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As a Matt Fitzgerald fangirl, I snapped up How Bad Do You Want It? as soon as it hit the shelves in 2015. It’s been on my nightstand ever since. And when Lindsey Hein’s book club picked it up recently, I realized a lot of people haven’t read it yet. And you should.
Subtitled “mastering the psychology of mind over muscle,” How Bad is a collection of sports stories combined with “psychobiological” research. Matt uses the format to share habits and tactics the rest of us can use to cultivate our own mental strength.
Performing at your best means being mentally prepared to confront fears we all face — failure, suffering, change, etc. Matt examines the ‘psychobiological’ model of athletic performance, exploring how athletes are able to overcome physical limits with mental might. But it’s not just a lot of pyscho-babble; each chapter focuses on a specific race and specific athlete.
Look, it’s not much of a stretch to say this book changed my life. It helped me recognize and identify my mental weaknesses and improve them. Afterward, I approached my training and racing differently, with a mindset developed by reading this book. I learned to accept pain and not deny it; to find contentment in the process, and more.
If you’ve ever started a race full of doubt, or regretted backing off the pace, this book is for you.
The book has become a cult favorite, of sorts, and the acronym HBDYWI is often used as Saltine shorthand but also as a mantra for athletes of all kinds. “Some cyclists stack the letters vertically, print them out, and tape them to the top tube of their bike for races,” Matt told me.
My copy is dog-eared, underlined, and flagged with sticky notes. I reread it every training cycle at least once, sometimes going back to revisit favorite sections.
One of my favorite stories in the book is about Jenny Simpson at the 2009 Cross Country Championships. Depending on your level of Jenny fandom, you may not know she never won a national collegiate title in cross country. In fact, she competed in the Beijing Olympics the summer before her final cross country season. So what happened? Matt tells the story and breaks down the mental side of Jenny’s race, and more importantly, how she rebounded back from that moment. “Bracing yourself — always expecting your next race to be your hardest yet — is a much more mature and effective way to prepare mentally for competition,” Matt writes in that chapter.
Another favorite chapter for me is about Siri Lindley, a triathlete. While telling the story of Siri’s career, Matt looks at the science behind “choking” and how Siri eventually overcame her biggest obstacle: herself. “Siri had to let go of that dream and find contentment in the moment-to-moment process of chasing it.”
The chapter also talks a lot about how athletes can find “flow,” that rare but beautiful state when you’re not thinking about your running, you’re just flying: “Hard work still feels hard in this state, but the feeling becomes enjoyable in a way that is difficult to put into words.”
The blend of stories and science makes for exciting, motivational, engaging reads. There are stories about runners, triathletes, cyclists, and even a rugby player. What Matt shows is that “elite athletes do not have a monopoly on these coping skills and traits,” but that we also respond to different “mind over muscle” techniques differently and have to become our own sports psychologists.
HBDYWI isn’t just for elites or sub-elites or the girl who finished in front of you last week. It’s for all of us.
“Talent may set an athlete’s ultimate physical limit, but it does not determine how close to that limit an athlete is able to get.”
If you want to maximize your own inner potential, How Bad Do You Want It is a great place to start.