“The Bump” has become the defining moment of Evan Dunfee’s career, and the 26-year-old race walker from Richmond, B.C., is still coming to terms with its significance. Two months later, I’m curious to see what the rest of us can learn from his personal reflections.
A quick refresher: Dunfee moved into the bronze-medal position at the Rio Olympics when he passed Japan’s Hirooki Arai with mere minutes to go in the nearly four-hour race. When Arai made a move to retake third place, he bumped Dunfee, breaking the Canadian’s stride and concentration.
Dunfee was awarded bronze after an appeal, but a counter-appeal pushed him back off the podium. Instead of pursuing the matter further, however, Dunfee accepted fourth place and was roundly praised for his Olympic-calibre sportsmanship.
“My first instinct was the hockey instinct,” says Dunfee. “This is my position and you are not taking it away from me!”
Dunfee’s willingness to move past that initial feeling and take some personal responsibility for the bump is honest, inspiring and a prime illustration of his world-class mindset.
“This was the thought I had to consider when I was going for the appeal: It wasn’t that his bumping threw me off, it’s that I let it mentally screw me up.”
Shifting states of mind
When race walkers like Dunfee compete at the highest level of the sport, “concentration” is a complicated concept. The Bump, he explains, knocked him out of his body’s “intelligent flow state” and engaged his “exhausting, overthinking brain.” In short, for about 90 seconds, the contact from Arai interrupted Dunfee’s ability to push the limits of his body.
For Evan to be successful, he has to stay in the zone, which has two distinct states. To be hyper-focused and remain in the “ideal performance state” is costly and exhausting, as it requires a fully engaged prefrontal cortex. Your higher mind is hyper-focused on your goals, but it’s also a draining calorie hog. It’s analyzing what’s happening in the race, looking at your splits, judging your competitors’ speeds and reacting in a very intelligent, conscious, focused way.
For Evan to perform in a four-hour race he has to let go of the “ideal performance state” and enter into a state of non-thinking. I call this the “flow state,” where hard work just happens. Evan has to enter into a state of deep habit where the intelligence of his body takes over. To Evan, this state is joyful. You will often see him beaming during his long races.
To a certain extent, Evan has to enter into a state of mindfulness where the only thing that matters is breath and habitual motion. He has trained his body and given it so much intelligence that he must shut down his brain and engage the intelligence in his body.
State-shifting is an art as much as it is a science. And Dunfee is still mastering this approach. Switching dynamically between making it happen and letting it happen is very important for maximizing performance.
As Dunfee looks forward to Tokyo 2020, he will be working to take tiny personal wins like mastering this state-shift to the next level.
“When you are talking elite sport, marginal gains are so small,” says Dunfee. “You want to live up to your personal standard of excellence.”
4 more insights from a world-class mindset
See how far you’ve come: “When I was 10 or 11 years old, I would be the kid running off the playground throwing a tantrum, being a failure,” says Dunfee. His motivation is renewed by reflecting on how sport has positively impacted his character development.
Don’t like it? Change it: “Race walking is not a sport for glory,” says Dunfee. “It doesn’t get much respect.” Recognizing this, Dunfee has worked with his fellow race walkers to find athlete leadership roles where he can communicate the value and worth of his sport. When people realize the grueling effort this sport demands, respect is given.
Measuring makes it happen: Evan planned his Olympic race hydration to the millilitre with physiologist Trent Stellingwerff. “90 grams per hour of carbs [dissolved in liquid] is theoretically the maximum you can process,” says Dunfee. Every few kilometres, Stellingwerff would give Dunfee a water bottle, then weigh it to see how much he drank. Evan almost never drank enough in his race, and was grateful to have Trent urging him to drink more.
The secret to living is giving: Going into schools has helped Evan regain his motivation for Olympic training. Being a high-performance athlete can be lonely and often seems to lack a higher purpose. Evan now wants to teach childhood physical literacy and figure out how to get more kids more active. “These school visits have helped reinvigorate me,” he says. Now I can use my one definable moment to influence kids to get involved in sport, to think that sport is cool.”
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