A Philosopher's Blog

Knowing I am Not the Best (Extended Remix)

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2012

Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man. Fortunately, his efforts were ultimately successful although the path was, I am sure, not quite what he expected. Mainly because the path was mostly track, road and trail rather than field, court and gridiron.

As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp to develop my skills in this reputable game. I was a terrible player with no real skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.

During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Immediately all the other boys rushed to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. While I might not have been the worst player present, I was clearly not the best. I was not even within free throw distance of the best. For some reason, the coach made all the boys do pushups. He also made me do pushups, albeit double the number done by the other boys.

I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed, even to the young me, wrong. I recall quite well getting considerable abuse for my actions, which made me think even more about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone at the time, but I have thought about it over the years.

In recent years, I have run into something similar. I am always asked before I go to race if I will win. I always give an honest answer, which is usually “no.” This always results in an expression of dismay. While I have won races, I am now 46 years old and folks with far fewer years and miles show up to take their rightful place ahead of me, earning this because they are better than I am. My pride and arrogance, of course, compel me to say that when I was the age of many of my competitors, I was faster than they are now. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Barring a TARDIS picking up my twenty-something self to go to the races of now (to save the galaxy, of course—racing is very important) I am forced to content myself with a folly of age: looking back on how good I was and comparing the younger me with my current competition.

One the one hand, I do get the point of self-deception in regards to one’s abilities. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him in the direction of being the best. I do, in fact, know people who are like this and they often push very hard in competition because they believe they are better than they actually are and are thus driven to contend against people who are, in fact, better than them. On the downside, when such people are defeated by those who are better, they sometimes grow angry and concoct excuses for their defeat to maintain the illusion of their superiority.

On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There are, in fact, two well-known cognitive biases that involve a person thinking he is better than he is.

One is known as the “overconfidence effect.” This bias causes a person to believe that she has done better than she has in fact done. As a professor, I commonly see this bias when students get their grades. For example, I have lost track of the times a student has said “my paper felt like an A” when it was a D (or worse) or has said “I think I did great on the test” when it turns out that they did not do so great.

A closely related bias is the “better-than-average Illusion.” A person falls victim to this when she overestimates her abilities relative to others, usually those she is engaged in competition with. Since people often think very highly of themselves, people commonly fall into this trap.

While confidence can be a good thing (and thinking that one is going to do poorly is a way of contributing to making that a reality), this bias obviously has negative consequences. One rather serious problem is that it can lead people to actually do worse. After all, a person who overestimates her performance or abilities might not try as hard as she should—after all, she will think she is already doing much better than she is, thus overestimating her performance and coming to a false conclusion about, for example, her grade. This is most likely to occur when the person does not have immediate feedback, such as on a test or paper.

It can also have the impact of causing a person to “burn out” by trying to hard it based on a false assessment of his abilities. For example, a common sight at road races is inexperienced runners sprinting out ahead of the experienced (and better runners) only to quickly discover that they are not as a capable as they had believed. It can even happen to people who should know better. For example, some years ago I went to the USA 15K championship race as part of a team. Our supposed best runner was bragging about running with the Kenyans. Unfortunately, he got passed by some female runners (as did I—the race attracts top talent) and this apparently broke him to the point where he gave up. I knew my capabilities and was honest about them, so when the fast ladies surged past me I just stuck to my plan. I knew what I could do and what I could not do—and I knew I had a lot of race left and no reason to burn myself out due to a false belief in my abilities. Fortunately, the rest of the team delivered solid races and we took an honorable third place. My experience has been that I do better when I have an accurate assessment of my abilities relative to my competition, most especially in running. Naturally, I do my best—but to do this, I must have a reasonable gauge of what this is to avoid being overconfident and to resist being defeated by my own foolish and unfounded pride.

It might be objected that my rational assessment of my abilities robs me of the critical passion that one must have to be a true competitor. This is, however, not the case. As my friends will attest, while I am gracious in defeat I also hate to lose. In fact, honesty compels me to say that I hate losing slightly more than I love winning. And I really love to win. As such, when I get to the starting line, start presenting a philosophical paper to people looking to score philosophical pissing points, or join a competitive video game I am there to win and to make others lose. But, victory often rests on knowing what I and my competitors can and cannot do. I gain no advantage by deluding myself into thinking I am better than I am or they are worse than they are. True, I am not free of self-deception. But I do not willfully add to it.

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15 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on November 28, 2012 at 8:44 am

    The brain does seem to play an important role in sports performance. The 4:00 mile seemed impossible until someone finally broke it. Then, suddenly, lots of people were able to break it.

    • biomass2 said, on November 28, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Good point.
      Add the following:
      a/Ever-improving training methods and understandings that include
      1/new knowledge of human physiology
      2/dietary developments —both legal and illegal
      b//new sportswear materials (swimming, for example) //running shoes

  2. WTP said, on November 28, 2012 at 9:19 am

    On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally..

    There were what, 20-30 other boys in this camp? If the coach inspired most of them to do great things, then he did his job. It’s not all about you. You do a disservice to those other boys by believing that they couldn’t see what you saw. They knew they couldn’t all be the best, but they surely had a kind of “smart” that you didn’t/don’t possess. Lighten up. It’s what, 20-30 years on, you seem to have dwelled on it quite some time, and you still don’t get it.

    I had a coach, and I’m sure he wasn’t alone in this, who constantly asked us to give 110%. When a big meet was coming up, he would bump that to 125%. We all knew it wasn’t possible. Even the ones who were bad at math were most vocal at pointing this out. But we all knew what he meant. We had a process, and again sure we weren’t alone in this, called “psyching up”. We would each sit alone before each race and play the race through our heads envisioning executing the start flawlessly, executing each turn flawlessly, executing our pace flawlessly, swimming our own race without being influenced by our competitors, and in the end, winning. Did I believe I would win every race? Of course not. Before I joined that team my freshman year, if you asked me if I would set any school records, the realist in me would have said “no”. But I am quite certain that without that idealistic thinking I definitely would not have done so. It’s like believing in Santa Claus. It’s inspirational. Of course the sourpusses are “right” and yet they are at the same time wrong. In the many interviews of people who have achieved greatness in athletics, business, science, etc. that I have seen/read, I can’t think of one person who said “I attribute my success to being realistic about my abilities”.

    On the other hand, such self-deception can be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly believes in his own objectivity and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There, FIFY.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on November 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm


    A fast-emerging body of scientific evidence points to a conclusion that’s unsettling, to say the least, for a lot of older athletes: Running can take a toll on the heart that essentially eliminates the benefits of exercise.

    “Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one’s progress toward the finish line of life,” concludes an editorial to be published next month in the British journal Heart.

    Until recently, the cardiac risk of exercise was measured almost exclusively by the incidence of deaths during races. For marathoners, that rate was one in 100,000—a number that didn’t exactly strike fear. Moreover, data showed that runners generally enjoyed enormous longevity benefits over nonrunners.

    What the new research suggests is that the benefits of running may come to a hard stop later in life. In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners, according to the Heart editorial. But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.

    Meanwhile, according to the Heart editorial, another large study found no mortality benefit for those who ran faster than 8 miles per hour, while those who ran slower reaped significant mortality benefits.


    • T. J. Babson said, on November 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm

      Shouldn’t runners have to pay more for health insurance, then, for indulging in risky activity?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm

        Because, at worst, we would die at the “normal” mortality rate? In other words, if the claim is true, then such runners would have no advantage over non-runners.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 28, 2012 at 6:36 pm

      From the same source:

      Not everyone is lining up behind the new data. “The guys advancing the hypothesis that you can get too much exercise are manipulating the data,” said Paul Thompson, an elite marathoner and nationally renowned sports cardiologist at Hartford Hospital. “They have an agenda.”

      Sports cardiologist James O’Keefe, an author of the Heart paper, counters that Dr. Thompson—a marathoner himself—is an exercise addict. “He, like many chronic exercise addicts, is the one with an agenda,” said Dr. O’Keefe, a sports cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City. “My ‘agenda’ is my patients.”

      Critics of the newer research say that the idea that running can harm the heart is based on research showing only an association—meaning that exercise may not be the cause of the problem. The note that in any large group of runners, high-mileage and high-speed athletes may be too few in number to be statistically significant.

      Looks like the matter is not settled.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 28, 2012 at 7:00 pm

        Opinion is nearly unanimous among cardiologists that endurance athletics significantly increases the risk of atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia that is estimated to be the cause of one third of all strokes. “Chronic extreme exercise appears to cause excessive ‘wear-and-tear’ on the heart,” the editorial says.

        Nearly unanimous. Not much wiggle room there.

        • WTP said, on November 28, 2012 at 7:05 pm

          Nearly unanimous opinions have sway only in the context of globalistic warmering. In matters that matter to mikeomasses, they don’t matter.

          • biomass2 said, on November 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm

            I’ll risk taking sides here by pointing out that Mike’s reply, if it is ,as he writes , taken from the same source, at least presents ^both^ sides of the issue (both sides presented in the ^same^ source that TJ has chosen to accept one side from In other words, apparently both sides were presented in the article, but TJ chose to present one side.
            That said,I’m in favor of allowing the athlete to decide what amount of evidence is adequate . If the “nearly unanimous” evidence/opinion is correct, and the athlete dies, he loses. If it’s wrong, he doesn’t lose. Fairly simple.

            On the other hand, if we make an incorrect decision about the “nearly unanimous” evidence of global warming, based on , let’s say, the Limbaugh theory that global warming is a liberal conspiracy to stop human progress, or based on some other less-than-unanimous evidence, then mankind—not one or more athletes—- stands to lose much, much more.
            Here, he ultimate effects of an incorrect decision, one way or the other,denying nearly unanimous opinion/evidence must be considered. Some—say the energy industry, or the Limbaugh ideologues—stand to gain ^^huge^^ short term advantages. The possible negative results of denying the prevailing scientific thought are overwhelming.

            There’s no true equivalency between the results of an individual athlete basing his private decision on prevailing thought and the results of denying and ignoring prevailing thought and the possibly planet-wide consequences of global warming.

        • magus71 said, on November 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm

          Yes. There are several studies that show endurance athletics is not all that healthy. Inflammation markers skyrocket in marathoners. These are associated with cancer and heart disease. Weight training and interval training are the way to go.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm

            Do you mean marathon and greater distances or just distance running in general?

            I can attest to the fact that marathons and ultra-marathons inflict quite a beating and I would not be shocked if heavy distance training and heavy distance racing had an adverse impact on a person-mainly in the form of over training issues. I used to be able to easily do 95-100 mile weeks and race 2:45 marathons, sub 16:30 5ks and 33 minute 10Ks with no problems. However, I did manage to almost burn out from over training when I hit 40-my blood pressure and heart rate were up enough to worry my doctor. I turned that around by training smarter (that is, recognizing that I was not 20 anymore) and everything is exceptionally good now.

            Distance running is also a way to go. You’re just jealous because your knees are held together by staples and rage. 🙂

            • magus71 said, on November 29, 2012 at 8:48 pm

              Yeah, mostly marathoners have the problems.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm

          True-if the experts have considerable consensus, then it is rational to accept such a claim. However, the experts cited in your source are clearly split in regards to the claim you originally put forth. When the experts are split, the rational option is to suspect judgment until a consensus is properly established.

          As far as the study, the critics mentioned in the article point out a very reasonable concern: is the sample of high-speed, high mileage runners large enough (and diverse enough) to be a representative sample? If not, the alleged disparity between health benefits could be due to other factors not connected to their running activity.

          As a high mileage, high speed (well, less so these days) runner I am concerned about these findings. After all, I have no desire to run myself to death. However, I’ll need more than one survey conducted by one expert to accept the claim given the concerns raised by other experts.

          I do know that over-training can be detrimental-I found that out myself. However,the evidence that hard running leads to the impact in question is not yet established adequately. It is a plausible claim, but unproven as of yet.

          Also, the claim seems to be that the hard core running results in a runner losing the life expectancy gain allegedly acquired by the more moderate runners. As such, at worst I would be trading some possible extra time at the end of my days for something that is otherwise extremely beneficial and that I greatly enjoy. I would certainly make that trade.

          As far as paying more for insurance, that would be odd. After all, the study purports to show that hard core runners don’t get the gain, not that they die younger than average. As such, why should I have to pay more than average if I would have an average life expectancy (at worst)? In any case, hard core runners are healthier, on average, than those who do not exercise. In my own case, my physicals are excellent.

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