Triathlon and the Sport of Competitive Eating

What possibly could this article be about?  There are probably no two other groups who differ more than triathletes and those who compete in competitive eating, yes that’s right, competitively eating hot dogs, tacos, pizza, etc.  But I assure you that there is at least one person in the sport of competitive eating whom we all can learn a lesson from.  I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast where Steven Dubner interviewed Takeru Kobayashi.

In 2001, the world record for the number of hot dogs eaten in 12-minutes during the annual Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest held each July 4th was 25 1/8 hot dogs.  Takeru Kobayashi came in that day and broke that world record, not by one, or two, or even five…. he ate a whopping total of 50 hot dogs!!!  Yes, he practically doubled the world record that day.  If you’ve never seen Kobayashi, you may have an image in your mind as to what he looks like, but I assure you that you are wrong – he has a slight build and weighs about 130lbs.  So how did he fit 50 hot dogs into his stomach?

He simply approached the problem differently.  Instead of looking at and dwelling upon the current record or even looking at how many hot dogs he’d need to eat to simply win the contest, he approached the problem by asking himself how many hot dogs are possible and developed a strategy on how to eat a single hot dog faster.  Kobayashi says, “Human beings tend to make a limit in their mind of what their potential is.”  This limit, he goes on to say, is an artificial barrier that we put upon ourselves by either something we’ve heard or other social norms.  But if we throw away those thoughts and simply redefine the problem, then our own human potential is typically far greater than what we think.

Often times in casual conversation with folks, it comes up that I’m a triathlete and triathlon coach.  Quite often I hear “Oh, I could never do one of those?”  When I reply that “Anyone can do a triathlon,” the excuses start to come out…”My knees hurt” or “I can’t swim” or “I don’t have the time to train” or “I’m too old”.  The question is:  Are these artificial barriers?  Where did these thoughts come from?  Are these the social norms within your circles of friends?

I even hear barriers given by triathletes who look to go faster, or win their age group, or do an Ironman, etc.  “I’ve done a sprint but I could never do an Ironman.”  “I could never win my age group.”  And to be honest, I’ve heard myself say some of these things.

Kobayashi developed a new strategy where he would dunk the hot dog in the glass of water which made it easier to down.  Other competitor would drink water as they consumed the hot dogs to help force the food down, but Kobayashi found that the process took up limited stomach space and wasted valuable time.  The “dunking” method used less water, was faster and achieved the same results.  He demolished the barrier by analyzing what was possible.

When sitting down with athletes to help create goals, I force them to dream beyond those barriers because it is the mind that is the greatest limiter.  As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

So what are your barriers?

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