Saturday, September 13, 2014

Why Most Amateur Athletes Don't Win


Have you ever showed up to a race determined to win and despite giving it your best effort, you still got your ass handed to you? You might be happy to know that you're not alone. In the last 20 years there has been an explosion in the popularity of participation sports especially by people over the age of 30. Right now, all across America, there are older athletes putting in serious time and effort in order to make an impact on their next event. All that training, planning and recon of the race locations can provide you with multiple advantages over your opponents. However, most of the time most normal people don't have any advantages at all. Most of the time, the deck is stacked against them and they don't even know it.

The painful reality is that we live in a culture that values winning above all else. It's a shame but there are many people who will only put effort into an event if they have a chance at victory. In this mindset even a slim chance is better than none at all. But truly how hard is it to win? Unlike the professional ranks where time, money and preparation create an atmosphere of parity where anyone, on almost any day could have a chance to take the W, it is becoming way harder for those in the amateur ranks.


Let's talk about what it means to be dis-advantaged in sports. If your opponent has talent that gives them one point of advantage. If they have more appropriate genetics that's another point. If they have the home field advantage, superior coaching, a more stable training environment, top of the line equipment, those points can add up quickly. In the pro ranks (of most any sport) there is a tight division of talent, money, support and ambition. In order words, if the Pro gap represents a 20 point difference between the top elite and the lowest journeyman, then amateur ranks can represent something like a 200 point gap. Sounds crazy right? Why the huge chasm? There are many reasons. 

Athletes come from all walks of life, from poor to rich, from desperate to determined, from talented to tortured. While most Pros have some level of talent, the amateur ranks might have only a selected few who exhibit the signs. While most Pros have some level of support, most amateurs have very little. While most pros have expert knowledge of their sport, only financially stable or well connected amateurs benefit from such guidance. These differences create the "Gaps" between those who win on a regular basis and those who never see the podium. Granted there are more reasons to race than just the possibility of winning but first let's talk about why there are gaps in different participation sports.

I have competed in all of the following sports and these examples are from my own experiences. Not everyone's experience is going to be the same so take these with a grain of salt.


Running Races: Running races have grown wildly popular over the past 20 years with a peak of 15.5 million people finishing races in the year 2012. The top amateur runners are often former track stars or former high school/college cross country stars. They ran at a younger age, took a decade off from competition to do other things (While running for fun the whole while) and then returned to the sport. Had they stuck with their sport during the off years, they could very well have turned pro. Since running races are broken up into overall categories and age groups instead of skill levels, what often happens is you get former track stars wiping the floor with people who just started running a few months ago.

The fitness levels and skill gaps in amateur running are huge as is the sheer number of people who show up to a race. The 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree 10K had 55,850 participants. Good luck winning your age group at that one. The good news is that everyone ages differently. Even a former running star can burn out or suffer injuries. Most often they get bored with the smaller races and start going for bigger prizes at longer or more well known events. Don't lose hope! The gap between newbie and star can be breached with 5 to 10 years of concentrated effort plus a little luck. If you love competitive running, stick with it and you'll get there.


Cross Country MTB: In the United States there are roughly 75,000 licensed cyclists but the vast majority of them (65%) are roadies. Mountain bike racing is the little brother that gets kicked around at parties. The sport of XC is broken up into age groups (10 year increments) and skill levels (Cat 3/2/1/Pro) but not enough so that it benefits anyone but the sandbaggers. For the uninitiated, a sandbagger is a person who has a much higher skill or fitness level than the class they are racing in. In XC there are only 3 amateur classes. Cat3 and Cat2, where most people compete, are chock full of sandbaggers. You can recognize them by their magical ability to race 15-25 miles on challenging off road terrain, win their class, take a nap, watch a movie and drink an IPA before anyone else even finds the finish line.

Where do XC sandbaggers come from? My guess is that they come from a special place in hell but they usually have a background as road cyclists, remember that 65%. Their endurance is the result of thousands of miles of riding road bikes for fun. Every once in a while they drop into an XC race and unfairly blow the doors off the competition. Will you ever catch them? No, sorry. You can only join them as a roadie to build up some powerful legs of your own and then return to the racing trails where you will now be considered a sandbagger as well. This is a no win scenario. If ever there was a sport with seriously flawed categories, this is it.


Downhill MTB: If you have no fear of death, decent bike handling skills and thousands of dollars to spend, then feel free to give downhill a try. DH is broken up into the same age groups and skill levels as XC except there are very few sandbaggers. In fact, the culture of DH encourages the opposite. In a sport where you race down a mountain on uber-challenging trails that can kill you, the riders have a closer bond to each other and have more respect for the sport itself.

DH is primarily a young person's sport with advantages going to those who spend the most time riding difficult trails and to those who can afford the best bikes. The difference between a low cost DH frankenstein that you assembled yourself and a brand new, high end, carbon frame with hydraulic brakes and 10 inches of supple suspension is like racing a Ford Escort against a Lamborghini Aventador. Having said that, there are very few people over 30 years old in this sport. If you have the money and the desire, just survive the mountain and you are likely to pick up a prize.


BMX Racing: With more than 50,000 members and 340 tracks across the country, BMX racing is long past its peak but it is still active. This niche sport has the benefit of separating riders into skill levels (Novice/Intermediate/Expert), age groups (5 year increments) and bike types (20 inch/Cruiser). While fitness, equipment and support can play a difference in one's level of success, the real deciding factor is bike handling skills. For this reason the best adult BMXers are often former racers who were experts as kids. The ability to maneuver a bike off the gate and over obstacles is apparently a set of skills that (like bike riding itself) never truly fades from muscle memory.

The gaps in this sport are smaller but the injuries are much more serious. Amateurs who pick up the sport for the first time as adults are often fodder for those who have returned after a decade hiatus. Adults who crash during a race can easily suffer broken bones, punctured lungs and concussions. This is a sport made up mostly of indestructible children so the adults (Often parents of racing kids) are usually there for the fun of participating. Should they choose to get good enough for the win, it's merely a matter of being able to dedicate enough time to learning and practicing the correct skills taught by a qualified expert. Of all the sports I've tried, BMX Racing has the widest array of opportunities for amateur success.


Like I said before, in many cases the deck is stacked against the older amateur athlete but do not despair because there are other ways to win. I'm not talking about cheating or steroids. I'm talking about other types of victories.

The Series Title: Instead of charging for the win in a single race, you can often go for an age group series win. These often reward attendance and consistency more than all out speed. Make sure you know the series rules and use them to your best advantage.

The Grudge Match: Got a friend or opponent whose abilities are near equal to yours? Ignore everyone else and just compete with that person. It can be very rewarding and you could compete beers at the restaurant afterwards.

The Personal Record: Forget chasing other people and just compete with yourself. This is especially helpful in the sport of running where set distances can have comparative times with other races. Beat your best time and you won't care what place you came in.

Be a Finisher: As challenges get longer and more arduous, sometimes just making it to the finish line is a victory in itself. This is especially true with marathons, mud runs or gravel grinders. Pick a challenge that is worthy of the effort and you'll be raising your arms when you hit that line, no matter how long it took to get there.


Before you jump on your soap box and slap me down for disparaging a sport that you love, remember this, I love all of these sports. I wrote these examples from my own personal experiences but I did so with one overarching point - even though there are gaps in advantages, winning is not all that matters! Returning to athletics gives you a fun, physical, goal oriented outlet for your energy. It's about making new friends, exploring new places and expanding your worldview. One of the biggest benefits of being an amateur is that your future income is not tied to your ability to win a race. Unlike the Pros, you get to enjoy every competition and every outcome. It's all determined by your efforts, expectations and luck.

Could steps be taken to create better rules and categories? Of course but that will always be true. No sport is perfect, no situation is perfect, improvement can always be made (Especially in XC). So to answer the question: Is it harder to be a successful amateur? Perhaps but what fun would it be if there was no challenge? The simple truth is that the rewards of taking part outweigh the rewards of crossing the line first. Most amateur athletes don't win because they don't need to.

See you at the races. Alex H




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