This article is the second part of a series, which summarizes my observations following two years as a mental performance consultant. The first component, “The Best Athletes,” explored the commonalities I’ve witnessed among those who consistently perform well. The final installment will cover effective and ineffective coaching strategies.
This article, which highlights commonalities of athletes who struggle, takes an unusual turn from the topics I normally address. Although I almost always prefer to emphasize what should be done as opposed to what should not, I feel these pitfalls are worth illuminating so that they can be avoided. So, grab your most objective internal looking glass and read on!
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE PLACE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE ON EVERY WORKOUT AND RACE
These are the athletes that arrive at a workout white as ghosts, and uncomfortably tense. They often go out too hard on the first interval or two, miss their paces on the last few, and spend the cool down in a dark, gloomy silence. Many will go home and review their splits obsessively. One rough workout or race stays under their skin for days. More consistent athletes realize that sport is inherently up and down. They don’t get unduly low after a disappointing race or training session, and they don’t get too high after a great one. In fact, in a laboratory study which focused on the reaction times of top performers versus average ones, the top performers were observed to refocus more quickly following both a “hit” and a “miss” of the target in the study. This reflects the top performers’ ability to stay centered.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE DON’T REST
These are the athletes who push the pace on easy runs, who don’t allow for recovery periods after big races, and press on at full steam when feeling under the weather. Consistently successful athletes respect the need for rest, and they rest with the same diligence as they train. They also listen to their bodies; if on the odd occasion they feel unwell, or they encounter an exceptional amount of stress, training is appropriately adjusted.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE ARE INCONSISTENT WITH THE DETAILS
These are the athletes, who despite an apparent devotion to sport through the behaviors noted above, are inconsistent about attending to the details that support their running. Stretching is sporadically completed, maintenance exercises are skipped, commitment to diet and sleep fluctuates. The consistent athletes attend to the details. They understand that excellence is the cumulative result of many good acts carried out daily.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE ARE RIGID
These are the athletes who must complete twenty leg swings despite the fact a lightning storm is upon them, or who insist on running that last 3km in a training run despite the fact they’re limping. There is no room for adjustment in workouts, mileage, or routine. Don’t misunderstand, the best athletes are meticulous and committed, but there is flexibility in their approach. You know the phrase – “those who bend never break.”
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE SOMETIMES HAVE A SUPERIOR ATTITUDE
I’ve noticed that some of the athletes who struggle a lot exhibit a superior attitude. The best athletes, at least the ones I know, just get on with their work. They don’t gossip or put down others; they chat with everyone regardless of ability; they don’t talk about themselves or their accomplishments much (if at all). Flagstaff is home to many Olympians. Unless you “google” their names you might never know, because it will never come up in conversation.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE ARE TOO HARD ON THEMSELVES
One mistake leads to endless self-deprecation. The mistake is then spoken of regularly with far more emphasis than it deserves. Psychologists have found that any action we attach emotion to is more likely to be repeated than something we remain neutral about. In addition, negative emotion is three times more memorable than positive emotion, so therefore the mistake associated with negative emotion is three times more likely to be repeated. In fact, I see this so often across athletes who struggle that I almost created a paragraph titled, “those who struggle repeat mistakes!” When you make a mistake try to respond objectively to it. For example, instead of berating yourself for “always” going out too hard in a race, remind yourself to be more patient the next time.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE DON’T APPRECIATE THE VALUE OF A GROUP
By and large, running is an individual sport. The vast majority of races come down to one person on his or her own doing his or her best for a personal result. However, a great many runners train with others. Those who struggle sometimes appear a little bit isolated from the group. Also, they don’t work cohesively with other athletes of a comparable level. The most consistent athletes understand the importance of positive group energy. They consider with care the company they keep, especially during training. They bring friendliness and appreciation, and they work with others of a comparable ability to help everyone improve.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE DON’T OWN THEIR PROGRESS
Those who struggle make excuses for sub-par performances. They blame shoes, shorts, weather, other people, dinner, breakfast, lunch, lack of lunch, and so on. The trouble with placing blame inappropriately is that this distracts us from considering the real cause of a problem and therefore acting to remedy it. Great athletes hold themselves accountable for everything that is realistically under their control. They understand that ultimately they alone are responsible for their experience and performance.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE EXPECT IMMEDIATE RESULTS
The fact that outstanding performances are the culmination of years of work is an age – old understanding. Most athletes accept this I believe, whether they are consistently successful or not. However, there is a difference I’ve observed between the thriving and the struggling: those struggling move on quickly from a new strategy or source of advice if they don’t experience large gains immediately. Just like one’s overall improvement trajectory, the effectiveness of some additions to training (some strength exercises, changes in coaching approach, mental performance techniques) gain effectiveness gradually over time. Consistently successful athletes appear to be very good at choosing which additions to patiently persist with, and which to reject after a few genuine, unsuccessful attempts.
THOSE WHO STRUGGLE DON’T APPLY GOOD ADVICE
This is an observation I made back in my days as a coach, and am noticing now again as a mental performance consultant. Struggling athletes often seek experts who will tell them what they want to hear, or when they receive advice contrary to their preferences they try to extract what they want to hear from the expert. The best athletes choose their advisors carefully. Certainly, they ask questions, give feedback, and collaborate, but ultimately they trust the expert they have chosen to advise them in that aspect of their lives.
Did you see yourself in any of the commonalities of a struggling athlete? I did, and still do sometimes. We’re all only human, subject to weaknesses and errors. Sport is a meaningful part of many of our lives and therefore charged with emotional energy, which can be unhelpful. Wandering off course occasionally is a part of life. The key is to stop when we realize we’re headed in the wrong direction, and find our way back on track.
Special thanks to Shannon Thompson for contributing this guest post.
About the author: Shannon Thompson is a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Hypo2 Sport High Performance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. Shannon holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, her primary clientele are elite endurance athletes, and student athletes from numerous sports at Northern Arizona University. Shannon is also a researcher, focusing specifically on understanding and helping athletes to optimize the moments of highest exertion in training and competition. She is also a competitive runner on the road and trail.
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