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The Bannister Misconception

Not bad for a medical student and part-time runner

One of the more common ideas in motivation is what some people call the Bannister effect. For decades, once people began keeping records, it was thought to be impossible to run a mile in under four minutes, until Roger Bannister did it at on a windy spring day at Oxford on May 6, 1954. Two months later, he raced his great rival John Landy of Australia and won that race, with both men going under four minutes, and within three years 16 runners had gone under the barrier.

The moral of the story, of course, is that so often our limitations exist only in our minds, and when someone erases the mental limits, performance takes off. It’s also a testament to the power of belief, because Bannister’s belief is seen as the magic key that unlocked the sacred door.

It’s a great story and a powerful moral, except that, as in much of real life, reality is a bit more complicated.

The reason that so many runners began breaking the four minute barrier after Bannister did had less to do with his erasing a barrier, than with the fact that the time had come. If Bannister had not broken the record when he did, someone else probably would have during that summer’s racing season. One detail that most stories leave out is that, in the interval between Bannister’s record-setting race and his duel against Landy, the latter actually ran a 3:58 flat in Helsinki. In other words, just 46 days later, he took almost a second and a half off of Bannister’s record.

Landy had been coming on strong in his training and his racing, and was determined to be the first to break the record. Bannister himself said, “He was the greatest miler in the world, both in the consistency of his performances and in the times he had set up.”

And he was not alone. Wes Santee in the US was also very much in the race, but his military service obligations cut short his training that year. In fact, the reason that Bannister made the record attempt when he did was that he feared that one of his rivals would beat him to it.

It’s also not true that all experts believed it could not be broken. That’s what the sportswriters said, but some great running minds disagreed. Although Bannister did not have a formal coach, he respected the opinions of Franz Stampfl. On the train up to Oxford that day they discussed the near gale-force wind conditions and the difficulty of running a good time under those conditions. They both agreed that the wind could add a second per lap, so Bannister would have to run the equivalent of a 3:56 or 3:57 to break the record that day. In other words, on a day when no one had gone under four minutes,two of the people who knew the most about the mile were seriously discussing running a 3:56, and both thought it was possible to do so. If he did not believe it was possible, Bannister would not have even made the attempt on that day. As he says in his book, it is rare and excruciatingly difficult for an athlete to make such an effort, so he would not even try if he thought it could not be done that day.

So, what’s my point?

Breaking the record did not affect the belief of others; their belief is what caused them to make the attempt and to break the record. All it did was prove it could be done, but the belief came before the proof.

The problem with the moral as most people tell it is that it implies that we need proof that something is possible before we can accomplish it. Yet, by definition, in all unprecedented achievements, the belief precedes the proof.

And I’m not just referring to world records. The same phenomenon applies to personal bests as well. The belief precedes the proof. The belief sustains you during the long arduous hours of work.

Believers provide the proof, the rest of the world follows. If you want to be a leader instead of a follower, don’t wait for someone to prove it can be done before trying.

The second point is that the belief has to be grounded in reality. I’m not talking about a Jonathan Livingston Seagull type of idea that belief is all you need. If you watch American Idol, you see plenty of people who believe they can win, when they are in fact delusional. I’m talking about belief that is earned. What did Bannister and the others do to earn their belief?

They learned through years of hard work, experimentation, and near misses what lap times they need to run, they instituted training processes based on science (Bannister was a full-time medical student at this time) and they knew what intervals they need to run in workouts to achieve those lap times. To say that the other runners were able to suddenly able to break four minutes because Bannister showed them how is a bit insulting, and trivializes the reality of their dedication, knowledge and determination.

I don’t say this to denigrate Sir Roger Bannister at all; he is truly one of the greatest sports figures of the last 100 years. He achieved one of the greatest feats of athletic history without a coach, and while attending medical school full time. Two months after breaking the barrier, he received his medical degree and got ready to retire from running, but he had one more task to complete before hanging up his spikes. He faced Landy in the Empire Games in Vancouver and beat him. Why? Because he believed he could do it. In his own words: “I screwed up my determination to win. Almost for the first time in my life I could say the day before the race that I was really looking forward to it.”

And then he proved it.

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