“The demon you can swallow gives you its power. The greater life’s pain the greater life’s reply.”
– Joseph Campbell
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working as a specialist in any field is the opportunity to learn and experiment with new strategies. The approach that is currently at the forefront of my mind and to which I’m referring today, is an acceptance based approach to discomfort. Recently, I’ve witnessed the usefulness of this orientation for athletes and within myself. I’m hesitant to describe this strategy as new because it originates from Buddhist philosophy, which is of course thousands of years old. Also, many successful athletes have utilized variations of this (both consciously and unconsciously) for as long as sport has been in existence. Still, the acceptance approach is making a resurgence in modern life, and bears describing in detail regarding its applicability to sport.
In all likelihood if you’re reading this article you possess an avid interest in the psychology of sport. This interest has probably attracted you to articles written about the mental practices of elite athletes. No doubt you’re familiar with the phrases, “pain cave,” “dark place,” and “embracing” with respect to the discomfort experienced during the height of exertion. For many of us the moment of highest exertion is a mysterious experience; we doubt that we really know how to get there. One of the more prevalent desires expressed by the athletes I work with is to become “more mentally tough,” and to know that they’ve given their all by visiting this mysterious, ineffable holy grail of athlete worthiness. They crave a greater ability to suffer.
Desire to be tough often leads to a demanding, sometimes aggressive treatment of oneself. Athletes also experiment with positive self-talk in an attempt to cajole themselves into a courageous frame of mind. Sometimes, both of these are effective strategies. However, there is a large population of athletes for whom these techniques just don’t work. In fact, greater fervency in the application of these practices can result in worse performances. If you fall into this category, the acceptance approach might be for you.
I was first introduced to the acceptance approach through the work of clinical psychologist, Tara Brach. Her book, Radical Acceptance, discusses this concept in multiple dimensions and is an extremely worthwhile read. Early in her work, Brach describes an event, which involves a college professor experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. One morning, this professor found himself on stage in front of his class without a clue regarding the subject about which he was supposed to be speaking. A regular acceptance-based mindfulness practitioner, the professor put his hand over his heart and began speaking aloud his emotional and physical experience in that moment: “lost, embarrassed, feeling like I’m failing, tight chest,” he said. As he grew calmer he spoke this experience aloud also. As it happens, the class the professor was teaching was on mindfulness. Many of his students left with tears in their eyes and grateful for what they described as “the deepest teaching.” I realize this example is not related to running, but it is the most beautiful recollection of this practice that I’ve heard; I hope the story will help you remember it. The most important point to take away is that this professor did not create “an adversary” of his feelings. This is where the concept relates back to running; when we’re at the edge of our capabilities we don’t need any more adversaries – especially those we create within ourselves.
When it comes to applying this strategy to your running, the first recommendation I have for you is to pause in the moment (perhaps only mentally if you’re running), and acknowledge the emotional and physical sensations of your experience – even ones that are often considered to be negative. Interestingly, when we openly recognize the presence of a sensation sometimes it “speaks” a little less loudly. Do your best to acknowledge the presence of these feelings without judgment. Avoid attaching a meaning to them, or interpreting them as predictions about the future (i.e., “it’s only 2k in and my legs feel dead, I’m never going to be able to maintain this pace.”). Take note of your entire experience. For example, perhaps you legs feel dead but your arms feel light. Continue to describe your experience with openness. You may find that as you do your calmness grows and distress subsides. Even physical pain can decrease.
An additional phenomenon that adds enormous intrigue to a new approach is when I encounter several influences randomly, coincidentally, or serendipitously that appear to be communicating or reinforcing the same message. In his famous work, “Will to Believe,” revered psychologist, William James suggests that when we are presented with a difficult circumstance or experience we should “at least put [our] will behind it.” He proposes that difficulty is life’s way to shape and change us – which is going to happen anyway, so if we put our will behind the difficulty we become aligned with life toward our own development. Clearly, this is a somewhat abstract and existential perspective, but it has relevance to running and I’ve used it successfully with some athletes. One runner in particular has chosen to interpret exertion pain as a force that helps her become who she wants to be (athletically and personally). When she encounters discomfort while training she says to herself, “yes, change me,” and opens herself to the full emotional and physical experience of that moment. Another runner welcomes exertion pain as an opportunity to learn about himself. Prior to a race he will write down three questions he has about himself, and then looks to the struggle to answer these questions, which he responds to once he’s finished. The options regarding how curiosity, openness, and acceptance can be used to enhance performance (and experience) are as numerous as there are athletes. I encourage you to consider a perspective that is authentic for you.
I also urge you to explore what “toughness” means to you. This summer I asked two prominent running coaches what they’ve observed in the best athletes they’ve coached. One coach told me, “the best redefine toughness,” meaning they figure out their genuine optimal focus and method by which to push themselves (as opposed to clinging to a societal stereotype of toughness). The second coach stated that the best athletes he’s coached are, “committed to their own success,” meaning that these athletes figure out what factors are important for their own progress and thriving, and commit to implementing these factors.
I wish you all greater openness and curiosity in your running as you go forward, and enhanced clarity regarding what genuine toughness means for you.
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.
Recommended Additional Reading: The Flow State: The Science of Running in “The Zone”
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