Bad race experiences leave athlete and coach alike confused, and the athlete even feels oscillating emotions ranging from despair to lack of hope to frustration and maybe even anger. We do our best to “put it behind us” and move on, and eventually we do. But until we put the bad experience behind us, it eats at us.
The main thing we need to caution against is allowing ourselves to think that a poor race is now the norm, that it is the best for which we can hope. Nobody is perfect, nobody bats 1,000. We can only prepare to the best of our collective capabilities and abilities. If we define ourselves through our race experiences, that’s a slippery slope. It’s one I get in front of with ORION Training Systems athletes and revisit regularly. Ultimately, we choose how to respond to any given “input”. We can take a poor experience and allow it to eat us up, or we can choose to learn from it, apply what we’ve learned and move on. Positives can come out of negatives.
To understand why we react the way we do to positive and negative performances, we need to understand a bit about how we’re hardwired. Dating back millions of years, our brains were wired to interpret sensations negatively, to promote caution and conduct threat assessments. This is how humans survived. Better to mistaken interpret an input as a threat, induce fight-or-flight to some degree and then realize we’re safe than to pass the input off and get eaten by a predator.
Our brains still work this way, and on race day, our brains induce fight-or-flight responses. Every race day experience we have gets catalogued and we draw upon that growing archived body of data for every subsequent competition. Our body and brain tell us how we should expect to feel given the race situation. During a race, we are constantly assessing how we actual feel against the expectations of how we anticipated we would feel. If in the middle of a race we expect to feel strong but instead feel overly fatigued, or the converse in that we expect to feel overly fatigued but instead feel fairly fresh and strong, then the brain goes to work to overcome the mismatch between prediction and reality. If we’re feeling great, we start cracking the whip on our backside and spur ourselves to a PR; we’re elated and there’s even a sense of calm in our heads. It’s like we’re on auto-pilot. If we’re feeling worse than expected, our brain kicks into overdrive. We start to overthink what the hell is going on. Our fatigue deepens, our legs feel even worse; we’re consumed by a defeatist attitude.
Our brain elicits the “right” response. If we’re are in position to achieve a PR or to win a race, the reins get let out and we’re galloping for glory. If instead we feel like a lead weight, if we know we’re having an off day, the brain reacts accordingly and goes into protection mode. When you “don’t have it”, our brain kicks into survival mode. It protects us so we can live to fight another day. If we try to override this, the brain will shut us down. Sometimes we can override the brain, but when we do we’re worse off than if we back it down and shut it down. There’s no shame in a poor performance or a DNF. Better that than dying because you were too proud to not finish a race. It occurs more often than you think.
To raise our chances of success in a race, it is critical we go into the races in the right mindset as well. We can quite literally set ourselves up for success or failure. When I think of this lesson, I think back to my early-year competitive swimming days. I was 12 years old and it was at the 3-day Weber Kettle meet in Arlington Heights, so named because if a swimmer won High Point for the weekend – most accumulated points based on placings across all events entered; in other words, the most well-rounded swimmer in his/her age group – then he/she was given a Weber Kettle BBQ. This particular year, I was set to win High Point for the 11-12 age group. I had been swimming well and setting some PRs. On the last day, however, my mindset shifted about halfway through the day. I had 2 events left, I was tired and I didn’t particularly feel like swimming either of them. I first asked then pleaded with my coach to skip the first of the 2 events. Rightly, he said no. I had committed and it was important to fulfill my commitments – to myself, to him, to my teammates. This wasn’t about High Point. I was steaming I was so mad, but I bit my lip and swam the event. And absolutely SUCKED. I felt like I was dragging an anchor and felt overly fatigued from the first stroke. In a roughly 2-minute race, I was 10 seconds off my PR. My best time would have placed me second. Instead, I don’t even remember where I finished. I just remember feeling terrible – not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. It was a tough lesson to learn, but one I vowed to avoid repeating.
As a coach, I’ve seen the athletes I work with excel and also race poorly. Sometimes, it is easy to dissect the reason for an underperformance. Other times, it’s a complete head scratcher for both of us. Sometimes we can pinpoint a root cause. Sometimes we can point to an ancillary cause. We can sometimes only shrug our shoulders and make assumptions. The goal is to pick the athlete up, dust him/her off, and help him/her look forward to the next race positively. One poor performance does not create a pattern of underperformance. In the moment, it is challenging to remember this, but remember it we must. We need some distance between us and the negative input before we can more objectively assess it and move on. But, move on we do. Move on we must.
How we react to bad races in turn establishes our status quo reaction to them. If our habit is to cry and feel like the world is ending and beat ourselves down, then that habit will be extremely hard to break. And, it puts you in a state of consistent fear – the “flight” in fight-or-flight. You are prey instead of predator. This is an underlying premise in why the ORION Training Systems tag line is “Become the hunter.” Being a hunter needs to be pervasive in your mindset and in your preparation. If you prepare like a hunter, you will hunt. If you prepare like prey, you will be hunted down.
Most often, it is not a lack of fitness that results in a poor performance. Yet, that is always identified as the culprit. If we had done more volume or more speedwork, surely the outcome would have been not only different but better. Instead, I challenge you to look at your mindset. What sort of mindset do you carry on a daily basis into your training, especially those workouts marked as benchmarks – the challenging ones that are grinders and no fun at all, yet provide us with clear markers of our fitness and preparation.
What kind of environment have you been creating and what kind of experiences are you habitualizing? Are you consistently creating “fight” or “flight”? Are you becoming the hunter, or are you becoming the prey?