Matt Stonie first discovered he could eat faster—and significantly more—than any of his friends after they reenacted episodes of Man v. Food, an extreme-eating reality show on the Travel Channel.
“I saw that on TV and just thought it was the coolest thing, and decided to try it out a few times,” Stonie, who turns 23 in May, told Quartz. “I’ve always been a competitive guy, and it kind of just snowballed from there.”
Four years later, he’s amassed quite a reputation on the competitive-eating circuit: 182 pieces of bacon, 43 cheeseburgers, and five pounds of birthday cake—eating each under 10 minutes. Today, he’s the number two-ranked eater in the US.
But success for Stonie has little to do with size—he only weighs about 125 lbs.—and almost everything to do with self-discipline, quick decision-making, and filtering distractions.
A common misconception among casual viewers of the sport is that great eaters need to be heavyset and masters of wholesale gluttony to score the top points. Not so, says Stonie, who has found that succeeding at competition is something more akin to solving multiple puzzles at once.
“You’ve got to pick up the hot dog, and while you’re eating the hot dog part you’re dunking the bun, then you take the bun out, you squeeze it down and you eat it,” Stonie says. “You’re doing maybe two or three things simultaneously.”
The ability to make every second count under pressure—and course correct after making mistakes—is an overriding quality found in elite athletes, according to sport psychologists. It’s also the number one quality Laurence Frank, a senior options trader with Cutler Group in Chicago, looks for when making big hires.
“If you do a bad trade or make a mistake, you can’t let that drag on you,” Frank said. “Same if you lost a game: You need to be able to practice the next day, maybe even harder, and throw yourself into the next game.”
And while Frank, who played Division III football for the University of Chicago, has never hired a competitive eater, he regularly sets his eyes on other less conventional athletes and gamers for the same reason.
Frank recently hired a trader who also holds a national title in “Magic: The Gathering,” the cult classic trading-card game whose top players are Mensa members and computer programmers. And another of Frank’s colleagues is highly regarded in the StarCraft community, a real-time sci-fi video game that tests a player’s ability to make rapid strategic decisions in the face of alien warfare.
“In sports, you aren’t entitled to win. You have to work for it,” Frank said. “But people today feel entitled to win because they have a college degree even though they’re not used to waking up early and putting in the hours.”
Right now Stonie is taking time off from college in Santa Clara to focus on establishing his star power in the eating world and build up his viral YouTube presence. But many top eaters need to juggle their own corporate careers while remaining ranked in the league.
When Yasir Salem leaves the office at the end of the day as a marketing director for The Week magazine, he shifts his attention almost exclusively to practicing.
“You have to approach competitive eating as a marathon,” Salem said. “The number one important thing is building capacity. If you don’t have capacity to hold the food in your stomach, don’t even bother.”
Three years after his major league debut, Salem proudly polished off nearly 32 cannoli at the national championship in Little Italy, placing him among the elite group of competitive eaters in the US.
Salem started investing his time in extreme sports—he’s a competitive eater, marathoner, and triathlete—after his girlfriend underwent an operation to remove a brain tumor in 2008. They began running long distances together as a way to help cope with her memory loss and stay healthy during recovery.
Today Salem’s girlfriend is healthy, but his drive to win has persisted.
“When you’re at minute seven in a 10 minute contest, it’s very easy to just stop eating. Nobody is going to be there to tell you otherwise—you’ll just fail,” Salem said. “I have a choice: I can either push or I can not push through. And I choose to push through every single time.”
A recent study in The Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine pitted a group of athletes and non-athletes against each other and had them both cross a street—don’t worry, in virtual reality—with cars speeding up and down from both directions. Like in the old arcade game Frogger, if a car hits you, you lose.
The athlete group got hit by virtual cars significantly fewer times than the non-athlete group, but not for the obvious reasons we might assume. It wasn’t their speed and agility that saved them, but rather their ability to process the visual information of the fast-moving vehicles much more accurately than the non-athlete group. The study points to seasoned athletes’ ability to successfully gather disparate sets of data and make quick decisions under pressure—in this case determining how quickly the vehicles were coming and deciding the best strategies to avoid them.
“There’s a premise that student athletes, college athletes, and professional athletes have certain skills that transfer really well into the workforce and corporate America,” said Vincent McCaffrey, CEO and founder of Game Theory Group, a North Carolina-based corporate recruiting firm that places high-achieving student athletes at prominent employers like Goldman Sachs. “They are team oriented, goal focused, receive feedback well—they’re persistent and diligent.”
McCaffey’s business is founded on the notion that an athlete’s work ethic, discipline, and general cognitive acumen would make him or her a highly attractive asset to the world’s most competitive employers, who are demanding fast thinkers with notable attention to detail. And there’s evidence to support it.
Jocelyn Faubert, a researcher at the University of Montreal, had groups of professional athletes, amateur athletes, and non-athletes perform high-speed visual tasks using a three-dimensional object tracker. Similar to the Frogger-like virtual reality set, participants observed fast-moving spheres on a screen and were asked to recall their specific movements after viewing the sequences. The results, published in Nature, uncovered some consistent results: Professional athletes outperformed their amateur counterparts, who also scored significantly higher than their non-athlete peers, leaving the athlete group at a significant advantage when it came to processing and remembering fast-moving information.
“Professional athletes as a group have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning unpredictable, complex dynamic visual scenes that are void of any specific context,” Faubert concludes. “These remarkable mental processing and learning abilities should be acknowledged as critical elements for world-class performance in sport.”
That kind of cognitive acuity, as well as a persistent and self-guided work ethic, has no price tag for the companies McCaffrey recruits for. Where a majority of today’s skills are taught on the job, firms are looking for candidates who can learn fast and stay relentless. McCaffrey even argues that athletes who aren’t in college, like Stonie, may actually exhibit more self-discipline because they don’t benefit from the tight-knit structure of an organization like the NCAA.
“At 22, you can say what you want, but there’s not a whole lot of experience one is going to garner at that point in time,” McCaffrey said. “But somebody might have certain intangibles—they’re team focused, they know how to work among others, they know what winning or losing is about, they know how to receive feedback well.”