Very few of us have smooth, stress-free lives. In fact, it’s proven over and over that the best athletes in adulthood tend to be those who, when growing up, learned to balance a lot of spinning plates. When you are forced to segment and compartmentalize in order to balance school, work, homework, year-round sports, friends, a social life and more, you then get really, really good at also not making excuses. From the time you get up to the time you go to bed is all about “getting shit done.” Distractions are a nuisance and are largely drowned out.
So, what happens as we get older? In some respects, Life gets easier. While we have to be at work, we tend to be able to better control our workday than a student can control the school day. We also don’t have to bring work home with us (though some choose to do so, or have to do so on occasion) while a student does when homework needs attention. In other respects, life gets harder. When we have kids, our time is no longer our own. Balancing the more complex and far-reaching drains on free time becomes trickier and we have to find new ways to regain some of the flexibility that came more easily before kids entered into the mix.
What I find with adult athletes is some are still very effective at compartmentalizing while others are not. Some find a way to “get shit done” while others allow the chaos to reign. As I stated above, disruptions occur and sometimes they get the better of all of us. Sometimes we all have to forego a workout because something more important came up that deserves our attention now, not later. And that’s OK. It is when this is the rule rather than the exception that athletes need to take a look in the mirror and do some introspection.
I put disruptions into two different buckets: Micro and Macro. Micro disruptions are the small ones, the ones that tend to hit us just about every day. Macro disruptions are those that hit less frequently but impact us for longer periods of time. Both impact our training and athletic endeavors in different ways, yet both need to be addressed. And it is critical for athletes to understand the difference, realize the impact both types of distractions have on their preparation, and ultimately learn how to deal with them.
Examples of Micro distractions include but are not limited to:
· Having to go to work for an early-morning meeting (or staying late)
· Taking the car to the shop during your lunch hour
· Picking up slack because your spouse or partner has his or her own disruption for the day
· Meeting a friend whom you haven’t seen in awhile for a beer after work
These types of distractions are warranted. And, if the choice is do these things or work out, then doing these things take precedence. These Micro distractions don’t occur every day, so I view them as curveballs which get thrown at us; sometimes we hit the pitch, most often we don’t.
Where athletes need to start looking in the mirror is when Micro distractions become the rule rather than the exception. To discern this, I look for patterns. Are athletes consistently cutting workouts short, even ones that are of reasonable duration? Are athletes late to group workouts or miss them altogether because “time got away.”? Do athletes skip more than 10-15% of their workouts (I’m assuming the training plan is both reasonable and realistic to begin with)? Are these Micro disruptions couched with what sound like excuses rather than valid reasons?
You see, time management is of critical importance. Just about every decision athletes make will either point them toward or away from their goals. So, first athletes need to acknowledge this. Then, athletes need to understand the ramifications of their choices. Choosing a beer with a friend over an evening swim once in awhile – go for it! Relax the reins and shake it out; you’ll be better off for it. But, a beer turning into a handful and “after work” turning into “getting home late” and feeling like shit when the alarm goes off the next morning for your Masters swim workout so you roll back over and skip it, which leads to lethargy all day and you miss your lunchtime strength session to boot … you get the picture. We’re not perfect and no coach should expect perfection. But if the snowball rolls either based on one Micro distraction (as in this example) or consistent Micro distractions adding up, then this indicates a problem with prioritization by the athletes which needs to be addressed between them and their coaches. Sooner rather than later.
Examples of Macro distractions include but are not limited to:
· Starting a new job
· Getting injured
· Being hit by a longer-term illness (more than a couple days)
Some Macro distractions are under our control. For example, we choose to change occupations or to move. Others can hit us like a ton of bricks, like when we get laid out flat by sickness. Macro distractions create immediate and sometimes lasting impact. Athletes tend to be very good at communicating Macro distractions to their coaches because their signs are very clear and very easy to identify. Coaches can then adjust training plans to account for the Macro disruption for as long as it lasts as well as any additional adjustments which need to occur to get their athletes back into the full swing of things. Starting a new job may require anywhere from zero to multiple weeks of adjustments to a training program. A bad bike crash may require some time fully out of commission followed by weeks of building back up to full training. A two-week vacation during which the athlete can conduct some workouts in a hotel gym is a different scenario than one in which the athlete completely disengages from exercise.
Macro distractions are easier to deal with and adjust to because both the athlete and the coach know when they are occurring. They can’t be hidden and there needs to be regular communication between both parties leading up to a known Macro distraction (like a vacation) or after it occurs (like a sickness or injury). That communication needs to extend past the Macro distraction’s conclusion until such time as both athlete and coach feel the training plan is back on the rails.
You might think that Macro distractions are more impactful to an athlete’s training plan and progress. Barring the outlier examples – such as a season-ending injury that lays an athlete up for many weeks or months – it is Micro distractions which are more negatively impactful. Their nefarious nature means that in looking at them as isolated instances, they appear innocuous, but taken in totality it is fairly easy to see their negative impact to an athlete’s progress. The problem is that many athletes lack the perspective to take a step back, see the forest for the trees and understand the self-defeating pattern they’ve created. It’s a scenario of “death by a thousand cuts” – each individual cut stings for a couple seconds but then you forget about it, but eventually the impact of all the cuts adds up and you drop dead. While training and racing is not so dramatic, the impact of Micro distractions is no different. One or two here or there is a case of no harm, no foul. Consistent and fairly constant disruptions will absolutely negatively impact your progress in training and, thus, your results in racing.
If you find yourself falling short of your goals, it might be time for you to take that step back and try to see the forest for the trees. Are you sabotaging yourself with a bunch of Micro distractions that with better time management or discipline could otherwise be avoided? When you talk about your Micro distractions, are there feelings of guilt and do they come out sounding like so many excuses? If you’re aware you’re doing this, then that could be a clear signal that you may be ready to move on from the sport for which you train and in which you compete. If you were not aware you were your own worst enemy and now you are, then look at this as a learning experience. List all the Micro distractions and determine which were unavoidable and, therefore, acceptable compared to those which were avoidable but evolved into excuse-laden dissertations when communicating with your coach (or yourself, if you’re self-coached).
As I stated at the outset, Life happens. And, there is so, so much more to life than training and racing. However, these things are important to us. While training and racing do not in-and-of-themselves define us, they are parts of who we are. And our athletic pursuits require a lot – A LOT – of blood, sweat and tears. So, if you’re not getting out of them what you feel you’re putting into them, think about the distractions in your life and be honest with how they have or may be impacting your athletic pursuits. If you identify areas for improvement, especially regarding Micro distractions, then you will be taking a big step toward more fulfilling training and better race results.