One of the most under-appreciated and unacknowledged aspects of you heroes is that, for the most part, they're normal people. The fact that, particularly among athletes, they have cooler jobs than you and are much more skilled at something than you can ever hope to be is certainly part of who they are, but, at their core, they're no different. I cover baseball more than I do track, and a running joke in that community is that baseball players, as a whole, are boring and particularly not funny. There's a bit of exaggeration there, but the larger point--that these athletes aren't better than us at everything--stands. When we see them compete--hit a baseball or win a race--we naturally elevate them in our minds to a higher plane of existence. It turns out that they're more like us than not, and that disconnect with expectations rings of disappointment.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell lays out the idea of the 10,000-hour rule, which, put simply, states that to become an expert or elite in any skill requires 10,000 of properly structured practice. You can't cram 10,000 hours into one big binge of practice, so the larger point is that it requires consistency over a long period of time to achieve mastery.
By all accounts, Ajee Wilson has become something of an expert at running 800m having recently finished 2nd at the World Indoor Championships in Portland this winter. And, to a large extent she attributes that to her consistency and the trust she has built with her coach, Derek Thompson. “A saying I go by is ‘consistency is key’ and my coach's wife says that to me all the time. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or what you’re trying to do, if you’re consistent and focused, you’re going to see some type of success.”
That belief in consistency guided perhaps the most important decision of her career--turning pro after high school instead of taking a scholarship to attend Florida State. She had set a goal for herself of competing in the 2013 World Championships and, unsurprisingly, identified consistency as the best method of achieving that goal. "Initially it started out as I wanted to defer a year to stay with my coach. I wanted consistency to have the best shot to go [to Worlds]. Stick with what I know, not introduce anything new." She ended up going to Moscow that year and finished 6th.
She's been training with Thompson out of Philadelphia while attending Temple University for about four years now and, over that time, Wilson has developed an uncanny amount of trust for her coach. "I’m always into what my coach is into. So whatever he thinks is the best approach, I’m in on 100%." This complete trust in the process makes the day-to-day grind of training professionally easier on Wilson. For example, when I asked her about her weight room routine, which she does twice-a-week, Wilson struggled to recall what exercises she does. That doesn't speak to her ignorance or lack of commitment, rather, it indicates how completely she buys into Thompson's program that she doesn't even have to think about what she's doing.
Few athletes have that sort of relationship with a coach, but that level of buy in can make an athlete's life surprisingly simple. Even in workouts, Wilson's trust in Thompson allows her to direct her focus more productively toward what truly matters--her effort. "I have a basic watch and I barely use that. My coach keeps the time. I’d rather focus on the effort. His line is 'I’m the quarterback, I got this.'”
She doesn't time her workouts, doesn't think about her race schedule, or even know what she does when she goes in the weight room twice each week. "A lot of people make fun of me because that [I do nothing. I just show up, do what he tells me, and go home] is how I basically explain it." Listening to her talk about her training, it sounds boring and mundane. It sounds like the easiest job in the world.
But that apparent easiness is the key for Wilson. She doesn't have to waste energy stressing about her training so she can direct that energy productively. Throughout the interview, she consistently mentioned her focus on getting better at the little things and controlling what is in her power to control. Because she doesn't have to worry about her training on a daily basis, she can concentrate her efforts entirely on these "softer" things.
With the Olympics approaching this summer and a potentially competitive field in the U.S. Trials in July, it would be natural for Wilson to be watching the results of her competition. Caster Semenya is currently tearing up the Diamond League, for instance, but it's unclear whether Wilson knows. “I haven’t thought much about how the field or the final will look in Rio. My coach always says to take one race at a time and the first thing on the radar is July 1st, the first round of the Olympic trials… I don’t really pay much attention to results. I kind of just stay in my lane and stay focused on what I can control.”
That attention to what is entirely under her own control extends to her race-day routine. Many runners obsess over their warmup or stretching routines or even freak out if they arrive at the venue five minutes later than expected. Ultimately, though, a lot of these routines are not under our control. The meet could be running ahead or behind schedule; there might not be a quiet place to stretch; there might be traffic on the way to the race that morning.
She can't control those things, so Wilson doesn't even consider them. "[My pre-race routine is] really the same thing. As I get in my spikes and my uniform I listen to Beyonce. Before the race I say a little prayer. But, I don’t have any specific routines. I don’t want to get into something that I need to happen so, just in case it doesn’t, I’m freaked out. So I have my basics I know I can control and go with the flow."
All this--focussing on only what she can control, trusting her coach completely--is in the service of one thing: consistency. While most 22 year olds are entering their first or a seemingly endless string of MA programs or beginning their first of five different careers before the age of 30, Wilson has found something that works and has been doing it for four years already. If 10,000 hours of consistent practice and repetition is really the key to mastery, as Gladwell suggests, Ajee Wilson's set herself up well to hit that mark early in her career.
Her journey to that threshold, as she tells it, isn't glamorous, and it doesn't even sound particularly difficult or complicated. That's not a knock on Wilson. In fact, it's likely the very reason she has had the success she's had. The road to improvement and development isn't often one with excessive external impediments. All we need to do, as Wilson says, is stay in our lane, focus on what we can control, and remain consistent. The only obstacle, then, is ourselves. In working with one coach, Derek Thompson, for four years, Wilson has done all she can to stay consistent and remove those external barriers. That's why, come August, as a 22 year old, Wilson will likely be in position to win an Olympic medal in 800 meters.