Mental Training

Athlete Identity, Self-Worth, and the Art of Holding it Lightly

Hold it lightly.

That’s been a daily mantra for me, lately. It’s more than just a phrase or a concept. Holding it lightly is a way of being – one that I’ve found helps me feel happier and more fulfilled, and also allows me to more gracefully handle shortcomings or failures both on and off the trails. So, what does it mean to hold it lightly? 

Holding it Tightly 

First, let’s talk about what it looks like to hold things tightly. Sometimes, when we want something so bad, we grasp onto it and refuse to loosen our grip. Whether it’s a race goal or some kind of achievement or outcome when we hold it tightly we don’t just want it, we feel like we need it. The problem with that is can often make us feel like without that “thing”, we aren’t enough. We are letting the “thing” serve as some kind of validation. And, when we desire it enough we will desperately try to beat it into submission. The cost of that approach is big. 

One impact is that you tend to operate with blinders on. With such a narrow focus on the “thing” that you feel you need to accomplish, you miss valuable cues and growth opportunities that could guide you on your journey to being the best trail runner you can be. I’ve seen this play out time and again on the trails when an athlete is grasping their race goal or desired outcome so hard that they miss the opportunity to pivot and adapt. That’s an example of being stubborn but calling it toughness. Holding it lightly provides the opportunity to be present and productively respond to reality and still have a good day even if you slightly missed your main goal. 

Another major impact of holding things tightly is if we fall short of the goal or don’t reach the destination we were seeking we often perceive it as an evaluation of worth. That makes the inevitable lows of racing and running extremely difficult to handle and can eventually lead to things like fear of racing, athlete burnout, or even the decision to leave the sport altogether. So, why do so many of us get caught up in the unproductive approach of holding things too tightly? It has a lot do with our identity and perception of self-worth. 

Athlete Identity vs. Worth

If you’re a trail runner then it’s like that role makes up a portion of your identity at least to some degree. That’s not a bad thing! When you identify with being a runner, you are more likely to commit to daily routines and habits that will help you reach your goals on the trail. When you identify with being a trail runner, you seek guidance and resources to help you be the best and healthiest version of that. All good things! 

The danger zone is the space where you start to let that identity merge too much into your self-worth. Holding things tightly often comes with the belief (even if it’s not conscious) that if you can just accomplish that “thing,” THEN you’ll be enough. Or happy. Or fulfilled. When we assign that much value to some arbitrary event, it’s no wonder why we feel so desperate to make it happen and then experience downright devastation when it doesn’t. 

Hold it Lightly

So, what’s the solution to this unfortunate situation that many of us have found ourselves in? It’s to hold things lightly. That means you can still set big goals and work hard to reach them. It means you can still want to push yourself further and achieve great things. But, it also means that while you can want those things, you don’t need those things. Don’t confuse wants with needs. It’s powerful and empowering when you can completely buy into the belief that you can work hard and bravely strive for an achievement while simultaneously knowing that you’ll be just fine without it. 

You can’t force a certain race outcome to happen, but you can create the right conditions to make it more likely. When you hold the goal lightly, your focus widens, you’re a more active participant in racing and training, and you give yourself the best chance at success. Even more important, when you hold things lightly you are in a much better place to respond to adversity, and handle disappointments and setbacks. So, loosen your grip. 

Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance