What we can learn from the ‘Iron Man’

Last week jockey AP McCoy celebrated the incredible feat of totalling 4000 jump racing victories. To put that into perspective, his closest rival is Richard Johnson on 2,600 winners. McCoy has also demonstrated ultimate consistency by achieving the no.1 spot in the PJA rankings for the last 937 consecutive weeks (I’ll save you the maths, that’s 18 of your birthdays!).

The following statistic might therefore surprise you. McCoy has also fallen off an estimated 1000 times and broken over eleven different bones in his body (some bones more than once!). This seems paradoxical; to be at the top of your game, yet suffer so many ‘batterings’ (falling at 30mph speeds with a field of up to 20 or so horses and jockeys behind you isn’t my cup of tea). To some extent, falling off – and brushing yourself off! – is a setback that’s part and parcel of jump racing. Except that this particular setback seems to affect some jockeys more than others, both physically and mentally. It certainly doesn’t deter McCoy one jot according to Martin Pipe, champion trainer who employed McCoy for nearly ten years.

“I remember one race early on where the horse slipped up on the bend at Chepstow, AP fell and the whole field galloped over him. He really got flattened… Lo and behold, two races later, out came AP to ride Or Royal and duly won on it…He really is an iron man.”

So what can we learn from McCoy’s success?

What struck me is the ‘unquenchable thirst’ that people allude to when describing McCoy; his ‘will to win’. ‘hunger’ and ‘drive’ (see link below). In psychology we talk about two kinds of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsically motivated athletes are driven by external means, such as winning, money, goods, and recognition. In contrast, intrinsically motivated athletes are motivated by improving and developing themselves and often find the task itself (in this case race riding) inherently enjoyable.

Research would suggest that a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is a powerful combination in athletes. Such an athlete would have a natural will to win, yet also be motivated by improvement and enjoyment of the sport (important because we cannot win every time, however good we might be!). This seems to be the case for McCoy, who is fiercely competitive, his sporting mantra: “I don’t see the point of doing anything if you can’t win”. Nevertheless, he also hints at intrinsic drives: “I love what I do. I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to retire”.

Perhaps then – alongside a lot of talent and a bit of luck – McCoy has superior determination to his rivals. Picture this: At Southwell racecourse in 2002, McCoy fell at the 10th fence. His horse disappeared rider-less into the distance. Instead of calling it a day, McCoy ran after the horse, which was caught by a groom. He remounted and continued the race, albeit now a long way behind the pack. Incredibly, every other runner proceeded to fall and McCoy won the race. At the time, this had never been done before (and never will again since re-mounting is no longer allowed). Still, I’d hazard a guess that there wouldn’t be many other jockeys out there who would have gotten back on.

I’ll leave you with a link to the following short clip of sportspeople paying tribute to one of jump racing’s legends.


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