If you have a goal, there is a good chance that you are going to have to improve some skills in order to achieve it. You have to practice something to get better at it, often repetitively, in the case of both mental and physical skills. If I want to improve my times in running, I can work on both my physical conditioning and my form and technique. If I want to get better at racing, working on these skills, and my tactics, will definitely move me in the right direction. However there is a possibility that I may also need to improve my relationship with training and competition, and this requires me to work on my emotional and mental skill. The trick is working out what exactly you need to practice and is this practice actually moving you in the right direction. Many athletes have this vague awareness that their mental skills may need improvement, but put they continue to direct energy into physical training instead, hoping for a better result that never seems to arrive.
The paradox in training, is that while you have these future oriented goals, the biggest gains can be made when you can train yourself to remain unconditionally kind to yourself in the present moment no matter what is happening. This is one of the hardest things for athletes to do – to remain kind to ourselves when we perceive that our future goal is at stake. The bad news is that our western culture is set up to help us feel badly about ourselves – we live in a culture that promotes happiness as a by-product of achievement – I will be happy when I run a sub 45 minute 10k, or lose 20 pounds, or have a great job, house, teeth, car or clothes. Sport is often presented dramatically in social media as well, because drama is more entertaining. The good news is that we can practice being aware of these forces and choose a different story.
Our task is to choose practices that move us in the direction of our goal and to be realistic about what goals really are. Simply, goals are ways we help set action to improvement. Most runners focus on an extrinsic goal, like getting faster, improving health, or running with better form. These are valid goals and if we practice well we will generally get better, and be healthier. The problem arises when these goals are based on a sense that right now, in this moment, we are not good enough, and we are always training with an eye to the future and the way we wish we could be. Over time, training can become a kind of addiction to this drama of chasing the ideal thing that never quite happens. (We become addicted to betterment, which is the inherent flaw of the self-help movement and perfectionism). The trick is to train with our goals in mind AND to be very present and at peace with what is happening right now. This requires not a practice of drills, longer runs or fast intervals, but to be unconditionally kind to yourself and whatever is happening in each training session. You can strive for excellence and still be fully okay in the present moment, no matter what is happening.
I’ll illustrate this with one of the more interesting conversations I have with athletes, and one that I never tire of talking through. We will be discussing the way a training session has gone. These can often be all or nothing conversations, especially in young athletes or new runners. As I listen to them tell me about the session, I ask them to be aware that they are telling me their perceptions of what happened: a story, if you will. “I ran for 40 minutes and it was a really hard day, I was so tired I might be over training or not training enough, and felt so awful and the rain was cold and I might be doing this all wrong and I wish I felt better.” We love the stories that we tell ourselves, even when we are suffering! Our stories back up our claims that we have already made about who we are. They support our belief that we aren’t good enough right now, and we need to constantly prove that we are good enough, by referring to some future ideal. Mind boggling, but true. I still do it. Wanting to get better at a skill is very different from rating your worth as a person.
The training session has gone ‘well’ if they have hit markers that indicate concrete data that shows they are on track to their goals (most athletes have some sort of wearable tracker technology now). A good session is equated with all being good with the world. If the data shows they missed these markers, there’s a good chance that the athlete will perceive the workout as a failure on some level. Added to that judgement of failure is the next part, which I find so interesting. We then start to makes all kinds of interpretations or stories about ourselves and our lives based on this judgement. “I am a failure, I’ll never make it or get better, and I’m slow, weak, and nonathletic”. On a really bad day, the story keeps getting worse until they ask themselves why they continue to bother and maybe they should give up.
So, if you have a goal, and let’s say it’s an extrinsic goal like completing a marathon, or running a PB or winning your age group at the local 10K, I encourage you to look at little closer at what that goal looks like as far as your day to day practice and enjoyment of sport and life. Keep choosing to practice things that will improve your skill and move you towards your goal, and don’t get so caught up in the future that you miss out on the really beautiful parts of sport – which are the ups and downs, the good and the bad days and cultivating a calm mindset no matter what is happening. Over and over again, I give runners these 3 simple tips – practice these things over and over, with every session and see if you find improvement in your mindset and enjoyment of running.
1. Show up prepared for success.
2. Then, give yourself permission to be successful no matter what the data says.
3. Take away one good thing with every session (unconditional kindness).
Because I am a runner and a run coach, I often use long distance running as my frame of reference, but really, running is just a metaphor for all of life.
Run For Joy !
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.