In this talk from Aug. 1, 2017, during the CrossFit Health Conference at Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin, Professor Timothy Noakes shares a story about the time he helped the South African national rugby team become the 2007 Rugby World Cup champions. Noakes recalls that almost exactly 10 years prior to the Health Conference, he had the chance to speak to the team’s 30 members just before they boarded the plane to head to the tournament. There, he shared with them his “untestable hypothesis” about the role of self-belief in sports victories:

I want to speak to you tonight about the most important lesson I have learned in 38 years of studying the human body, for you would think that after studying the body for so long, I would say that it is your perfectly trained bodies that will win the Rugby World Cup for you. I used to think that, but I do not anymore. What I now believe is this: What you really believe will happen is exactly what will happen.

Noakes spends the remainder of his talk at the Health Conference expounding upon his hypothesis and sharing several formative insights that support it, all gleaned from famous moments in sports history. For his examples, he draws from fields as far-flung as arctic swimming, NFL football, Olympic rowing, and beyond.

He organizes his talk according to six principles he learned from American football:

  • the importance of perfection
  • the importance of self-belief
  • the importance of character
  • the importance of team
  • the importance of not quitting
  • understanding the “why”

“These are the principles of life as well. … If you want to be successful, you must incorporate them, not just to be a great athlete, but to be a great person,” he explains

He discusses some of his then-forthcoming research as well, noting that he found, “If you put two competitors against each other, the instant the one guy goes ahead, the other person’s physiology changes.” He explains:

The brain regulates the exercise performance … the athlete who wins a close race chooses that outcome. This conscious/subconscious choice reduces illusory symptoms of pain and fatigue produced by the brain. The brain of the athlete who comes in second exaggerates those same symptoms to justify the decision not to try harder. The athlete quits whilst appearing to be giving a maximal effort.

He concludes with a relevant quotation from U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Men are not prisoners of fate, only prisoners of their own minds.”

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