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I have spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint and identify what exactly leads to mental performance breakdowns in races. That curiosity has driven me to have many intriguing conversations with some of the most experienced athletes and coaches in the sport. There are quite a few different mental deficits that can cause a disappointing race result, but there was one that kept coming up over and over, again. Almost every athlete and coach referred to the same concept – performance is greatly affected when the actual experience of the race doesn’t match expectations or the image the athlete had in their head. Going into any experience with rigid assumptions or beliefs about how you think it’s going to go creates the perfect environment for some dysfunctional thought patterns to flourish. Primarily, the inability to adapt to your circumstances.
Be Open-minded and Curious
According to trail runner and coach David Roche, athletes tend to idealize the experience going into a race. When things start the struggle sets in and an athlete hasn’t planned for how they are going to respond, it’s much easier to shut down, thinking “this experience is nothing like what I thought it would be.” Not only is your brain having to interpret an experience it’s not super familiar with, but it’s also pretty uncomfortable and even downright painful, at times.
David encourages his athletes to think about the hard stuff they are going to face, long before they get there. Great performances happen in spite of or even because of adversity, not in the absence of it. Every time you face a new challenge, you learn more about yourself. As Courtney Dauwalter has said about low points and dark moments in races, “You don’t get to summon those whenever you want.” Approach those times with an open mind and the curiosity to discover what you can endure. They are a gift. Without resistance on your path, you don’t get to find out how much you can persist through. You’re stronger than you think you are. Give yourself the chance to prove it.
Great performances happen in spite of or even because of adversity, not in the absence of it.
Respond, Don’t React
One thing that racing continues to teach me is that I don’t have it all figured out. Just when I think I do, there’s a new lesson to be learned. There have been many times in a race when things weren’t going the way I planned, and I just reacted without logic. Reacting puts you on the defensive. It often involves a victim mindset and invokes some pretty negative emotions. Anyone else ever had a full-blown pity party on the trail mid-race? Yea, me too.
On the other hand, responding to the same circumstances means taking in the new information and adjusting. Take away your perception or preconceived notions about what the experience means. The mental and emotional flexibility to problem solve a challenge is a superpower when it comes to trail running. Reacting is a passive action while responding is an active one. Whether it’s shifting your race plan, adjusting your perspective, or trouble-shooting a nutrition issue, empower yourself with adaptability.
Persistence, Not Stubbornness
Another potential negative outcome of being too mentally and emotionally rigid is stubbornness. When the reality on race day doesn’t match the highlight reel you’ve been running in your head, a common reaction is denial. When things get hard the impulse might be to dig in, and beat the race into submission. The problem with that is it sometimes includes tunnel vision. When you’re so focused on forcing the race to play out in a way that matches your expectations, you miss all the cues and feedback of the reality you’re in. Or worse, you ignore them. Stubbornness sets in and you’re no longer being an active participant in your race. I’m not suggesting that this mindset means giving up on your goals. It means knowing what you’re capable of achieving without believing there’s only way for you to do that. To me, persistence means striving towards your goal even if that means taking a different path than you thought it would.
There’s nothing more dangerous than falling into the trap of thinking you have it all figured out.
There’s nothing more dangerous than falling into the trap of thinking you have it all figured out. Without the curiosity to learn more about yourself, it’s hard to push through difficult experiences. Being prepared and ready to have the most successful performance means equipping yourself with the skills you need to respond and adapt to anything that the trail throws at you. Increased fitness and preparation don’t give you increased control. If anything, it just gives you the illusion of it. An open-mind, the willingness to adapt and a Swiss Army knife of mental and physical skills equip you to tap deep into the well of possibilities.
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.