You train because it makes you strong, healthy and fit. You work hard to become a better and faster version of yourself and you have progressed over time. Being faster or stronger makes you feel confident and proud of yourself. As an athlete, you get to set goals and experience significant accomplishments. Crossing the finish line in your first race, after months of training was a thrill that lasted for a week. Your month is carefully organized into blocks of work hours, family time and training sessions. With training you have a balance that gives you both a sense of purpose and makes your feel energised. Being fit is fun and you feel happy doing it.
And then, out of the blue one day your foot starts to hurt while running. You have a race coming up, so you continue the run (in denial) hoping it will go away, noticing the pain worsen as you go. Later that day, you can barely even hobble on a painful foot. After two days off running, you try again, but, annoyingly, it’s worse this time, and after several visits to your doctor and physiotherapist you are forced to accept that you have a foot injury and must take time off running to let it heal. In the space of 48 hours you have gone from being a strong and happy athlete in training, to what feels like a complete stand still. Your immediate plans to train have been roadblocked by the foot injury, and your goals to compete feel thwarted. It’s so unfair! There is no afternoon long run to look forward to: the 10 miles of solitude and peace that you love at the end of your day, where you glide along in a smooth rhythm made possible by the hours of training you have performed for the last six months. The mile repeats you had set up for the following week (where you were planning to hit a training milestone) are cancelled. Your ability to race is now in jeopardy.
The question is: if you are so happy while you are training, where does the injury leave you? While you feel frustrated and possibly angry, are you also supposed to be unhappy now because your training and goals have been taken away from you?
Emotionally dealing with injury is as critical as the physical assessment and rehabilitation of the injured body part. While some injuries are small and easy to get over, some injuries are much more challenging. They can last several weeks, several months, or end your season. Almost everyone who trains will get an injury at some point, so while it is valid to practice injury prevention in your training, knowing how to deal with one is something all athletes have to face. And like most things, the longer you train, and the more injuries you get, the better you become at coping and staying sane through the injury.
Understanding the emotional side of injuries is the best way to cope. When you are injured, something is taken away from you: the ability to train, and to be out there doing what you love to do. For most athletes who love sport and are passionate about their training, injuries bring a sense of loss. Just as winning and success being happiness and gain, injuries bring about the opposite: dealing with loss is generally more difficult than winning and that makes it as important a process to deal with.
Typically athletes will respond to injuries with some or all of the stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., outlined in her work on the psychology of loss. While each athlete is unique, the common reactions are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Injuries seem unfair but moving through the injury as gracefully as possible will help you become a more resilient athlete in the long term.
Understanding the loss is important. It is important to acknowledge that sport is meaningful to you and that your disappointment is real. Allow yourself the chance to feel that. Denial of the importance of the loss to your life is a dishonour to your passion. You can’t just ‘get over it’, but you can honestly tell yourself that you are disappointed. Psychology says that in order to move beyond loss, people have to be willing to move through it. This doesn’t mean that your injury should put you into a funk for a week; you want to keep your sport in perspective. It’s just that you have to admit that you feel disappointed, and then you have to take care of yourself and get through the injury in order to get healthy again and back to training.
Injuries can be viewed as learning opportunities and gifts. Use the time to reflect on your life in sport, the cause of the injury and from that reflection you can learn to ask the right questions: how can I avoid this again? What are my intentions in sport? What do I want to get out of my athletic career? How am I going to continue and keep finding happiness here?
How acceptance of injuries makes you a better athlete:
Acceptance is a more optimistic outlook than being negative. Acceptance is about the now and not about dwelling in the past and constantly rehashing how you got injured and what you did wrong. Neither is it a yearning for what you do not have. Athletes with positive outlooks face challenges more easily and rebound from disappointment quickly. Deciding to be optimistic throughout your injury is a chance for you to reinforce skills that will help you when you resume training and competing. Accepting the injury creates space for you to learn more about your injury and how it relates to your mindset, biomechanics and overall strength. You can reflect on your training and what lead to the injury in a constructive way. When something is temporarily taken from you, it gives you an opportunity to step back and create a strong vision of why you are doing that activity. This strength of purpose and vision is invaluable to athletes: like your personal mission statement, it will carry you through tough training days, and elevate your chances of success in big events.
Reframe the injury: The strongest athletes are always reframing challenges and obstacles. A rainy day becomes a chance to excel in adverse conditions (as opposed to a wet, cold, nasty day), and an injury becomes a chance to show grace and grit, and work on other skills. Decide to do as much as possible every day to solve your problem, even if that means, icing or stretching, getting to the gym for strengthening or merely resting your foot.
Stay involved in what you love: use your down time to support others, volunteer at a race or read more about training and racing. By staying involved you are investing emotionally in something that is meaningful to you. This is a positive and purposeful way to live and will keep you from wallowing in self pity and negative self talk.
Look for the silver lining. If you can’t run for a while, then you can likely build strength, ride, swim or pool run. You will have a lot of mental and physical energy for pool workouts, strength and you can use this time to build specific strength. If you can ride, then this is an excellent time to do a block of alternate training. Not only will you be maintaining fitness, but you will be gaining strength.
Take ownership of the injury: Injuries are a chance to learn more about the body, and how training affects us. Take the opportunity to gain more knowledge about sports injuries and why your body might be prone to some injuries. Take responsibility for your healing, being actively involved in whatever rehab is involved. Taking action always feels more productive and satisfying than a passive approach. There is a good chance you will come out of the injury stronger—physically and mentally. Keep in mind that not all injuries have explanations. While most injuries are a result of training too much, the cause of some injuries will always remain a bit of a mystery.
For most athletes, injuries are part of the path. Every day we train and every competition we perform is a chance to learn something new about ourselves and the game. We stay in sport because it is abundant with such gifts of experience and self knowledge. Every challenging day, each failure, each injury, and each loss, is a chance for us to wake up and learn, because in the acceptance of these events, we realize that imperfection is the true nature of life. Learning to move gracefully and happily through the tough experiences gives us the power to embrace the fact that really great things will also happen!
Lucy Smith was an elite runner and triathlete for over 30 years. She has sustained several major injuries and come back from two pregnancy breaks in her career, all if which have given her a valuable perspective for understanding the path we all walk, and coaching excellence in others.
Your fear is the most boring thing about you. Fear only ever tells you one thing: stop. Whereas creativity, courage, and inspiration only ever want you to go. I want us all liberated from the path of fear, for many reasons — but mostly because it makes for such a damn boring life. Elizabeth Gilbert
I get asked a lot about how to deal with pre race nerves and anxiousness. I feel that while nervousness and anxiousness sound the same, they are essentially a little bit different. Being nervous is a physical sensation caused by thinking about an event. The nervousness can actually be excitement and anticipation, and a sense of agitation that occurs as you get ready for a race – where you know you are going to be asking more from yourself. Performance anxiety feels more rooted in how you are thinking about the future event, and a sense that things may not go well, or as well as you hope. A sense of unease and apprehension best describes that feeling. Nervousness feels like agitation, higher heart rate, a sense that you can’t stay calm, jittery. I have always been nervous before big events – the bigger the event, the bigger the nerves, and I have learned to manage the nerves by breathing exercises, being positive about the nerves (this means I am excited and that I care about what I am about to do!), and by finding space to be by myself in order to calm down and maintain a good balance between being overly stimulated and being asleep.
Performance anxiety, on the other hand is more deeply rooted in fear based thinking of ‘what can go wrong’. In these cases, people are using their wonderful brains, to actively imagine the worst things that can happen, instead of the best. There are many reasons that people do this, but one of these is simply habit and this is where the visualization exercises during training, comes into play. Give yourself permission to visualize the best possible outcome. You are not taking anything away from anyone by performing to your best, you are simply adding to the awesome energy of the event. It may take several tries to consciously start imagining all the positive things that can happen, and it may feel forced at first, but it works.
Fear is Normal
After being in sport for 40 years, watching athletes every day, racing with them, training with them, travelling with them and coaching them, I can tell you that fear cannot be made to simply disappear. Fear is part of being human, even if the fear is no longer valid for basic survival. Overcoming fear is not about denial and avoidance, it is about awareness and developing skills that work for you. Pretending that fear doesn’t exist means it sits there simmering and when push comes to shove, it will come out roaring with the power of being not only ignored, but neglected. If fear is preventing you from enjoying what you know you can enjoy, then it’s totally worthwhile doing something about it. Facing your fears of racing is a good start.
As an athlete I went on to have my own relationship with fear and courage during my high performance career. I had to conquer very real fears, like how to handle a bike while hurtling downhill at 80 km/hr, or through rain drenched corners, or through the manic streets of Paris. My fear of swimming open water was almost paralyzing at times and brought up the most intense feeling of panic, and helplessness. I faced these fears out of a combination of desperation and determination and intense habit changing, because they were getting in the way of my goals. My determination to race as a pro meant that I had to figure out how to get past these fears and I put in countless hours of positive thinking, affirmations and practice building my skills. I followed the best cyclists downhills, I listened to every coach as they talked me through corners and bike handling skills, I trained in open water and talked myself through every single swim, and I did it over and over and over until my belief in my ability outweighed my fears.
I did my first Pro Ironman 18 months after my first child was born. I competed as a result of facing fears that I felt were holding me back. The first fear was that, after childbirth and experiencing the overwhelming responsibility I felt as a new mother, I would never feel that competitive spirit again. My drive and passion to race had faded. So instead of stopping, I chose the somewhat outrageous goal of signing up as a Pro for Ironman New Zealand. My second fear was the fear of swimming in open water and New Zealand was a deep water offshore start and I had to swim 4 kilometers. On race morning, as I treaded water with 100’s of other athletes in the early dawn light and listened to kookaburras calling, I felt a huge surge of pride and confidence for actually being there. My confidence in my skills banished, for a while, the fear of crashing, drowning or getting attacked by a shark in a lake. The fear was always lurking. Every open water triathlon was a challenge for me. I had to coach myself, and talk myself into success every single time. It got easier the more I swam, but if I let up on my habit, fear would come creeping back, as if it noticed the lapse in my courage. It was a beast, that fear, relentless in its pursuit to derail my dreams. But I tamed it.
The biggest fears, however, the massive shadowy monsters in the room, are the ones that are hard to name, and these are the fears that strike right at the epicentre of our self-worth, and I can assure you, the larger the goal, the larger the fear. If we try to trick fear by downplaying the magnitude of our dreams, it attacks us from a different angle. Pretending your goals and dreams are meaningless (in order to side track fear into taking a back seat) takes away the joy you will receive when you achieve those wonderful goals. To receive the joy, you have to acknowledge the great height of your feeling, and fear is right there with you! My fear came as voices, and taunts, and doubts. ‘You won’t make it.’ ‘Other people are great.’ ‘You’ll never be good enough.’ ‘You should probably get a real job soon.’ ‘Who are you to want so much for yourself?’ I didn’t fear failure. I was anxious about racing often, because I was so invested, but the single largest fear was simply, feeling like an imposter in a world full of the ‘real deal.’
So, how did I stay in sport so long if I had such negative voices to deal with, such fear running alongside me during every training run, taking the plane with me on every trip to Europe? I learned to work with my fear. I learned that it was going to be there no matter what and I could not make it go away. I took fear with me, but I did not let fear step in and ruin my party. I loved to run! Loved the thrill of racing, the excitement and the endorphins. I loved everything about training and racing, except for the fear. So I learned to embrace the joy, because while fear could get in the way of my dreams and my plans, and my goals for myself, fear stood NO chance against my joy. Joy made fear shrink into a corner and sit there silent. Fear never really went away, but as long as I felt joy in what I was doing, it stopped being so annoying. My whole website creativity around the running life and now, my clinics, are built around this premise: run for joy. Run for fear only when you are crossing the road and a truck is coming, or if something dangerous is in your path. The rest of the darn time, run for joy. It is intrinsic, it is not about what you achieve or what you win: it is who and what you believe in.
I felt that fear would either derail my personal pursuit of greatness, or it would have to live within me, unempowered. Or as Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Let fear come for the road trip, but it has to sit in the back seat and doesn’t get to touch the radio dial, and it certainly cannot drive the car!” (Big Magic)
So, learning to deal with your fear in sports is not about being fearless. Very few people are truly fearless, and it’s actually sort of psychotic to be fearless, if you think about it. It’s not about defeating your fear. It’s about knowing your fear (knowing yourself!) and having the courage and tenacity to go for it anyway, because your gut feeling is right. It is what you want.
Facing fear, then, is about being brave! Having courage is about knowing fear and being ready to endure it. Once I knew my fears in open water, I could decide how I was going to overcome that particular hurdle. It wasn’t necessarily fun admitting that I was scared, but ultimately it was rewarding. Being able to swim with confidence and focus on racing, unhindered by the rapid breathing and panic that fear was dying to bring into the race was empowering!
The repetition of being brave, small acts of personal bravery and courage build resilience and self-esteem. Every time you show up to practice even though you are a little scared, this is what builds character.
To remind yourself of your ability to put fear in the backseat, hold firmly onto the idea of trust.
I have trust in my integrity, ability; I have confidence and reliance.
Read those lines over and over and take that with you into your last weeks of training and definitely onto the start line. I believe the moment of truth for a lot of people –that place somewhere in the late stages of a race when the discomfort is calling so clearly – is a lot about trust. Suddenly, in a flash, our belief in our ability to finish strong falters and then so does our stride. In my most flawless races, I bring massive trust of my own ability. I trust that my body will perform, I trust my confidence will not falter, and I trust that it will simply all work out.
Practice trust, and...
Run For Joy – Lucy Smith
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.