Triathlons & Politics, Part 1

Triathlons & Politics

Part One: Clear Directives, Good Craft, and Team Values

On the afternoon of March 31, I found myself sitting at a table in Arlington’s Northside Social with my friends Calah Schlabach and Zane Castro. Of course, I had planned the meetup; we talked for almost three hours about the sport of triathlon, its parallels to politics, and what it looks like to bring restoration to the world around us.

Calah is a professional triathlete and competes as one of the first 32 athletes in the newly launched Major League Triathlon in the U.S. She’s also Zane’s assistant coach at Marymount University.  Zane coaches Calah in her professional pursuits and he is the coach of Marymount’s NCAA triathlon program, the first collegiate program in the country.

I recorded two hours of our conversation, and when I transcribed it I had no less than twenty-six single-spaced pages of material. So for three weeks of our series on Energy, you’ll get to “listen in” on that conversation as we publish a simplified version of it here along with twenty-seven key insights for work in American politics.

I began the recording right as we started talking about the mental aspects of sport:

Calah: The biggest thing there that’s related to politics is that it’s about being decisive ahead of time. You can’t, in the middle of the race, try to push yourself. You do, of course, but that drive comes from having decided before the race what you’re going to do and when you’re going to push yourself. I had a race just a couple weeks ago in Florida, where I had pretty good swim and bike segments, and then was not having a great run because I wasn’t really there mentally for most of it. But one thing I had written in my plan ahead of time is that after the last turnaround, I was going to pick it up and go after it. In this race, I was in a bad mental state; but at that turn around it just—

Zane: It just happened.

Calah: It just happened, because I had decided to. I didn’t even feel like I had made myself run faster. I just started trying to pull in the people ahead of me in my mind, and I’m sure I did run faster or they slowed down—I ran comparatively faster. Running up to that point, I was like, “oh, shoot, I’m going to have to start working here,” because I had already decided in advance that’s what I was going to do. And I think that’s the biggest thing for me about the mental game. A lot of it really comes down to preparing before the moment.

Zane: It’s a preparatory process.  

Calah: And deciding you’re going to do something and believing you will.  

Zane: It’s great to hear that, because my perception watching the race was that she was acting out the race plan—irrespective of what was going on in her mind.  But she was standing in her way, mentally; she was facing herself, not anybody else. Yeah, she was in the midst of competition, but the reason it was difficult was because she was standing right in front of herself.

Calah: It still felt bad!  But I went through the actions I decided I was going to do. Even though, in that moment, I really didn’t want to do them.

Key Insight #1: Face your demons.

Zane: You have to plan for that decisiveness. We practice and come up with the cues needed to produce the results that we want. That starts tactically. If you look at the mental components from elite sport, what we’re actually talking about is having salient directives*. And if you don’t have salient directives, what are the chances you’re going to hit the target?  

Caleb: Zero.

*What is a salient directive? If we’re using definitions from Merriam Webster, a salient directive is simply this: Very important or noticeable official order or instruction; something that serves to direct, guide, and usually impel toward an action or goal.

Key Insight #2: You must have salient directives.

Calah: And politics is so much about compromise, from what I hear—I think it’s still important to have certain directives to keep you on track, even if you have to make some compromises. Even in a race if things go wrong or I’m not starting in a position I wanted to be in, I still follow my directives, I’m still going to have a better result, even if I have to compromise.

Caleb: You still know where you’re headed. That’s one of things that I thought about a lot when I was on the Hill. If you have a vision for where you want to go, then compromise might not be easy, but it becomes obvious where you can compromise, or how you’re going to go about compromising, because you’ve already stated where you’re trying to go.

Key Insight #3: Let your directives show you how and when to compromise.

Zane: And in sport, you see good athletes, good people, and bad people, and you see a scope, a line, a continuum of what it is to be confident. And forgive me, Lance, but we have this continuum and what you see with a Lance Armstrong is where desire and confidence turn into obsession. And it’s an extreme, whether you call it the left or the right, and it causes error. It’s an excessive directive.

Key Insight #4: Obsession causes error.

Caleb: You mentioned that what you believe about yourself or the race really affects what you do, even if you don’t realize it. The core philosophy of Liberatus is that as a nation we’ve forgotten what freedom means, and therefore everything is dysfunctional. And so that’s the very much the same idea. We need to figure out what our common purpose is—what we believe and what we value, as a country, and until we figure that out, everything is going to be dysfunctional because we haven’t recognized we actually value the dysfunction, as it is right now. We value fighting against people on the other side, so we need a deeper understanding of freedom to change that.

Calah: In sport, that belief in directing yourself and what you’re going to do in advance keeps you centered, because a lot of little things can go wrong or right, but if you get too fixated on one concept, it can actually take you away from what you’re doing. In politics, at least in my view, sometimes everyone fixates on such small issues that become big.  Small issues become huge and people forget what the general idea was to begin with. What is the main focus? What do we all want as a country, regardless of our individual beliefs?

Key Insight #5: Lead yourself.

Key Insight #6: Unite around a vision that’s bigger than the specific details of implementing it.

Zane: The psychology of the game, of any sport at a high level, is pretty basic: it’s a desire, it’s a goal, and it’s the attributes it takes to get there. It’s math, plain and simple. I could pull out paperwork that shows what it takes to be one of the top ten men or women in the country right now. You either have the makeup or you don’t. But behind it, how do you get somebody that has the ability to compete, but only a little bit of desire to do so, and spends twenty-five percent of the time fighting themselves? What are the chances that they’re going to have a very storied competitive process?

Caleb: The psychology of sport as you laid it out here is very relatable to politics. I think part of the reason Capitol Hill often lacks clear directives and the focus to achieve them is that absolutely anything will pass as good craft, which is unfortunate. If you’re racing, I think, for the most part, what passes as good craft is winning the race or being one of the top ten athletes—there is math behind it. In politics, you could come up with anything that you wanted, and say “this is good communication; this is the way we should govern.” Bad ideas pass as good ideas, any character traits pass as good character and so that’s why you see so many extremes.

Calah: There’s no real standard, because it’s all how you spin it.

Caleb: Exactly. One of the biggest problems is that we don’t have a clear understanding of what it even means to govern well and to govern wisely and we don’t have a sense of what our end product is, and so because of that we’re not creating it. We don’t have a unifying vision for the country, so there’s no capacity to live or work for the good of it and we get distracted by the smaller issues that arise.

Key Insight #7: Know what good craftsmanship is.

Caleb: We’ve talked about having directives and letting them direct you. How does that play out for both the individual and the team, and when that’s clear for the team, does that help the individuals? How do you bring the directives together for both individual and the team, in a way that brings both to the level that they need to compete at?

Zane: From a coaching standpoint, finding that overarching vision, or team orientation, is something we are constantly working towards. I think people in our culture want community, or the benefits of the team, but are scared to put in the effort to live in community or be a team.

Calah: If people don’t care about their team or their team goals, it doesn’t hold them accountable to doing it. So you can just slack off in the race if there’s no impetus for you to be ten places higher up.

Zane: From a program standpoint how do we get people to really want that when their goals aren’t maybe as high as the people that were in the top five? In an environment where there’s so much freedom, the answer to your question is, how do you get people to focus on the greater cause? In the most successful collegiate teams in the United States, in universities across the country in different sports, there’s a greater commitment to something bigger than the individual desires: the team. I believe it’s about bringing the athletes to share a piece of themselves in the equation of the team.

Calah: We’ve found in our sport, that there are standards that are pretty clear, but accountability can be a problem. You can’t have a team standard without being able to hold people accountable to it.  I think that people shy away from accountability in general as people, but usually, if they can find someone they value and respect, they don’t find being held accountable a bad thing, but there does have to be a desire for that and someone respected enough in your life to make you want to be held accountable.

Key Insight #8: Merge your team goals and your individual goals.

Key Insight #9: People can only be held accountable by someone they trust.

Zane: The reality of a team is that you might be giving something up for three-quarters of the year. You take that kid who wants to drink and is social—but dehydration is a factor in our sport.  So, what are the chances that this kid can’t bring their best? I don’t know that in my lifetime I’ve seen government capable of nailing things down to principles that narrow and that’s the difference in sport. In sport, we can say “you know what, Calah, you absolutely need the time to have some social opportunities so we’re going to give you two half days of rest and a rest day. And how you’re going to have to compromise is that at key times, you might need to do more.”

Calah: With this team example, the problem becomes when that person just fixates on what they’re giving up instead of what they might be gaining.  For example, learning the discipline of not drinking for a month can help you later in life. It helps to see what you can achieve from that but also instead of thinking of what we’re giving up all the time, what can you add? If you’re a social person who always wants to be retreating from the team to do social things, what can you give to the team, give to these people who are maybe overly fixated and driven, and could benefit from maybe a little more free-spiritedness? I think the problem comes from thinking of what we might be giving up instead of what we can give and what someone else might be able to give to us. It sounds a lot like American culture, broadly speaking.

Key Insight #10: When you sacrifice, focus on what you are gaining.

Key Insight #11: Bring your unique gifts to your team; work to draw them out of your teammates, colleagues—even opposition.

Zane: Another way we work to create a team environment is by listing out a series of team values on the wall. They’re defined very specifically to our program, and we teach them to our athletes at the beginning of every season. But in my experience in over fifteen years of coaching, it’s not the punishments, or confinements that create a team environment, even if we’re talking about rules being broken; it’s the actual actions that matter. It’s the people sitting down and saying, “I’m going to make this value relevant.” In performance it’s simple. If Calah doesn’t see the importance of verbalizing and writing a topic out for her race plan, she’ll never get better at moving it from her mind to her performance in a race. But as she masters verbalizing her plan and writing it out, those commands and actions are going to become so much more automatic, moving her towards the next level of performance, and we could argue that that has some spiritual connotation, that bringing things into voice matters—I think this is applicable to all areas of life. It’s about actions; knowledge is nothing without application, plain and simple.

Key Insight #12: Know and live your core values.


Zane Castro is a full-time head coach for a college cross country team and the first-in-the-nation college triathlon program. Growing up, he played a variety of sports, including baseball, tennis, and martial arts. Eventually, he found himself competing as a triathlete alongside professionals for twelve years—just for the love of the sport. Early in his career he applied for med school—and within twenty-four hours walked away from it because the game literally was calling him back: his friends were begging him to take on the job of their coach. Since then he has coached at both the collegiate and professional levels, including coaching his fellow coaching assistant, Calah Schlabach in her professional pursuits.

Calah Schlabach is an assistant coach to Zane and a professional triathlete herself—this year she’s competing as one of the first 32 athletes in Major League Triathlon. Her athletic career started as a basketball player in her yard—and quickly ended when she realized the hoop at home had sunk into the ground a few inches. Even though she loved swimming as a child, her family moved to the middle of nowhere in Arizona where there weren’t any pools—so she followed her dad’s footsteps and took up running through high school and college.

After spending a year overseas after college, she came back to the U.S. and signed up for a triathlon with her mom to “get back in shape.” She quickly realized she had a lot left inside to give and is now competing in her third year as a professional triathlete. 


Which one of the key insights above stands out as lacking in your workplace? This week, offer your ideas to your team on how you can make that area of your work culture better.

Want to take this a step further? Sign up for a race with a friend and push yourself to train harder. 

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