While I don’t actually know exactly what makes YOU happy, I have been coaching athletes long enough to have observed a few things about happiness, satisfaction and success in sport. And from my own experience, things like prize money and winning races isn’t the magic formula to happiness. In fact, I was giving a talk a few weeks ago, reflecting on mistakes I had made in sport, citing a time when I pretty much ruined my World Student Games 10 000m because I went and ran a hard 10 miles with my idol, the current Canadian 10 000m champion - 2 days prior to the event. As I told the story, with a huge smile, I suddenly paused - because the memory of that run, which took place through 10 miles of gorgeous British countryside - was actually a happy memory, and whatever failure I had processed was now a positive thing, as this epic run I had done. Now I am retired I look back with gratitude at the whole career - the ups and the downs. I have been observing athletes, young and old, learn sport skills, and find sport success for over three decades and during that time I have won and lost a few big races myself. While we are all motivated by different things in life, I have found some fairly common themes of why people stay in sport and what makes them feel satisfied. I call this happiness or intrinsic joy.
This being the beginning of a new season, I guess the logical place to begin is with anywhere you think you should be, where you haven't arrived yet (As in, I should be running my training routes at this pace.) Throw those shoulds away, is my advice. Too loaded with unmet expectations and pressure to be better than you are now. My recommendation is to begin with where you are right now.
Take stock of what you have at the moment and start building a foundation of emotional strength that will take you into the year. While building your cardiovascular base and strength is crucial to success this year, so too is building your emotional fortitude and your mental powers.
One of the most helpful skills you form early season is the practice of the power of positive thinking every time you train. As the season progresses and the workouts get harder and more intense on your path to goal races, the discomfort level rises. Rising discomfort levels and greater goals will bring you your greatest challenge: the opportunity to become a better emotional athlete.
Before I outline a few skills of positive practice, let’s take a brief look at happiness and the athlete. In the field of positive psychology, positive practice is not about being blissfully happy or on cloud nine about life all the time. This isn’t realistic and it’s also exhausting. Life goes up and down. Positive practice is the expectation that things can and will go well and you have the power to make them so. So you are content about your path, not putting happiness on hold until you have a positive outcome. You show up happy to train; you don’t need a great training day to ensure your happiness. Please note, that I understand ‘happiness’ is just a word. It is a word I use to describe a calm, emotional state, akin to peace, contentment and acceptance. It is not the sort of overzealous mania that is overcompensating for a lack of confidence, self worth or inner peace. Positive is also just a word. A Positive (noun) is a constructive quality. Positive as an adjective refers to the presence of something (rather than the absence). Nor do I have this all figured out – inner peace and training are works in progress for me too!
How does this play out in your training? Show up Happy, don't wait for it.
Happy to be there, happy to see your training mates, happy for anything that you love about sport. And by happy, I mean authentically positive. Bring the presence of something that adds, do not leave it out. Be prepared. Put some thought into how you will be ready, how you will succeed. Be present and know that showing up and being ready is often enough to create a positive emotional state. Here are 3 of my favourite doable, positive practices:
1. Plan your rest, recovery and nutrition around all sessions, especially key sessions in the week. This is positive practice.
2. Visualize your optimal mental state: calm, energized, happy, relaxed. Meditate. This is positive practice.
3. Be mindful of your whole journey through sport and know that this right now, these people you are with, this road you are on, is the reward. Don’t wait for the end, in order to be happy.
How does this positive practice play out for your season or your race goals? How does it play out in your day to day life?
One of the best ways to prepare for the mental challenge of race day is to practice during training. Practicing good habits in the training when the stakes are low creates an opportunity to cement them. What does your perfect racing emotional state look like?
Confident? Calm? Powerful? Happy? Smooth?
In control? All of the above?
Don't limit yourself. You can be all those things. And the easiest way to visualize your peak performance and ideal mental state is to do it while you are relaxed. This is why training can become zen like and have such amazing flow at times. Your training will have some intensity that mimics race intensity, but without the actual stress of competing. This is the ideal time to practice positive mental race skills, because you can visualize your perfect race while executing the skills needed to achieve it. The best athletes manage to be powerful, strong, and fast and focused while being relaxed. That’s because they have practiced being relaxed and positive over and over and over again in training. Whatever it is that you want to feel in races now is the time to practice it. Since the body follows the mind this is an invaluable tool if practiced consistently.
Give it a go!
Run For Joy coach Lucy Smith has had a successful professional distance running and multisport career that has earned her 3 University Championship titles, 19 National Championship titles, and 2 Silver World Championships Medals. She has won the Victoria Time Colonist 10K 6 times and has inspired hundreds of local runners with her speaking. A Lululemon Ambassador, coach, author and mother of two, Lucy shares her passion for personal success by volunteering in the community and coaching athletes all over the world.
Common sense and a sense of humour.