This week, one of the great mentors in my life died. He was Coach Ralph Maughan of Utah State, and he taught me one great lesson.
One day I was tossing the discus – throw after throw over 180 feet. Despite these being very good throws, Coach Maughan criticized me continually. Finally, I said something along the lines of, "Jeepers, Coach, these are good throws."
He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and answered, "After seeing my athletes throw 230 feet from this ring, it's just hard to watch these kinds of efforts."
I reached down, pulled my ego out of my rear-end, and got back to work.
A younger Danny John winding up for a big throw.
You see, once you have the vision of excellence, "pretty good" is hard to swallow. It's an odd topic, but I'd like to talk about this vision – this journey – toward excellence.
The Fight for Excellence
During the last century, a once robust man was aging badly and dying fast. His son could've written him a short note like this:
I guess you can't be too keen on aging, but, you know, let's hope for the best.
Rather, the Welsh Poet, Dylan Thomas, took pen in hand and wrote the greatest villanelle in history, a villanelle so good that the poetry form has basically vanished. The last four lines, a call to arms for his father's heart and soul, are unforgettable:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It's excellent. This poem is recognizable as excellent by dullard high school sophomores and eulogists looking for a summary point for a funeral talk. You see, "excellent" is easily recognized by people who have no idea about what is supposed to be excellent. Someone who's never seen an Olympic event can tell within seconds what is truly excellent in the sport. To quote sprint coach Charlie Francis, "If it looks right, it flies right."
And that's my point: for those of us in this "game" of strength, health, fitness, or just looking good, we often forget the standard of excellence. And it's easy to understand why we've forgotten excellence: we're fighting against forces that seem to want to dissuade any and all from any notion of the journey to the top.
We can't be part of this movement!
My brother, Gary, has a funny insight about education in America. We were both laughing about how our kids have thrown away their trophies. One of my dearest possessions is a cheap tiny trophy that has "S.V. '67" on it. I earned that thing. I worked hard on my own time, asked for help, and battled through self-doubt to hit a ball in a little kid softball league. I want to be buried with it. Gary said the same thing about his medals and trophies.
So, why are our children tossing trophies away? Lindsay tossed her "Most Valuable Player" trophy away. Before you sit amazed at my daughter's skill, understand this: everykid in the league got that trophy!
Gary's boys had similar awards and the results were the same: the trophies ended up in the trash. Gary's insight? "They lowered the bar in the high jump to one foot. Anybody who jumps over gets a gold medal. So, the adults think it's good for their kid's self esteem, but the kids know it's bullshit!"
The Rebirth of Excellence
Here's my challenge: I want to redirect myself (and Testosterone Nation readers are welcome to join me) on my pursuit of excellence. The road to excellence is going to really hurt your self-esteem, like I discovered in Washington, DC, last January.
At that seminar, Dave Tate explained progress and programs in a manner that stunned the audience. He explained that he sees four levels of programs:
Let me make two important points before you think about where you belong on this list. First, Dave asked a simple question: "How many of you can bench 300?" A lot of hands went up, including mine. Hell, I can snatch that! "400?" Still, a lot of hands went up.
He then talked about the large number of 800-pound benchers at his gym, then the 900 pound benchers, even the 1000 pound benchers. "Any hands up?" I sat on mine...crushed.
You see, friends, at 40% of the world record, my bench press is "shitty." I'd have to train long and hard to "suck." That's the first point: where do you rate? Where do you really rate?
Dave's second point simply stunned the audience. You see, the road from "suck" to "good" is long and difficult! Each step up Dave's scale is long and laborious and not for the fainthearted. What are you willing to give up for excellence? Is it a goal worthy of even considering?
Let me quote Cervantes to help ease the pain here:
"It is the road, not the inn."
In other words, even if you don't win Mr. Olympia and make action flicks, there's a lot of good in simply striving to achieve "the best that you can be." (Catchy slogan. I just invented it.)
Consider all of that before you begin your journey to excellence. But for the record, it's a journey worth considering. Even if you choose to be "sucky" in an area of your life, at least go through the effort of admitting that you are, in fact, choosing less than your best in some things.
I'm lousy at a lot of things, and I see little hope in getting better. My handwriting is horrific, my foreign language skills embarrassing, and my tact is lacking. I don't see me doing much work in those areas.
Two more considerations: One, what's considered excellent in your area of focus? For bodybuilders, in my opinion, look at Arnold in the early 1970's and Zane in the late 1970's. I don't like "chemical gut" or "freaky face." I like the older look of bodybuilders during the 1960's and 1970's.
In performance sports, what are the top people doing? I spend a week each year with Mike Powell, the long jumper. It seems that 29 feet is a mark worthy of consideration.
And the high jump? The first height at this year's Nationals, the opening mark, was seven feet! Excellence is not easy.
Two, take a few minutes to look at the pattern, the methods, and the plans of the best of the best. Generally, most of us will overlook the obvious elements that tie together the stories of most extraordinary people. Like what?
Here you go, an obvious one: time. The Greek weightlifters tell us it takes twelve years of training to prepare for their workouts. Most professional athletes will tell you that they've been "in the game" for a decade, if not decades. If you've been training three months, the best of the best literally have 52 times more experience than you! So, what do you do? I suggest you learn from those who've been there before.
Here's a quick hint: Never accept a handball game from an old guy in a gym. Trust me. Gramps over there will be so kind and, you'll figure, "I'm in great shape." Gramps will make you run back and forth and back and forth while he stands like a statue in the middle tapping the ball slightly, ever so slightly, back to you.
You'll lose, experience near heart failure, and grandpa won't even be out of breath. Gramps not only beat me in handball, but got a towel for me to wipe off my face... a beautiful moment of kindness. A kindness that could kill.
You see, age is crafty. Old athletes figure out one thing from years of doing it wrong: less is more.
You've heard it before. The Olympic lifting legend, Tommy Kono, has made a living on those three words. True excellence also reflects a silky smoothness about it. Less effort, more results.
We've all heard the saying, now a cliché, that a journey of a hundred miles begins with a single step. The road to excellence shouldn't be rushed, but most of us do. The high school athlete who sees graduation right around the corner has a hard time hearing me tell him to go home when his practice is going horribly.
"But, I'm just having a bad day," he says.
"Right, so you're practicing to be shitty, or merely sucky today? Go home."
This is the great challenge of goal setting. We set the wheels in motion after listening to Earl Nightingale or Anthony Robbins or Zig Ziglar and chart out master plans with numbered and bulleted points to be at certain stages at certain times, yet true excellence has that terrible skill of being effortless. Like the old guy at the handball court, there's beauty in simplicity.
And it's terribly confusing. I shake my head sometimes when I try to hold all these thoughts together:
• I want to get better than shitty, but to do this I need to do less.
• I want to stop sucking, but to do this I need to be more elegant in my performances that suck.
• I want to make the big jump, but I have to jump slowly to make the big jump.
• All the while, I must look pretty doing it.
Exactly! So, what can we do to get on the road to excellence and perhaps find that most elusive of goals?
First, know what the standards are for you. Make an honest evaluation today. Before and after pictures have been overdone, I agree, but it's still hard to argue how great they are for honest assessment.
If your goals are athletic, look up the records in your sport, watch the championship DVDs, and read the articles reviewing the events. In other words, get a clue about what you're facing.
Next (and this is the most difficult) chart out a flexible approach to your goals. If you decide to be the best powerlifter in the world and don't know how to squat, maybe that's something you can't be flexible about. Learn to squat!
However, everything else is negotiable. Champions have literally come to victory by exactly opposite approaches. So, chart out some ideas, some broad strokes across a yellow legal tablet, and get an idea about what you need to address.
Next, try to continually strive to look excellent while you attempt this challenge. When I first started Olympic lifting, there was always a bodybuilding contest after the lifting. My coach, Dick Notmeyer, used to tell me to watch how well the bodybuilding competitors dressed when they came to the competition. In street clothes, he'd tell me, you could figure out the winner because they looked like the best. Perhaps something as simple as focusing on some perfect reps in the gym might be a start... or trading in your "Members Only" jacket.
Finally, excellence is rarely a stressed or rushed effort. It looks easy. Eliminate all the excess and strive for simplicity. If you can remember Wayne Gretzky playing hockey, he simply moved more efficiently than anyone else. You could say the same about Michael Jordan at his peak, too.
Eliminate the excess. Pare down what you do both in training and in movement. Generally, less is more.
It's funny. When I quit trying to throw so far with the discus, when I simplified the movement, it went a lot farther. And Coach Maughan had a lot less to wipe his eyes about at practice.