Resilience is something you build through experience. It’s not about bouncing back so much as it is about recovering from challenges and setbacks, adapting to life, and moving forward. It is about building confidence in knowing you can recover when things are hard, challenging or difficult. I talk a lot about developing positive habits in training as a way to build resiliency to the inevitable discomforts and failures of sport. Resiliency becomes a skill and a choice: will I be resilient in this moment?
Here’s how to build resiliency in training. I’m going to use the example of running near threshold – which is both mentally and physically challenging. It’s physically challenging simply because physiologically you are at or near the edge of what your body is capable of. It’s mentally challenging because the mind doesn’t stick to facts much when it’s under duress – it likes to make up lots of stories about what’s going on, and what might happen. These stories basically run along the same three themes of:
Doubt: “I am not sure I can keep this up, it’s so hard!”
Fear: “I have to keep this up or else I’m just slow as a runner; I’m never going to run as fast as I want to!"
Despair: “I’m having such a bad day!”
We get so overwhelmed by the sharpness of both our physical and mental discomfort that we lose our ability to focus on what’s necessary in that moment. We need absolutely, good self-coaching, which is just another name for self-compassion.
In these moments, we need to train ourselves instantly to recognize what’s happening, and we need to stop that behaviour, or our thoughts from taking control of the ship. We need to focus on the process of running: what are our arms doing, our feet, are our hips loose and fluid, are we tall, and relaxed in the face and jaw and shoulders. We need to draw power, strength and love for what we are doing from anywhere in these moments. Maybe it’s how beautiful the day is, an encouraging word from a coach or a fan or a team mate, or telling ourselves ‘I am so strong!’ and doing this repeatedly until it sticks.
When I am watching races, I often yell out specific cues to people in the race – I can’t help myself. I can instantly tell which athletes are practicing resilience, because they smile, get taller, relax or do something positive with my encouragement. Athletes who are stuck in their pain (and their head) often grimace and grunt or throw out an excuse for why their day is going poorly.
Resilient athletes are ones that are using whatever positive energy they can to deal with discomfort, recover, adapt and learn. This is practice. It’s not innate, you aren’t born with it, and you learn it. It is why practicing steady state, tempo and fast intervals in training is more than just teaching your body to run fast. The reason that you do these sessions, are that they demand you run fast (which is fun, by the way), and they demand that you are mentally sharp. How you reacted to, adapt and face the discomfort in these sessions is a critical part of training as an athlete and translates directly into how well you will race when the stakes were high.
Of course, the bonus is that you develop confidence and resilience for life.
Run For Joy!
Common sense and a sense of humour.