How Bad Do I Want It?
This is the question I will continually ask myself this year in training, in racing and in life. As I reflect back on my 2015 season and first year of racing as a professional, the answer to that question was consistently “not enough.” While the past year was frustrating for me with a list of sub-par performances, looking back on it now I believe I needed it to expose my weaknesses and to show me what I needed to work on in order to evolve as an athlete. One of those weaknesses was my mental fitness. For me, the challenge of triathlon has become more mental than physical. I have come to realize that talent and hard work alone don’t cut it. Race after race I came away discouraged, as each time I felt like I failed to perform to my potential and my results did not reflect the hard work I was putting into training. I knew I was capable of more. But did I BELIEVE it?
As athletes, and particularly professionals, we’re supposed to love to put ourselves in the hurt box. We’re supposed to love to race. We’re not supposed to get nervous, or anxious, or afraid of putting it all out there and finding testing our personal limit. Right? Not so much. Those things don’t elude us just because of a title. We all experience them to some degree, no matter our level in sport. The difference is just in how we deal with them. Whether we use them to fuel our fire, or put it out. Do we create agony for ourselves or learn how to use our mind to get our body closer to our maximum physical potential? Last year I made a habit of creating agony. But as with anything, the first step to change is awareness and self-exploration and now I want to make 2016 about dealing with it and overcoming it.
Unlike following a training plan, or a nutrition plan, I believe training the mind is a much harder task. It’s how we’re wired and habits that we’ve created over time to cope with pain or discomfort or adversity. I think it takes a lot of practice to undo some of that and put new ways into practice. As my 2015 season went on and I was walking away from each race with the same disappointment and results, I wanted the answer to be in the training plan. Or in my diet. Or the bike I was riding. Those things would be easy to fix. But as the answer became clear to me that it was actually in my own head, I knew I would have a lot of work to do. And the last thing I needed was more work! Being able to admit it and really look at what was going on, has allowed me to embrace the challenge and face it head on.
Looking back over last year compared to my amateur years before that, there was a distinct difference in how I felt when I was racing. I realized I had lost the joy in it and it had somehow become this burden that I was dreading. I always loved what race day meant. It meant tapering, traveling somewhere I may not have been before, getting a chance to put my feet up while getting away from my daily life in order to focus on the task ahead. Now it had all of the sudden become about chasing a result to validate my worth as a professional. Looking for something external rather than focusing internally on what I was capable of.
It started with the race meeting. It was like walking into a fire for me. I suddenly lost all confidence in myself, started sizing up my competition, deciding what the outcome would be, and where I might be able to finish among my competitors. Instantly I felt like a fish out of water. I was creating a race preview in my mind without knowing anything about anyone, or how the day would unfold. My race was essentially over before it had even begun.
Race morning I would wake up without the slightest bit of excitement about what I was getting ready to do. Each time I thought maybe going through my pre-race rituals would somehow get me in the mood. Maybe my music would pump me up. I TOLD myself I was excited and ready to race. But there was a deeper voice inside my head that said “no you’re not.” And I listened to it. Each race was the same. I went through all the motions that got me to the start line, and then the head games began. I was wasting so much energy on negative thoughts but I didn’t know how to stop them. I was creating so much anxiety for myself that by the time the gun went off I already had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I was exhausted halfway through the swim. All because I had yet to have “the” race. The race that would prove to myself and others what I was capable of. Without that result, I didn’t believe I belonged where I was.
Each race unfolded in much the same way. Doing the best I could to calm myself down before the gun went off, I started the swim pretty well, but only for the first few hundred meters or so. And then the “feeling” came. The feeling that determined how my race was going to go. Slowly I would lose anyone in the front pack and often found myself swimming alone. Halfway through the swim I felt like I didn’t resemble anything of a swimmer. And then I had the thought of “today is going to be like all the others.” I would get onto the bike and give myself only a few minutes for my legs to come around before I started to judge how THAT was going to go. And they always started to feel tired and heavy and I thought, “I can’t possibly push anything close to the watts I am capable of. “ Getting off the bike, there was NO WAY I was going to have anything other than a pathetic run. I couldn’t dig myself out of the mental hole I had gone down. Looking back now, how could I possibly have expected myself to perform well under those circumstances?
At the end of the season I took four weeks away from the sport. It allowed me to reflect on the year with a clear head, refresh physically and mentally, and recognize what I needed to work on in the off season. I know it sounds like my year was rather grim, but I have a new fire in me to face this challenge and take away the lessons I learned to make me stronger for 2016. One of the things that I have realized is that my worth as an athlete and the confidence I am looking for is not going to come from a race result. Rather, it is going to come from consistently training at new levels and breaking down old barriers; from letting go of race results and totally immersing myself in the process with a “heads down just do it” mentality. I have to see myself differently before anyone else will. Self-belief has to come first. I believe that 2016 will be about a journey of personal development in which I aim to change on a deeper level in order to change as an athlete. That is something I am committed to and excited about!