Mental Training

Avoiding The Comparison Trap

What do doubt, disappointment, frustration, and low confidence all have in common? They’re each a product of focusing on the wrong reference point as a measurement for success, joy or fulfillment. It’s not always quite that simple and there are instances when there are a lot more factors present. But, I still feel as though I can make a strong case for the value of asking yourself “what’s my reference point?” anytime you’re experiencing one of those unpleasant mental and emotional reactions. Let me explain. 

Comparison With Others

Let’s start with one of the most common traps that many of us fall into at some point or other – comparing ourselves to others. Symptoms of this can show up as things like imposter syndrome, fear or anxiety, and lack of confidence. Often times when an athlete is experiencing one of those symptoms, the cause can be traced back to some version of comparison. Maybe they feel imposter syndrome because they are using someone else’s list of accomplishments as a means of measurement for their own achievements. Maybe an athlete is experiencing fear or doubt before a race because they looked at a competitors’ Strava data and noticed they ran a lot more miles than he or she did. 

But, when it comes to assessing your own performance, there should only be one human in the equation – you. 

Regardless of how it shows up, using someone else as our reference point is rarely helpful. Sure, there’s a time and place to learn from others and gain knowledge from their experiences. But, when it comes to assessing your own performance, there should only be one human in the equation – you. 

Comparison With Previous Experience

Another common comparison trap that I’ve seen athletes fall into is that of evaluating how a performance is going based on how it relates to previous experiences. Again, there’s utility in this thought pattern in some scenarios. Previous experiences with both success and failure are how we learn, adapt, plan, and perform better in the future. But, when you’re in the midst of a race and things are harder than they were last time, or conditions are more challenging, or the race simply isn’t playing out the way it usually does, I’ve found that it’s that much easier to give up and throw in the towel when you get hung up on those details fall short of other more positive experiences. 

Those types of races can quickly send athletes down a negative thought spiral of “that previous race was just a fluke” or “I’m just not good anymore” or “this isn’t even worth it.”  Each time you line up, you should be doing so with the acceptance that it’s going to be a brand new experience. There’s no way to ever know exactly what we are in for when we set off down the trail and that’s the beauty of it all. Previous experiences help with preparation, but they never guarantee control or predictability. Embrace the unknown with curiosity. Resist the urge to evaluate today’s run based on how similar or dissimilar it is to yesterday’s. 

Comparison With Idealized Experience

Lastly, one of the most common comparison traps that athletes fall into is evaluating how well a performance is going based on much it resembles the way they THOUGHT it would go. We all create an image in our heads leading into races or performances, usually on how we want things to play out. Projecting into the future and imagining different scenarios and outcomes is a uniquely human ability and can be a superpower. It allows for planning and preparing for different challenges we may face. Daydreaming can also be powerful fuel for motivation and the drive to put in the work needed to accomplish a goal that is set in the future. 

In trail running and in life, things are going to be hard sometimes.

The problem occurs when we become especially triumphant with those daydreams and begin to idealize an experience. When we have a shiny, smooth, ideal vision in our heads going into a race it can make the inevitable bumps in the trail feel insurmountable when coming up against them. Even worse, it can make things feel “unfair” or like you’re not getting to experience the race that you “deserve.” When you really break it down, it becomes obvious how silly it is to gauge an experience you’re having based on how it does or doesn’t resemble a fictional story that you created in your mind. 

You’re going to be challenged. You’re going to fall short. The only way to embrace the struggle, to learn from the setbacks, and to have the confidence to keep striving is to avoid the various comparison traps that will try to steer you off course.

In trail running and in life, things are going to be hard sometimes. The byproduct of testing yourself by doing hard things is that you’re going to hit low points. You’re going to be challenged. You’re going to fall short. The only way to embrace the struggle, to learn from the setbacks, and to have the confidence to keep striving is to avoid the various comparison traps that will try to steer you off course. Next time you’re experiencing doubt, disappointment, or fear, ask yourself “what’s my reference point?” The answer to the question might just lead you to finding the root of the psychological breakdown that’s standing in the way of your best and most enjoyable race. 

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