After a failed attempt at a first draft of this article, I went back to the drawing board. In other words, I logged on to Google. When I entered the word “complacency” I got a page full of websites listing official definitions. I read through a number of them and even ventured to Urban Dictionary to see if someone had a clever offbeat definition (they did not; though it was in there). The online dictionaries all had nearly the same definitions and two words seemed to be the most common: “self-satisfaction” and “unaware(ness)” What this tells me is that complacency is essentially always an afterthought. It is not something felt in the present, but something that a person likely identified in themselves when trying to find out what went wrong.
So what exactly is it?
I see complacency, in the context of sport, as a belief that a protocol for training, racing or otherwise is essentially maximized. Again, I do not believe this is a conscious line of present thought. You will often hear an athlete admit to becoming complacent after a failed or lackluster result; certainly not before. It was not until they lost, or simply underperformed, that they came to realize they let their guard down. It was assumed that if they kept doing what they had always been doing that success would be inevitable. The problem with looking to past success is that everyone is going to look there as well. Once certain barriers have been broken, you have to look to the next one.
Looking back is something I found to be an obvious blind spot for me. My personal improvement in the sport has been consistent, but so has the improvement in the sport itself. In past years, I might have seen what it took to do well at a race and designed a plan to achieve that. The problem is that I was training for where the race had been and not for where it was going.
If complacency is an afterthought, how can you actually avoid it?
In some ways, I think complacency can be part of the overall process of becoming better. It is not uncommon to hear an athlete find a new level of motivation after getting leveled by his or her competition. There might not be a better impetus out there.
Having said that, I do think there are a few things athletes can do to avoid becoming complacent with themselves or their preparation.
It can become easy to feel good about yourself when all you do is train. I find racing to be one of the best reminders of what I need to be doing to get better. I don’t expect every race to be a PR or perfect in any way, but I do expect it to help sharpen my focus and direct my training. Its helps me find that desire to take what I’m currently doing, and do it better.
Find a group of trusted observers
While most people only realize they are complacent after the fact, I do believe others can see it as it happens. Having objective points of view — whether it’s a coach, friend, or mentor — can really help you avoid falling into this trap. They will help you realize your potential short-comings and what is sitting in your blind spot(s). However, to really maximize their contributions, you need to open up to them first. Don’t wait for them to start the conversations.
Do not dwell on the past
Learn from the past, both in terms of what worked and what did not, but do not base all future decisions on past results and success. New variables are always in the mix and they will be what shapes future outcomes.