In the 1990s, Lauren Gregg, the long-time assistant coach for the United States Women’s National Team, related a story about how the national team often used the example of the four-minute mile as motivation.
In the track and field world, the four-minute mile was a barrier every elite distance runner eyed as a measure of greatness. At the time, some scientists believed the human body was not capable of running one mile in less than four minutes. The goal, was silly, they said. The feat was unattainable.
Then on May 6, 1954, Englishman Roger Bannister became the first person to run the mile in less than four-minutes. Two months later, Bannister and Australia’s John Landy both broke the barrier in the same race. Then the mile was run in 3:50, then 3:45. In 1964, an American runner named Jim Ryun became the first high school runner to run a sub-four-minute mile. In 1994, a 40-year-old named Eamonn Coghlan did it. In the 64 years since Bannister broke the barrier, 17 seconds have been shaved off the mark.
On Jan 27, Emmanuel Bor of the U.S. Army World Class Athletes Program became the 500th American to break 4:00 in the mile, running a time of 3:58.77.
Author Malcolm Gladwell, social scientist and author of Outliers, Blink and The Tipping Point, spoke about the four-minute mile, saying, “One guy breaks it, then all of a sudden everyone breaks it. And they break it in such a short period of time that it can’t be because they were training harder. It’s purely that it was a psychological barrier, and someone had to show them that they could do it.”
The message the U.S. soccer coaches were sending was simple but it was a powerful incentive to a group of women attempting to win the first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in women’s soccer and a World Cup played in their home country in a three-year span. The message was “Just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” Gregg and head coach Tony DiCicco cleverly added a bit of a challenge – “In American society, the women who break down barriers are the ones who ignore limits.”
Psychological barriers are among the biggest obstacles to player development. They become confused with impossible feats, and athletes can’t make themselves believe they are capable of accomplishing something extraordinary because as Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” And the example of the four-minute mile is the best answer to the player who says “I can’t,” or the ones who think they have reached their peak and are done pushing,
The U.S. women won both the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup. Gladwell, by the way, is still chasing the four-minute mile. To date, his personal best is 4:54. He’s 54 years old.