Avoid The “Just Try Harder” Trap

The paradox of effort: Is trying too hard holding you back from reaching your goals?

Photo: Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Following a disappointing experience or a bad race, it’s tempting to walk away thinking “I just need to try harder.” Sometimes that may be the case, and asking ourselves if we did our best is an honest conversation that we need to have.  You can also ask yourself,“Am I doing the things I need to do in order to move closer to my goals?”, “Are my behaviors consistent with the things I say I want to accomplish?” There are times when the answers to the questions might be “no,” and the focus needs to turn to commitment and drive. 

But sometimes, the commitment and drive are there, but something seems to be missing. As the saying goes, work smarter – not harder. 

Frequently, I’ll hear athletes I coach react to a bad race by concluding that if they just “try harder” then they’ll get there, effort usually isn’t the issue. In fact, that mindset could be contributing to the problem. Here are some reasons why that is and what to do about it if you find yourself falling into this common performance trap. 

RELATED: Avoiding The Comparison Trap

Trying too hard can cause rigidity. 

If you watch someone trying to perform a physical skill they aren’t familiar with, you’ll sometimes witness the muscle tightening and movement rigidity that occurs when they get frustrated and respond by trying even harder. The same scenario plays out psychologically. Mental rigidity usually involves trying to force a certain outcome to happen which ironically usually steers us further away from the goal. 

When you’re trying too hard to make something happen, you get tunnel vision. You miss important cues and feedback, get fixated on the obstacles you think are standing directly in the way, and miss the opportunity to zoom out and take in the full picture. Performing at your best on the trails requires problem solving and adapting. Those are both mental skills in which you need to be responding to your environment and making micro and macro adjustments based on what the trail is throwing at you. When an athlete is focused on trying harder, that rigidity causes them to see obstacles as something else to push through rather than a challenge to respond to. 

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

Trying too hard can give a false sense of control. 

When an athlete reviews a disappointing performance by concluding that they just need to try harder next time, they believe that the unwanted result was purely due to lack of effort or skill. Again, there are times when this is the case and more training, more preparation, and a better approach might possibly yield a better result. But, there are also many different situations when that conclusion is simply not true. 

Some might wonder what’s so wrong with that assessment if it results in the athlete wanting to put more time and effort in. It’s a fine line and sometimes there’s a lot wrong with that belief. In the mental and emotional sense, that mindset fosters an overidentification with running and the performance outcome. When an athlete believes they have that much control over a result (i.e. outcomes are always just a reflection of skill, ability, and effort) their identity and self-worth tend to get entangled in performance. In the physical sense, this faulty belief leads to common unproductive behaviors like overtraining, training harder versus smarter, and overdoing it eventually leading to injuries or burnout. 

RELATED: How To Find More Joy On The Run

Trying too hard can disrupt focus on the present. 

When you go into a performance with the intention to try harder, the fuel source is something that happened in the past. Reflecting on past races and making a plan for how to improve next time is a necessary part of reaching peak performance. But, that mindset isn’t one that should be carried over directly into the performance setting. When you enter a race wanting to try harder because of something that happened in the past, you often feel like you have something to prove. Again, that mindset can be a positive motivator at times and for some people, it works. But, it’s important to be cognizant of when that approach is productive versus unproductive. 

Trying too hard can sometimes feel like trying to outrun a previous poor performance. To run your best, you need a healthy balance of learning and adapting from previous experiences while maintaining the ability to stay present and focus on the trail under your feet. Success in trail running requires time, effort, and consistency. There’s no getting around that. But, there’s a threshold that exists between trying hard and trying too hard. It’s at that tipping point that we fall into a frustrating performance conundrum. If you have found yourself in that trap, it might be time to loosen your grip and  hold things lightly.

RELATED: Emotional Intelligence For Trail Runners


Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada