reached at [email protected] or 912-478-7900.