Before I go any further, let's be sure to understand that the phrase "killer instinct" in this context has nothing to do with harming anyone. I have often written about how great the sportsmanship is in the sport of cross-country, so we're not talking about anything that would hurt someone else.
What I do want to tell you about is a heightened level of mental intensity while competing, and even while training. When I was in college, there was a woman in my dorm who was the top badminton player in the country. She went on to compete in two Olympic Games. She taught several of us in the dorm how to play, and was laid-back, patient, and fun when teaching us. There were a few times when she and I played as a mixed doubles team in pick-up games.
This is where it got a little scary.
My friend became the Godzilla of the badminton court. She was 100% respectful and sportsmanlike in her words and actions, but there was a whole other level of intensity that was way beyond anyone I had ever played with in any sport. Way beyond. Did I say "way"?
When I reflected on this, both immediately after and years after, I realized that this is a characteristic of many successful athletes. They probably have physical skills that are somewhat greater than the rest of us, but not that much greater. The difference, though, is the level of mental strength and focus. These athletes feel an intensity so great that they will expend effort beyond what other people will do to succeed, both in training and in competition. The best ones are also "intense" about knowing when to back off to avoid injury, by the way - yes, it's possible to rest with intensity.
This is what I call the "killer instinct." It's analogous to a lion who is really, really hungry for that gazelle, and will expend enormous effort to chase it down. In cross-country, there are many times when there are just a couple more runners within catching distance, and if a runner can just give a little more effort, they can catch them and shave a couple more points off of their team score. Most runners will try to catch them; only a few runners will have that "killer instinct" to go beyond what they think is a maximum effort and actually catch them.
As most leagues around the country are winding down toward league and regional championships, it's time to bring out that killer instinct. For some people, it comes naturally; for others, it can be learned. Yes, have fun, enjoy being around your teammates and competitors, but when you head to the starting line, let's see that lion's gaze, searching for that gazelle.