Staying at the top: Why it’s harder than getting there

As a sixteen year old I had an unbroken streak of six national titles in the sport of trampolining. Each year I went into the national championships with not only my own expectation to win, but with everyone else expecting me to win as well.

My competitors would come up to me and say things like ‘could you please make a mistake so we have a chance to come something other than second place for a change?’

‘Ummm… no.’ Obviously. No self-respecting athlete would ever sacrifice years of training and a shot at another gold medal just because you asked nicely.

What I did notice however was that each year it became harder and harder to defend my title (I ended up winning 12 years worth of national titles before switching sports). But each year the margin of victory became smaller. The pressure of expectation grew. My competitors copied what previously only I had been able to do.

There is this myth that once you make it your job is done. The reality is it’s harder to stay at the top than it is to reach the top. Here’s why.


1) When you are the best, you have to pioneer further progress

On the way up it’s easy to know how to improve – simply copy someone who is better than you. Copy their technique. Copy their training regime. Copy their attitude and their mindset. Work with their coach. Prepare for competition the same way.

Why would you try and do something different when someone else has already figured out the correct path forward? It’s much faster to walk the road more travelled when you are trying to get to the same destination.

Conversely, when you are leading, there is no one ahead of you to follow. You are the one cutting a new trail through the jungle and it is hard and slow work. You’ll likely get tired, be discouraged, and walk in the wrong direction many times over. While your progress occurs at a rate of inches, the people following you can simply run down the trail you’ve blazed.

This is the first reason it’s difficult to stay at the top. Your rate of progress slows dramatically because you have to experiment with how to improve.


2) It’s easier to play well when you have nothing to lose, versus everything to lose

When you are the best in the world every loss is a game you should have won. When you are up-and-coming, every win is unexpected. The difference is one of mindset.

If you are an athlete you would know that you play your best, and find yourself in flow, when you are stretching yourself against a competitor who requires every ounce of your ability (and maybe more) to beat.

The opposite occurs too. How much more difficult is it to perform to your absolute maximum potential when you face a team that you know you ‘should’ beat most of the time? ‘I should win’ is not the thought process that brings out our best, but when you are the best then you ‘should’ win every game.

If you are already at the top then anything but victory is a disappointment. But you must battle every day against the performance limiting mindset of ‘should’ in order to maintain your position.


3) Everyone is focusing their attention on finding a way to beat you

More than a decade ago Roger Federer was so completely dominant in the sport of tennis that commentators spent more time talking about his flawless technique and grace under pressure than they did speculating if he would win – winning was pretty much a foregone conclusion!

Eventually, Rafael Nadal came along with a physical and tenacious style of tennis that allowed him to beat Federer – on occasion at least. It was probably the only style of tennis that matched up well against Federer’s fluid style. What followed was fascinating. An entire generation of tennis players developed a tennis game similar to Nadal’s. A game designed to beat Federer. Federer was so good for so long (and still is!) that every player crafted their tennis style in order to have a chance at beating him.

Few people built their tennis game to beat Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, or other top players of the era. When you are so much better than everybody around you, everybody will be focused exclusively on beating you. They will spend hours studying you and looking for weaknesses. Then they will spend hours practising tactics to exploit your weaknesses.

Being the best in the world means you attract the most attention. You are the one person everyone else wants to beat. It’s hard to stay at the top of the pyramid when everyone is focused on knocking you off.


4) Diminishing returns means your margin of victory gets smaller

Diminishing returns is the idea that the better you get at something, the harder it is to improve. The 80/20 rule is a derivative of this – 80% of your ability comes from 20% of your effort, and the final 20% of your ability requires 80% of your effort.

Think of a gymnast. In her first lesson as a child she probably learnt 10 new skills. By her fifth year of training she might only learn 10 skills a year. By her fifteenth year of training it might take her an entire year just to learn 1 new skill. It’s not that she isn’t working as hard, it’s that diminishing returns mean it takes far longer to achieve a far smaller increment of improvement.

To top athletes, diminishing returns means that your competitors (who are worse than you) are actually catching up to you faster than you are pulling ahead of them. Basically, your margin of victory becomes smaller the better you get. The smaller your margin of victory, the more likely you’ll get beaten when you have a slightly off day, or your competitors have an outstanding day.


5) Being the best can lead to complacency

If you are the top of your field then you likely got there through a combination of work ethic and a fierce mental drive to reach your goal. Once you are there however, what happens to those qualities?

If you goal was to become the best, you’ve already achieved it. Without new goals that are even more compelling there is a risk that the qualities that allowed you to reach your position fade – and without them there is no way you will maintain your position for long.

The antidote to this is to set even more difficult stretch goals. Whether they are career goals such as holding records for number of events won, or personal goals such as PB scores or tricks no one has ever landed before. You’re goal can no longer just be to win, now it’s time to think about impact and legacy.


Wrap up

Most people spend their whole lives without making it to the top of their field. To the top of the Olympic podium. Even to the top of their country, state, company, or community.

There is plenty written about how to get to the top – this piece is for those who make it to the top. It’s a warning that your work is not done. In fact, the hard part starts now. You can not give way to doubt as you pioneer new levels of achievement. You can not allow thoughts of ‘should’ to affect your performance. You can not allow complacency in the habits and mindset that got you to where you are now. You must outwork diminishing returns to stay ahead. You must let your competitors draw a target on your back and continue to beat them no matter what they throw at you.

It’s a myth that once you win once your job is done. It’s a myth perpetuated by people who have never been the best at what they do. They don’t understand that getting there is just the beginning, but you do.

It’s insanely difficult to make it to the top. To become the absolute best. And it’s ten times more difficult to stay there. So… what are you aiming for?

To get there, or to stay there?

September 29, 2018