How to Live! Lifetime Coaching Wisdom From Steve Prefontaine

Mar 14, 2017 / By Chris Holman
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Steve Prefontaine, the distance running legend, used the gifts he was naturally given to their utmost. Become inspired by his memory to discover your own gifts and share them with the world.
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

—Steve Prefontaine

At 8 a.m. in the morning on May 30, 1975, I’m sitting in my calculus class, in Villard Hall at the University of Oregon. Something’s not right. A few of my classmates are whispering back and forth, a tragically unsettled look in their eyes. “Did you hear? Pre’s dead. Last night. Car accident.”

Steve Prefontaine, the fiercely charismatic running hero who helped inspire the running boom of the 1970s, was dead. Driving along a winding road in Hendricks Park on a hill overlooking Eugene, Oregon, his butterscotch MGB roadster had overturned, pinning him to the ground and crushing the life out of him.

Forty-two years after his untimely death at the age of 24, Steve Prefontaine remains the most influential American runner ever. What was it about him? He wasn’t always the fastest. And he never medalled at the Olympics.

It was his attitude. When he ran, he was audacious and bold. He dared his opponents to keep up with him. He once proclaimed, “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today is a good day to die.”

It was how he ran. Only 5’ 9”, he ran with a chesty power. Most frequently at the front of the pack, golden hair flowing, he’d round the final turn at Hayward Field, eyes fixed on the clock while the crowd roared its support, racing to the finish line with a maximum burst of effort.

It was how he lived. Pre never dogged it. He always ran his pace, full-on. He suffered. He was fearless.

Seeds of greatness

“Man was designed for accomplishment, engineered for success, and endowed with the seeds of greatness.”

—Zig Ziglar

What were Steve Prefontaine’s seeds of greatness?

  • Was it his sheer running exuberance and joie de vivre?
  • Was it that when he ran, he left it all on the track, always giving his utmost?
  • Was it that when he spoke about running he sounded like a mix of Muhammad Ali and Ken Kesey?
  • Was it that he risked his amateur status, while living on food stamps and fighting for athletes’ rights?
  • Was it that he seemed to transcend his sport…and life in general?

As a coach, I believe that every person is a uniquely valuable individual with distinct gifts and the potential for greatness. We are all created to be magnificent in our own way.

Given this assertion, how do we uncover our own magnificence? Most likely, talent is not enough. Talent needs a catalyst. John C. Maxwell says, “Belief lifts your talent. Your talent will not be lifted to the highest level unless you have belief.”

Aaah! And where does self-belief begin?

Tim Gallwey, one of the great teacher-philosophers of our time and author of The Inner Game of Work, believes that building self-belief is a three-step process of (1) awareness, (2) trust, and (3) choice.

Gallwey believes that, as human beings, our biggest obstacle to self-improvement and self-belief lives in our own heads. We have this annoying tendency to get in our own way.

He advocates finding a better way to learn new behaviors. This begins with the power of non-judgmental awareness. Too often, our heads are filled with “should and shouldn’t” voices that distort our perception and create perceived threats that actually don’t exist. Non-judgmental awareness is the ability to step away from our self-imposed scolding and rebukes. Easier said than done!

Yet the second part of this process is, possibly, the more difficult. It trusts the natural learning process. As our awareness increases, so will effective learning and change. This is learning that is completely organic. It begins within ourselves. It is a self-trust that we are the best experts about ourselves, no one else.

Finally, we have choice. Clarity of the desired outcome is essential for the principle of awareness to work. And who chooses this outcome? We do. Again, no one else. (I’ve condensed Gallwey’s masterful approach to two short paragraphs. If your interest is sufficiently piqued, read the book.)

Uncovering your gifts

Harkening back to Pre’s declarative statement, what is your gift? What is the greatness that you can share with the world?

One of my observations is that many financial advisors have untapped “reservoirs of greatness” they have not fully realized. As an aid to your thinking and self-discovery, I’ve put together this short inventory of qualities and personal characteristics that might help you remember your seeds of greatness.

Run through this list. Which of the following would you like to personify more fully in your work—and your life?

  • Your personal strengths
  • Your unique abilities
  • Leadership
  • Intensities
  • Curiosity
  • Ambition
  • Cognitive abilities: musical, logical, interpersonal (people smart), intrapersonal (self-awareness), linguistic, visual-spatial, existential, and body-kinesthetic
  • Dreams and aspirations
  • Passions
  • Experiences
  • Humor
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Your personal history and stories
  • Your family heritage
  • What else?

Have you come up with anything yet?

As a backstop, you might go to someone you trust and know. Someone who is perceptive and thoughtful, but also direct and honest. This might be a client or a trusted confidante, and it might be someone who knows nothing about your life as an advisor. Ask them this question: “What do you most value and appreciate about who I am, what I do, and how I am in the world and in our friendship?” (Of course, these are my words. Use the words and language that comes naturally to you.)

Are you getting closer? Keep on reflecting. This is important.

For any of us to take any committed action, we need to think things through for ourselves. Stick with this.

The best Olympic 5000 meter ever

Going into the 1972 Olympics at Munich, 21-year-old Pre was the underdog in the 5000 meters, behind favorites Lasse Virén, Mohammed Gammoudi, and Ian Stewart. Pre’s brash strategy was to run the last mile in under 4:00, and lose everyone in his wake. For the first two miles, the race pace was tactical and slow. With four laps to go, Pre takes the lead. At three laps remaining, Viren challenges Prefontaine, but Pre holds him off. At two laps, Viren moves in front. Undaunted, Prefontaine surges ahead with one-and-a-quarter laps left. Viren quickly retakes the lead. With 200 meters to go, Pre makes one last challenge, yet is completely gassed as Viren and Gammoudi out-distance him. Then, in the final 15 meters, Stewart overtakes Prefontaine, denying him a place on the podium at the very last moment.

Source: YouTube

Frank Shorter, another running icon of the 1970’s, Prefontaine’s close friend (and the last person to see Prefontaine alive), reckons that Steve looked at his Olympic “failure” through the prism of reframing and looking forward. Pre was frustrated, but not disappointed. Post-Olympics, Pre didn’t talk about his performance as a “mistake.” He drew back, analyzed what had happened, and strategized what he’d do better next time.

At the time of his death, Prefontaine held American records at every distance between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. Hours before his accident, Pre had pulled away from Frank Shorter, winning the 5,000 m. in front of his beloved fans at Hayward Field. He was pointing to the 1976 Olympics, where he had become the odds-on favorite to win a gold. Like pretty much all of his races, Pre had run his final race at his pace, and from the front.

To the very last, Pre gave his best and shared the gift.

What are your gifts?

What are your gifts to the world? And to your family, friends, and clients?

Are you using these gifts with all of your best efforts, and to your maximum ability?

How would sharing your gifts and unique powers serve others? How would that serve you?

How might you begin?

What are you waiting for?

Chris Holman is the executive coach with Horsesmouth. His career in financial services spans 43 years as a financial advisor, a national director of investments, and an executive coach. He is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) as certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF). He can be reached at


It's not the failures to win we regret the most - it's the failure to try.

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