All posts by Dr. Jim Taylor
Ironman is the ultimate in triathlon competition. It’s the standard by which triathlon is known to the world at large. When I began doing triathlons, almost every non-tri person I met would ask if I had done an Ironman (that’s all they knew), as if that is the only badge of honor in our sport. Within our sport, Ironman competitors are accorded a certain reverence. Because of its status, the pull of doing an Ironman is strong for any triathlete who takes his or her participation seriously. Putting in the training time, going the distance, crossing the line as an Ironman finisher (even qualifying for Kona!) are all heady stuff that can act as a siren’s call for triathletes.
But should you do an Ironman? Though training for and finishing an Ironman can be a positive, life-enriching experience, it can also be a source of personal, work, and social stress, a cause of injuries, and a less than satisfying experience in which the costs outweigh the benefits. As a two-time Ironman finisher and a sport psychologist who works with triathletes, I encourage you to give careful thought to this question to make sure that, if you choose to do an Ironman, you do it for reasons that are healthy and beneficial.
We live in a ‘more is better’ society. Triathletes can get in the trap of “If I feel good doing an Olympic, I’ll feel even better doing a half-Ironman, and if I feel that good doing a half, I’ll feel even better doing an Ironman.” But we often forget that, like most things, triathlon can have a point of diminishing returns; longer distances won’t necessarily give you greater benefits in terms of enjoyment or fitness. Gosh, is Ironman even enough? Now there is Xterra, double Ironman races, Eco-Challenge, Mt. Everest! There is always a greater challenge; harder courses, tougher conditions, faster competitors, more demanding events. When is enough enough?
We also live in a society in which many people are looking for that elusive something called happiness, self-esteem, or inner peace. We meditate, practice yoga, and, yes, race triathlons. If you are looking for answers to your life’s questions in these experiences, you will probably end up frustrated and unsatisfied because those answers will, in all likelihood, not be found in an Ironman. Ironman will not stop you from running (and biking and swimming) away from your problems. Ironman won’t bring you contentment. It won’t make you a better person. You won’t love yourself more. You won’t be respected more by others. If you are doing an Ironman for the wrong reasons, it is simply not the answer to the questions that you are probably asking yourself.
There are many good reasons for doing an Ironman. Ironman can offer you physical and mental challenges that can free you to test yourself in other areas of your life. It can inspire you, give you confidence, improve your focus, show you how to deal with emotions, and help you learn to overcome pain. Ironman can teach you lessons about patience, perseverance, persistence, and adversity that can benefit you in your work, relationships, and other activities. And you can get great joy (the tri-high!) out of your Ironman experience.
Though the above benefits are important, they are not what Ironman triathletes talk about most when I ask them why they race Ironman distance. With almost complete unanimity, they talk about the people: the camaraderie and the bond that they feel with other Ironman triathletes. Ironman training is very social: master’s swims, long rides and runs, track workouts. Ironman races are noted for their social activities: the pre- and post-race banquets, meals out, the athlete village, the race itself (misery loves company!). Of course, the same sort of social benefits can be found in shorter triathlon training and races, though the bond and the shared experience may be less strong because the investment and suffering is not as great.
The Price of Ironman
Ironman does have its costs as well. It is hugely time consuming; expect that, for 6-9 months, your life will revolve around Ironman. You will make sacrifices in your work and other activities in which you might have been actively involved. Your relationships with family and friends will be tested. You may very well alienate loved ones and lose touch with friends who are not involved in the sport (I know a triathlete who is getting divorced because of his Ironman involvement).
Ironman is also physically demanding. You will be tired and hungry most of the time. Because of the volume and intensity of training, your immune system will be vulnerable and you will likely get sick more easily and more often. Injuries are a common part of the Ironman lifestyle because of the sheer quantity of training and the unhealthy demands you place on your body. Are there physical benefits to Ironman training? Perhaps, but is a 100-mile ride that much better for you than a 50-mile ride? It’s a question of diminishing returns that you must answer for yourself. Ironman is also emotionally taxing. The physical ups and downs of Ironman training often produce stress and emotional highs and lows that you may have never felt before.
The race itself produces varied reactions from people. Some competitors describe the race as a nonstop joyfest in which they revel in every moment. Others describe it as 140.6 miles of hell: the apprehension and fear of the swim, the persistent discomfort and boredom of the bike, the painful and seemingly never-ending miles of the marathon (with most competitors walking much of it). I must admit that I didn’t enjoy either of my Ironman races. Spending that much time physically uncomfortable was just not my idea of fun. I found the ride particularly unpleasant; six-plus hours on a bike is way too much time in a saddle—and you still have to run a marathon!
The finish is the climactic—and perhaps the most interesting—part of an Ironman. I love seeing finishers jumping with joy, high fiving spectators, carrying their children across the finish line. The purity of their elation is inspiring. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that kind of reaction. The best emotion I could muster in both of my Ironman races was relief that it was over. I also sobbed uncontrollably after finishing both of my Ironman races (tears of joy, sadness, or just release, I don’t know). In speaking with other Ironman finishers, my reaction was not unusual.
In the weeks and months after their races, many Ironman finishers I have spoken with told me how the Ironman had changed their lives. They felt that they were different people who responded to world in new and better ways. These Ironman triathletes felt inspired, more capable, and ready to tackle their life’s challenges head on. Their appreciation of Ironman was heartfelt and many spoke about doing another. Others said they were depressed, listless, and felt rudderless and unmotivated. These Ironman triathletes questioned the value of the race and were uncertain whether they would continue with triathlon at any distance. My Ironman races weren’t life altering for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did them. I conquered a great challenge, I met and became friends with some wonderful people, and I will always be an Ironman. But, having done two Ironman races, I have decided that, given my overall life, the costs overshadow the benefits and I have decided not to do another Ironman for a long time if ever (never say never).
I don’t mean to sound like a downer trying to discourage you from doing an Ironman. Rather, I am trying to show you there are two sides to doing an Ironman and you don’t often hear about the “darker” side. Only you can decide whether an Ironman is worth it to you. By asking you to think twice before you step up to an Ironman, I want you to ask yourself two questions. First, do you want to do an Ironman for the right reasons? Second, within your overall life picture, will an Ironman be worth it?
“I wonder.” How often you have made this simple statement? I’m going to guess quite frequently. How often have you heard it from others? I’ll bet even more often. Anytime an interesting question is asked, “I wonder” seems to naturally appear in our psyches. It’s only two words, yet those two words are far more powerful than you may realize.
What makes wonder such a powerful force? It is the wellspring from which engaged and expansive thinking emerges. Curiosity, an essential source of intellectual inquiry, is piqued. Your mental gears start turning and your synapses begin firing. You feel excitement and an urge to know more. Curiosity propels you to seek out an answer.
You examine different facets of the question and explore its depths. If you’re with others, you may argue, disagree, and in the end, find consensus or clash vehemently. All of which catalyze new iterations of the question and new roads to explore as you further ponder the question.
You theorize positive answers to the question. You question the question, wondering if other questions are more relevant. You express skepticism of answers that are proffered.
You think creatively and innovatively. You have an insight and maybe even an epiphany.
And, at the end of this intellectual and intuitive journey, you make a discovery that may be new only to you or that may change the world. In either case, it is as if a seed that was planted by “I wonder.” grows and blossoms into the most beautiful flower you have ever seen.
None of this will happen if you or someone you are with blurts out the ultimate intellectual and creative buzzkill: “Let’s Google it!” In a millisecond, the answer to the question appears and any further conversation ceases immediately. Yes, you may have gotten the answer to your question, and wasn’t that so nice and tidy. But, at what cost? The question, and any conversation or subsequent mental gymnastics that it might have generated, dies an immediate and unfortunate death. At the very moment that “Let’s Google it!” is uttered, the life of the seed that may have bloomed into a stimulating discussion, or maybe even a new and “rock our world” idea, withers away.
Okay, I will concede that it is possible that learning the answer from an Internet search might actually inspire further thinking and discussions, but that hasn’t been my experience.
The Internet has brought us a universe of information when we want it with minimal effort. Now isn’t that a blessing? In many ways, yes it is. We can learn about anything just by turning to our smartphones, tablets, or computers. There’s no doubt that there is practical utility in having this wealth of information at our finger tips, for example, looking up directions, finding a recipe, or planning a vacation.
At the same time, Googling it can be the path of least resistance. It’s just too easy, it’s intellectually lazy. When it comes to ideas, it neither inspires nor challenges us. Information can be useful, but it can also put our thinking in a box. And don’t forget that the search results that appear aren’t random or necessarily accurate.
Sure, we have more information, but information alone has limited value, even less so when it isn’t allowed to grow into knowledge, insight, and wisdom. And this evolution can only occur if we are given the time, space, and uncertainty to allow a question or idea to grow and flourish in our minds or within a group. The effortless availability of information becomes akin to fast food for the mind: readily obtained, immediately gratifying, but ultimately unnourishing.
What are the consequences of ideas never seeing the light of day? What happens when ideas are stifled by too much information? How many important ideas would be lost before they even have time to take root? What impact will the immediacy of information have on future creativity, innovation, and progress? All for the loss of a two-word statement.
Okay, if you want to do an Internet search to find the closest Thai restaurant, that’s fine. But, the next time a really intriguing question comes up that causes you to say “I wonder.” and someone responds with an enthusiastic “Let’s Google it!”, tell them, “No thanks. I would rather just wonder.”
antisocialanxietyfear of failuremental healthnarcissismperfectionismpsychologyunhappiness
Obsessive man laying on grass, perfection
I’ve written quite a bit about how unhealthy perfectionism is for both children and adults. Yes, it can drive you maniacally to become successful. But it can also create a powerful fear of failure that ultimately prevents you from being truly successful. Plus, I’ve never met a happy perfectionist (“What’s to be happy about, I’m not perfect.”).
Here’s an article that describes an interesting new study that distinguishes another type of perfectionist, namely, one who expects other people to be perfect. Adding to the typical costs of perfectionism, this ‘dark’ form of perfectionism is associated with narcissistic, antisocial and uncaring personality characteristics.
Like all endurance sports, triathlon success involves preserving and apportioning out your energy evenly during a race. Burn too much gas early in a race and you’re finished before T2. Run out of gas late in the race and you have no fuel for a strong finish. In either case, you’re in for one horrendous sufferfest that keeps you from achieving your triathlon goals and sucks the fun out of racing triathlons. One of the best tools you have in your tri-toolbox for saving your energy is learning to staying relaxed before and during a triathlon. There are four places during a triathlon in which staying relaxed is especially important: before the start, early in the swim and bike, and late in the race.
The greatest threat to staying relaxed and preserving your energy before your start is anxiety. The swim alone is anxiety provoking for most triathletes. You’re about to face a big physical and mental challenge. Most of the triathletes around you are nervous. Your heart is pounding, your adrenaline is pumping, you’re sweating, you’re worrying about the race, and you’re burning fuel that you can’t afford to lose.
Some triathletes make this anxiety worse by worrying about it (“Oh my gosh, I’m nervous. Maybe I’m not ready for this. What am I doing here?”) until they work themselves up into a full-blown panic attack. The first thing you want to do is realize that some pre-race anxiety is normal; everyone feels it to some degree. In psychology jargon, we call it “anticipatory arousal,” which means that your body is getting ready for a challenge. You want to make sure your pre-race anxiety doesn’t get out of hand and drain your fuel tank. You also want to take steps to relax yourself so you minimize your energy burn rate.
The most basic, yet most powerful, thing you can do to reduce your anxiety is breath. When you get nervous, your breathing system becomes constricted, your breaths become shorter and you get less oxygen into your system. As oxygen is essential for endurance sports, this is obviously not a good thing! As you go through your pre-race preparation, be aware of your breathing and consciously take slow, deep breaths on a regular basis. Also, keep your body moving. If you allow yourself to sit or stand still for too long, your muscles will tighten up. Walk around, stretch, shake out your arms and legs, anything to keep your blood flowing and your muscles relaxed. Another underappreciated tool for staying relaxed is to talk to people. By talking to your fellow competitors, you take your mind off the race and can share support and encouragement with each other.
The next place staying relaxed is important is in the early stages of the swim. Just before the start of the swim, everybody’s anxiety increases, adrenaline is flowing, and there can be a tendency to go out too fast. That’s why it’s so common to see triathletes sprinting the first 200 yards of the swim and then having to slow down considerably to catch their breath. To keep from “cooking” yourself early in the race, just before the start take a few more deep breaths, then, when the horn goes off, focus on starting off with a smooth, relaxed, and consistent stroke at a pace that you want to maintain throughout the swim. You will still go out a bit faster than your normal pace, but you’ll settle in more quickly and you won’t burn too much fuel before the pack separates.
Going out too fast and building up lactic acid early in the race can also happen right out of T1 on the bike. Because you’re probably thrilled to have gotten out of the water alive, your adrenaline is probably pumping again and, because it’s early in the race, you still have tons of energy. Just like the swim, there’s a tendency to put the hammer down and go out of T1 too hard. Of course, the problem is that you’ll burn tons of fuel in the process. As soon as you get on your bike, take a few deep breaths, settle your body down, focus on establishing a steady cadence and, most importantly, ignore the riders who may be flying by you (either they’re just faster than you or you’ll see them later in the race after they run out of gas).
The end of the race is where staying relax is most important. Once you’re well into the run, your two greatest enemies, fatigue and pain, show their ugly faces. At this point in the race, your body’s feeling threatened and it takes steps to protect itself by tensing up (think of a muscle cramp as a really loud plea from your body to stop!). Unfortunately, this tension actually increases fatigue, burns more fuel, and causes more pain. You can slow your energy drain and lessen the pain you feel by actively relaxing your body. Focusing on taking slow, deep breaths ensures that you get enough oxygen into your system and helps your muscles to relax. Checking your running posture, stride, and pace will help you be sure you’re running as efficiently and relaxed as possible. As your body braces itself, your shoulders and arms will tense, which not only increases fatigue and pain, but also raises your center of gravity and shortens your stride. To counter this reaction, you can shake out your arms and hands, and settle your shoulders. Finally, one of the most effective, and oddest, ways to relax in the face of fatigue and pain is to smile. Smiling releases endorphins which have a real relaxing effect on you. It also generates some positive thoughts and emotions which take your mind off the fatigue and pain you feel as you approach the finish.
All of these strategies will enable you to conserve your fuel throughout your race so you’ll have energy to burn at the end. While other triathletes are out of gas and slogging their way to the end, in the last few miles, you have the fuel to now put the hammer down and cross the finish line strong in a burst of energy.
The most powerful psychological tool you have at your disposal to achieve your triathlon goals is positive self-talk. What you say to yourself when you’re in the pool, on your bike, or in your running shoes affects what you think, how you feel, and how you perform. It also will often determine the quality of your workouts and your results in your races. Whatever you think more of—whether positive or negative—will determine the road you go down.
Yet negativity is rampant in the triathlon world. You hear it during swims, rides, and runs. And it sucks the life and love out training and races. You may be a victim of negative self-talk too. If your talk is negative, your thoughts and feelings will be negative. Negative self-talk involves thinking or saying anything that reflects a lack of confidence and a defeatist attitude, for example, “I’m going to do lousy terribly today,” “I stink,” and “I can’t deal with these conditions.” If you say these things, you’re convincing yourself that you have little chance. With that attitude, you really have no chance because not only is the rest of the field and the course against you, but you are against you too. You’ve become your own worst enemy. Your motivation will disappear, you’ll get nervous, lose focus, feel frustration, anger, and despair, and experience much more pain. You will definitely not be having fun out there.
If your talk is positive, your thoughts and feelings will be positive. Sounds like a good thing to me (and I know it is from first-hand experience!). Don’t say, “I don’t have a chance today.” Say, “I’m going to try my hardest today. I’m going to perform the best I can.” That will get you positive and fired up. By using positive self-talk, you’ll be your own best ally. You show yourself that, despite the fact that the rest of the field may be against you and the course is trying to break you, you’re on your own side.
Positive self-talk helps you in many ways. It increases your motivation to work hard because you believe that your efforts will be rewarded. You’re relaxed and focused because you know you can handle anything that is thrown at you by the course and the weather. Your emotions reflect your positive self-talk with feelings of excitement and joy. Positive self-talk can counter feelings of fatigue. And, as they say, “You will feel no pain” (or at least a lot less).
Most importantly, positive self-talk helps keep your mind strong and your body going, especially when your body starts to weaken. As your body wears down late in workouts and races, it will communicate to your mind that it has had enough—“I get the point! We can stop now.” If your mind listens to your body and responds with negative self-talk—“my body is so tired I can’t go on,” “this hurts too much to continue”—your body will take over your mind, your body and your mind will give up, and you will fail to achieve your goals. Positive self-talk can help your mind assert itself over your body, so when your body is yelling at you to stop, your mind can say, “NO! Keep going. That’s an order!” And your body will almost always keep going.
Positive self-talk is especially valuable when you think your tank is empty. Unless you’re having a Julie Moss moment (recalling her unforgettable 1982 Ironman Hawaii experience where her body simply gave out and only a supreme and inspiring effort enabled her to crawl the last 100 yards and cross the finish), there is always something left. Positive self-talk is the only thing that can take you from where you think there is nothing left to where there is nothing left. It is your greatest tool against fatigue and pain. Positive self-talk will allow you to tap into that final reserve at the end of a race that will allow you to perform your very best. If you can say, “Keep at it. This is what I’ve worked so hard for. I will not give up,” then your body will listen—however reluctantly—and you will cross the finish not only having succeeded against the course and the clock, but also having claimed victory over your greatest challenge—YOU—and there is no greater joy than that!
Training positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is a simple, but not easy, strategy. It’s simple because all you have to do is replace your negative self-talk with positive statements. It’s not easy because you may have developed some poor self-talk habits that are difficult to change. You begin retraining your self-talk by looking at the situations in which you tend to become negative, for example, when you have to do a cold open-water swim, at 60 miles of a bike ride, or in the fifth of ten 800-meter intervals (See Know Your Talk form).
Next, figure out exactly why you become negative in these situations. Common reasons we have found include fatigue, boredom, pain, frustration, and despair. All triathletes have “hot button” issues that trigger negativity. Finding out what yours are is essential to changing your self-talk. Then, monitor what you say to yourself. I’ve found that triathletes tend to rely on favorite negative self-talk when their buttons get pushed, for example, “Gosh, I suck,” “You’re such a loser,” and “What’s the point of even trying.” Realizing what you say and how bad it is for you is an important step in changing your self-talk. For most of the triathletes I’ve worked with there is a consistent pattern of the situations in which negative self-talk arises, the causes of the negativity, and the specific self-talk they express.
Before you go out and face those hot-button situations again, choose some positive self-talk with which you can replace your usual negative self-talk. The positive self-talk should be encouraging, but it must also be realistic. If you say things like, “I love being out here” when you really don’t or “I ‘m feeling so strong” even when you don’t, there’s no way you’ll buy what you’re saying. Acknowledging the hot button, but putting a positive and realistic spin on it will make it more likely you’ll believe what you’re saying, such as “If I keep working hard, good things will happen” and “This really hurts, but its money in the bank for my race.” By putting this new tool in your toolbox before your buttons get pushed, you’ll have more ready access to it and have a better chance of responding more positively.
At this point, training yourself to use positive self-talk depends on your ongoing commitment to it and focus on it. Because negative self-talk may be so ingrained, you’ll have to constantly remind yourself to be positive. Realizing when the hot-button situations are approaching will prepare you for your buttons gets to pushed and help you focus on what you say when it happens. At first, you will probably “fall off the wagon” and slip back to your old, negative ways, but just accept it as part of the process and return to being positive when you realize it. With time and persistence, you’ll see a gradual shift away from negativity and toward positive self-talk until you realize that you just went through one of those hot-button situations and you stayed psyched.
Balance the scales. When I work with triathletes, I have them chart the number of positive and negative things they say during training and races. In most cases, the negatives far outnumber the positives. In an ideal world, I would love to eliminate all negatives and have triathletes only express positives. But this is the real world and any triathlete who cares about the sport is going to think negatively sometimes.
In dealing with this reality, you should try to balance the scales. If you’re going to be negative when you make mistakes and perform poorly, you should also be positive when you perform well. The immediate goal is to increase the positives. This means rewarding yourself when you perform well. If you beat yourself up over an error, why shouldn’t you pat yourself on the back when you get it right. Unfortunately, too many triathletes are very tough on themselves and beat themselves up when they fail to live up to their extremely high expectations, but don’t congratulate themselves when they do. Tell yourself “ nice effort” when you gave a nice effort. Give yourself a “job well done” when you have done the job well. You worked hard and you deserve a reward.
Once you’ve balanced the scales by increasing your positives, your next goal is to tip the scales in the positive direction by reducing the negatives. Ask why you’re so hard on yourself when you perform poorly. The best triathletes in the world don’t always perform their best. Why shouldn’t it be okay for you to have down periods in your performances?
This step of tipping the scales toward positives is so important because of some recent research that found that negative experiences such as negative self-talk, negative body language, and negative emotions carry more weight than positive experiences. In fact, it takes 12 positive experiences to equal one negative experience. What this means is that for every negative express you make about yourself, whether saying something negative or screaming in frustration, you must express yourself positively 12 times to counteract that one negative expression.
Ultimately, you want to tip the scale heavily in the positive direction. Sure, you’re going to say some negative things periodically. That’s just part of being human and being a triathlete (no, you can’t be one or the other). You get tired, sick, and injured. You get frustrated, angry, depressed. The conditions get the better of you. So you get down on yourself once in a while. But you generally respond well to the situations that used to push your buttons and the preponderance of what say is positive.
Using negative thinking positively. As I mentioned earlier, even though I very much emphasize being positive at all times, the fact is, you can’t always be positive. You don’t always perform as well as you want and there is going to be some negative thinking. This awareness was brought home to me USAT national team training camp at which I worked not long ago. During the training camp, I was constantly emphasizing to the athletes about being positive and not being negative. One night at dinner, several of the triathletes came up to me and said that sometimes things do just stink and you can’t be positive. I realized that negative thinking is normal when you don’t perform well and some negative thinking is healthy. It means you care about performing poorly and want to perform better. Negative thinking can be motivating as well because it’s no fun to perform poorly and lose. I got to thinking about how triathletes could use negative thinking in a positive way. I came up with an important distinction that will determine whether negative thinking helps or hurts your triathlon efforts.
There are two types of negative thinking: give-up negative thinking and fire-up negative thinking. Give-up negative thinking involves feelings of loss and despair and helplessness, for example, “It’s over. I can’t finish.” You dwell on past mistakes and failures. It hurts your motivation and confidence, and it takes your focus away from continuing to give your best effort. Your intensity also drops because, basically, you’re surrendering and accepting defeat. There is never a place in triathlon for give-up negative thinking.
In contrast, fire-up negative thinking involves feelings of anger and energy, of being psyched up, for example, “I’m doing so badly. I hate performing this way” (said with anger and intensity). You look to doing better in the future because you hate performing poorly. Fire-up negative thinking increases your motivation to fight and turn things around. Your intensity goes up and you’re bursting with energy. Your focus is on continuing to work hard and not let the training or race beat you.
Fire-up negative thinking can be a positive way to turn your performance around. If you’re going to be negative, make sure you use fire-up negative thinking. Don’t use it too much though. Negative thinking and negative emotions require a lot of energy and that energy should be put in a more positive direction for your training and races. Also, it doesn’t feel very good to be angry all of the time.
Here’s an interesting article describing research that should come as no surprise to anyone. Students do better in school when smartphones are banned. The distraction and the opportunity costs (time spent on smartphones is time not spent studying or paying attention in class) are obvious.
We pursue happiness in America with such passion and purpose. We devote immense amounts of time, effort, energy, and money. Yet, that pursuit seems to be wholly unsatisfying and ineffective, as evidenced by the fact that there exists a ‘happiness-industrial complex’ in which billions of dollars are spent annually on books, lectures, apps, psychotherapy, coaching, and other products and services. All in search of the Holy Grail of happiness, contentment, inner peace, nirvana, whatever you call it.
One place that many people look for happiness is at the finish line. Yet, I can assure you that it can’t be found there. I make this statement from both personal and professional experience.
I grew up as a competitive athlete, first as a world-ranked alpine ski racer, then as a 2nd degree black belt in karate. But I didn’t learn this lesson early in my life. It wasn’t until I reached my mid-30s that I competed in my first running race. I had run all my life for training for my other sports and for general fitness, but I had resisted racing because I knew what would happen: I would get competitive and want to see how fast and far I could run. Well, that is exactly what happened. I quickly went from a 5K race to a 10K to a half-marathon to a marathon. Once at the distance, I ran ten of them and set my sights on breaking three hours, which I accomplished twice.
But that wasn’t enough for me. I had started giving talks to triathletes, so it seemed natural for me to transition from running to triathlons. So, I did my first sprint distance and within three months, I completed the first of two Ironman triathlons (for those unfamiliar with Ironmans: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run).
Though I certainly experienced considerable satisfaction from my efforts, I didn’t feel as if these experiences changed me in any meaningful way. Usually, the day after a marathon or an Ironman the only thing I noticed different about myself was my incredible muscle soreness (a source of pride, I might add). Other than that, I was still me and life just went on as before.
I found the same applied to my academic and professional lives. I felt little different about myself after I was accepted to and graduated from Middlebury College or earned my master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. I had no epiphanies when I accepted my first faculty position, had my first (or any subsequent) book published, appeared on The Today Show, or any other successes I’ve had in my career since.
Clearly, I have crossed a lot of literal and metaphorical finish lines. And, though each of my achievements produced feelings of accomplishment, pride, satisfaction, there was no big payoff in terms of real happiness.
I found this same pattern in my work as a performance psychologist. Many athletes came to me not because they weren’t as unsuccessful as they wanted to be, but because they weren’t finding what they were looking for in those accomplishments. The same for business people whose figurative finish lines consisted of promotions and job titles, net worth, or the accoutrement of success. In all cases, they came to me because they weren’t finding what they were looking for when they crossed their respective finish lines.
Their problem was the same, wrapped in different guises. They set in their mind that when they crossed a certain finish line, for example, a promotion, a net worth of one million dollars, or finishing a marathon, they would find that which had eluded them their entire life: happiness, self-esteem, love and respect from others, the list goes on. Yet, in every case, when they crossed the finish line, they didn’t find what they expected to find. Even more frustrating was the fact that others seemed to; everyone else seemed so happy and fulfilled.
So, they came to the conclusion that they simply didn’t choose a finish line that was far enough away. They then recalibrated their goals in the belief that what they were looking for was out there, just farther than they thought. They moved the finish line higher up the corporate ladder, a greater net worth, or a longer distance.
The end result was a vicious cycle of hope, effort, disappointment, and recalibration, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, ad absurdium. Until, it finally hit them (hopefully) that they were looking in the wrong places. That’s when they came to me (or sought out some other means of discovery; there are many roads to Rome).
As I indicated in the title of this post, the reason why these well-intentioned, though misguided, attempts at happiness are futile is because happiness can’t be found at the finish line.
After finishing my two Ironmans, I might very well have moved on to ultrarunning (distances up to 100 miles or more), Ultramans (multi-day competitions comprised of hundreds of miles of swimming, biking, and running), or, God forbid, ‘mudders’ (events that combine endurance and obstacle courses). Except something truly revelatory happened that broke me away from that hopeless trajectory I had been on for so long: I fell in love.
I had finally found that thing that had been evading me for so long and it felt like nothing I had ever experienced before. What I felt wasn’t what I had thought I would feel. The emotion wasn’t exciting or stimulating or overwhelming. Rather, what I felt was a certain peace, a particular absence of angst, a…completeness.
That woman with whom I fell in love became my wife and we had two daughters together. And that feeling I had increased in volume and intensity and has endured for years.
Another quite telling change occurred in me that coincided with this awakening. The competitiveness that had driven me throughout my life diminished. I simply lost my desire (or was it need?) to compete. I still have big goals in my career and I still work hard. My career still provides me with immense meaning and satisfaction. I still run and bike from which I have fun, gain fitness, and experience healthy escape. But that pressing need to cross that metaphorical or literal finish line is no longer there. And a deep and lasting sense of happiness is there.
Of course, love isn’t the only way to find this feeling we all seek. Happiness can come, for example, from expressing your passions or giving to others. But the first step in this journey is realizing that you won’t find what you’re looking for at the finish line.
As anyone who has been either a student or teacher in class recently, there is a steady movement away from taking handwritten notes and toward note taking on a laptop computer. This shift seems quite natural given how technology is being used more often in every facet of our lives.
But you may take pause of this practice when you read this eye-opening article describing a series of research studies demonstrating the superiority of handwritten note taking over note taking on a laptop. Not only was using a laptop more distracting (40% of students’ time on their laptop was spent on non-class distractions), but they also performed less well on learning, retention, and testing of presented material. Taking notes by hand encouraged active listening and filtering of relevant information where as note taking on a laptop tended to be verbatim and too much information.
So, my suggestion is to go ‘old school'; put away your laptop and take notes the old-fashioned way, with decidedly ‘low tech’ paper and pen in hand.
athletescommitmentcompetitionconditioningeffortfitness hard workpainpracticesports
The off-season is now well underway and you are probably hitting the gym and, hopefully, hitting the slopes soon as well some time in the next few months.
Though getting the miles on snow is very important, a key focus during the summer should be on building your fitness that acts as the foundation for all of your other ski racing efforts. Because ski racing has evolved into a power sport in the last decade or so, without the necessary strength, agility, and stamina, you have little chance of achieving your goals no matter how good you are technically, tactically, or mentally.
The problem is that, for most young racers, conditioning isn’t all that fun, in fact, it can be downright tiring, boring, and, yes, painful. Which means that you may not be entirely psyched to work out as much or as hard as you should. I heard this complaint twice recently from young racers I’m working with. Both knew they should be in the gym regularly, but when it came time to head out the door, they just couldn’t pull the trigger as often as they know they should. Plus, when they got to the gym, they just couldn’t seem to push themselves as hard as they knew they should.
If you feel this way, don’t feel too bad because even the most successful and committed racers don’t always enjoy their time in the gym. Whether it’s Ted, Lindsey, Mikaela or Bode, conditioning isn’t always fun and it is usually really painful. But each of them make a choice and you can too.
Pay Now or Pay Later
Before I describe some practical strategies you can use to get and stay motivated this summer, I want to share with you a perspective that I hope will be a wake-up call and will act as a kick in the pants for when you’re just not feeling your conditioning mojo. I call it “You pay now or pay later.” Let me explain.
You’re going to pay for what you do or do not do this summer during the next race season in one way or another. You can pay now in the currency of fatigue and pain by making a daily commitment to your conditioning and putting in your best effort in all of your workouts.
There are several benefits to paying now. First, your ROI (return on investment) will be big because your high level of fitness will result in improved ability to ski fast. Second, all of that suffering will make you feel tough and confident when you get in the starting gate next winter (a former coach of mine at Burke, Chris Jones, told me years after I graduated that a lot of the conditioning we did wasn’t physically necessary, but he wanted us to believe that we were the strongest and toughest athletes on the hill).
The alternative is to pay later in the currency of emotional pain. I’m talking about the disappointment, frustration, and regret you will surely feel after a race, a race season, or your career because, as you reflect back, you realize that your ski racing might have turned out differently if you had paid earlier in physical currency during your workouts.
And here is the kicker that should really convince you that it’s better to pay now than pay later. The physical pain won’t last much longer than the end of the workout. But the emotional pain you will feel from having failed to achieve your goals because you didn’t pay earlier can last a lifetime.
I hope that my discussion of ‘pay now or pay later’ is enough to get you out of bed or off the couch and into the gym with a fanatical determination to put in the time and effort necessary to achieve your ski racing goals. But it’s easy to say you want to pay now, but that bed or couch can have a magnetic attraction that can be hard to resist when it’s time to actually get up and head to the gym. So, here are a few practical strategies you can employ to help you start to pay now.
Focus on your long-term goals. To be your best, you have to put a lot of time and effort into your ski racing preparations. But, as I noted above, there are going to be times when you don’t feel that motivated. Not only that, but, for example, during a set of power cleans, your body will be yelling at your mind to “STOP!!” because it hurts so much. If your mind listens to your body, you will ease up or give up.
You have to make sure your mind is in charge of your body, not the other way around. When your body says “STOP!!”, your mind must say “GO, GO, GO!!”
When you feel this way, focus on your long-term goals. Remind yourself why you’re working so hard. Imagine exactly what you want to accomplish and tell yourself that the only way you’ll be able to reach your goals is to continue to work hard.
Try to generate the feelings of inspiration and pride that you will experience when you reach your goals. This technique will distract you from the discomfort, focus you on what you want to achieve, and generate positive thoughts and emotions that will get you through the tough parts of conditioning.
Also, imagine how you would feel—lousy!—if you didn’t achieve your goals due to lack of effort. That alone should get you off your butt and into the gym!
Make it fun. Conditioning doesn’t have to be repetitive and boring workout routines in the gym. These days, with an emphasis on functional fitness, you can make big physical gains while doing things you love. No, bowling and golf probably won’t cut it, but road cycling, mountain biking, trail running, parkour, motocross, Crossfit, gymnastics, yoga, and martial arts, among others, can allow you to add to your fitness while having a great time. Plus, building variety into your workout program can remove some of the monotony for physical training and actually enable you to look forward to your workout sessions.
Have a training partner. It’s difficult to be highly motivated all of the time on your own. There are going to be some days when you just don’t feel like getting out there. Also, no matter how hard you push yourself, you will work that much harder if you have someone pushing you. That someone can be a coach, personal trainer, or parent. But the best person to have is a regular training partner, someone at about your level of ability with whom you can work together to accomplish your goals. The chances are on any given day that one of you will be motivated. Even if you’re not very psyched to do, say, five sets of squats, you will still give a big effort because your partner is pushing you to do those last few really painful reps of each set.
Focus on your greatest competitor. Another way to keep yourself motivated is to think about your greatest competitor. Identify who your biggest competition is and put his or her name or photo where you can see it every day. Ask yourself, “Am I working harder than him/her?” Remind yourself that only by working your hardest will you have a chance to beat your greatest competitor next season.
Motivational cues. A big part of staying motivated involves generating positive emotions associated with your efforts and achieving your goals. A way to keep those feelings is with motivational cues such as inspirational phrases and photographs. If you come across a quote or a picture that moves you, place it where you can see it regularly such as in your bedroom or on your refrigerator door. Look at it periodically and allow yourself to experience the emotions it creates in you. These reminders and the emotions associated with them will inspire and motivate you to continue to work hard toward your ski racing goals.
Daily questions. Every day, you should ask yourself two questions. When you get up in the morning, ask, “What can I do today to become the best ski racer I can be?” and before you go to sleep, ask, “Did I do everything possible today to become the best ski racer I can be?” These two questions will remind you daily of what your goals are and will challenge you to be motivated to become your best.
The heart of motivation. A final point about motivating yourself during summer conditioning. The techniques I’ve just described are effective in increasing your short-term motivation. Motivation, though, is not something that can be given to you. Rather, motivation must ultimately come from within. Whether you ski race because you want to win an Olympic gold medal some day, have fun competing, love skiing with your friends, or just enjoy seeing what you are capable of, you have to feel it deep inside and then express that feeling every time you work out. You must simply want to be the best ski racer you can be. You just have to want it really bad!
So, the choice is yours. Do you want to pay now or pay later?
academicsachievementanxietyathleticschildrendepressionfailureMadison HolleranpressureSarah Devensself-esteemsportssuccesssuicideteenagers
A truly tragic story of Madison Holleran, a U. of Penn student and track athlete, who committed suicide in early 2014. On the surface, she was a happy, and successful young woman. But inside there was turmoil.
It reminds me of Sarah Devens, another star student-athlete, this time at Dartmouth (I wonder if the fact that both were at Ivy League schools has any meaning?), who seemed to have it all, yet ended her own life in 1995. I discussed Ms. Devens in my first parenting book Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child.
The similarities are striking: attractive, intelligent, successful, loved by family and friends. Also, perfectionistic, driven, never satisfied, very good at putting on a happy facade in front of an unhappy internal life.
One distinction that emerges out of the article about Ms. Holleran is the role that social media plays in young people’s lives these days. As research has shown, young people usually present an overly positive and often inaccurate of themselves on social media. This external impression is, however, sometimes entirely disconnected from and at odds with their internal reality.
These stories demonstrate the ultimate price that young people can pay for buying into the hyper-achievement culture. Yet, though infrequent and extreme in their finality, they only lie at the far end of the continuum that many young people exist in these days. In my own consulting practice, I see young people who are very successful, yet profoundly unhappy and on their way to unhappy lives. Even though suicide is very unlikely, a life of sadness, dissatisfaction, worry, and anxiety just is no way to live.
Once again, every parent who has immersed their child in this Bizarro world of “nothing is ever good enough” should think deeply about what kind of person they want their child to be and what kind of life, both internal and external, they want their child to have.