Words Matter

Words Matter


Of all of the topics that comprise the psychology of running, there’s one that captures my interest the most: the moment of highest exertion. By this I mean the point of greatest discomfort that must be maintained (and often increased) when running workouts, and when racing.

My Masters thesis focused specifically on the moment of highest exertion. I investigated how athletes differ in their experience of this moment, and proposed that athletes who love it will perform better, and see greater gains, than those who dread or resist it. My initial study, which focused on Division 1 collegiate athletes on the East Coast, supported this hypothesis. Those who reported a greater positive orientation toward the moment of highest exertion had become 2.5% faster over the preceding two years than those who reported the lowest positive orientation toward this moment.

There has been one concern related to this study that has tormented me above all others: is “love” the right word to use when describing a positive orientation toward the moment of highest exertion? It doesn’t feel quite right to me. “I don’t love it like I love chocolate cake,” one professional shared with me. “It’s more like appreciation.”

“It’s like being held underwater and you can’t come up for air,” explained the next runner I asked.

“It’s a moment I seek,” expressed another; “I get to meet the best version of myself there.”

The question of how to accurately describe the moment of highest exertion has remained with me. It was at the forefront of my mind as I began my second study early this year. This project also focused on the moment of highest exertion. As in my initial study, athletes were requested to fill out a short questionnaire following four workouts and two races. Except, this time I added emotive words to the questionnaire. Athletes were asked to circle any of these words that describe the moment of highest exertion for them.

My study includes both collegiate athletes and professionals. It’s still on-going, but I have done an initial analysis and observed some fascinating observations regarding the words chosen:

My first discovery found that the professionals chose on average 24 different emotions following each run, while collegiate athletes chose 16. Awareness of one’s physical and mental experience emerged as a possible common factor in the best athletes from my first study. The greater number of emotions acknowledged might be an indication of an athletes awareness of his or her experience (of course, numerous explanations could be considered for this finding).

Second, and probably the most interesting, are the differences in the words chosen between the professional and collegiate athletes. Across the board, professionals were more likely to attribute positive words to the moment of highest exertion than collegiate athletes – significantly so.

Professional runners were 30% more likely to use the common positive words, “focus,” “challenged,” and “strong” to describe the moment of highest exertion. Pro’s were also approximately 15% more likely to use more abstract positive words such as “flexible,” “trusting,” “spiritual,” and “compassionate.”

The only emotive words that the collegiate athletes chose more frequently than the professionals were negative. These include “tense,” (26% higher), anxious (15% higher), and physical pain (11% higher). Collegiate athletes were the only group who selected the emotions “unworthy” and “despair.”

This study is in its beginning stages, and there are numerous reasons why these differences could have been occurred. However, these results do suggest that it’s possible that how we describe our moment of highest exertion might affect our training and progress.

How do you describe your moment of highest exertion? What words would you? If you discover that negative words come to mind, can you find some positivity instead? Some appreciation? Below are the words presented to the athletes in my study. Test yourself after some workouts and races, and feel free to bring some with you next time you train or race!

Joy Warm Afraid Awe Excited Tense Giddy Moved Shame Full Reliable Guilt Adoration Versatile Nervous Lust Flexible Anxious Obsession Malleable Anger Delight Mindful Frustration Ecstasy Aware Pain (physical) Determination Awake Despair Resolve Belonging Resignation Commitment Friendly Grief Resolute Connected Fear Intent Trusting Threat Aspiring Resilient Strong Insistent Faithful Contempt Inspired Love Hopeful Sadness Hyper Infatuation Spiritual Doubt Tough Attracted Amazed Unworthy Confident Dedication Speechless Exposed Smooth Engagement Content Vulnerable Cold Desire Satisfied Energized Open Disappointment Smooth Enthused Hard Drive Balanced Persistent Grounded Desperation Brave Perspective Goofy Conviction Courageous Ambitious Primed Pleasure Relentless Alive Positive Immersion Calm Uninhibited Happy Focused Peaceful Careful Capable Inspired Indifferent Carefree Challenged Passionate Compassionate


Special thanks to Shannon Thompson for contributing this guest post.

Shannon ThompsonAbout 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: Welcoming Discomfort


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