How Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Champion, Kobayashi, Set a New Competition Precedence With a Simple Perspective Shift

Every 4th of July the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest takes place on Coney Island in Brooklyn. It’s become a 4th of July tradition alongside BBQ’s, boating, and fireworks (because what’s more American than the overconsumption of carbohydrates, processed meat, and competition?).

But for the competitors, the contest is more than just a recreational spectacle for giggles, it is a serious competition–like the Super Bowl of competitive eating. Last year, Joey Chestnut set a new record, finishing 70 hotdogs in 10 minutes. In fact, this win marks Joey’s tenth win in the competition’s history.

While Joey is the contest’s longest reigning champion and current record holder, the real game-changer was Takeru Kobayashi. In 2000–his first year competing–Takeru won by eating 25 hot dogs, and went on to win the next 7 competitions after that.

What’s so astonishing about these men’s ability to each an obscene number of hot dogs? Well, before Kobayashi’s 2000 win, previous contest winners hadn’t surpassed 20 hot dogs in the contest’s 28 year history. What’s more the following year Takeru doubled his number and ate a whopping 50 hot dogs; finally reaching his max of 53 ¾  hot dogs in 2007.

How was Kobayashi able to double his own record in one year and more than triple the previous record of other competitors? In a 2014 podcast episode of “Freakonomics Radio,” host Stephen Dubner interviewed Kobayashi and got insight into his source of motivation and goal-setting, game-changing strategy.  

Kobayashi did it by changing the problem he was trying to solve.

While the other competitors were asking themselves, “How can I fit more hot dogs in my stomach? Kobi asked a different question: How can I make one hot dog easier to eat?” says Dubner. It was this kind of perspective shift that inspired Kobayashi’s signature bun-dip, where he dips the bun into a cup of water.

While experimenting with different techniques Kobayashi realized that by dipping the bun into water, squeezing out the excess water, and tossing it into his mouth in a ball, he could consume the bread much more quickly.  

An article from Business Insider notes:

“‘The key to me was that I had to change the mentality that it was a sport — it wasn’t having a meal,’ Kobayashi told Dubner. Kobayashi said he noticed previous competitors in the hot dog eating contest ate as if a friend had dared them to eat a bunch of food, whereas he saw an opportunity to dissect the physical action of eating and optimize it for speed and efficiency.”

This kind of mental re-framing is precisely what EQ and peak performance experts JP Pawliw-Fry and Bill Benjamin advise in order to perform one’s best. They suggest embracing the pressure moments, identifying them in new ways, and looking for opportunities in them.

As Kobayashi reigned supreme, other competitors began to copy his techniques. Remarkably, competitors who previously averaged around 25 hot dogs were  reaching 40 or 50. Kobayashi had redefined the limit itself and broken a 40-year artificial barrier.

Whether it be in business, in sports, or in an eating competition, if we change the way we look at a problem, ask ourselves new questions, and seek answers to those questions, we too can surpass artificial barriers that have been falsely accepted as the limit. After all, it was Kobayashi’s psychology, perspective, and strategy, more than the size of his stomach that allowed him to win.






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