The Edge: Peak Performance Psychology

Essentials of optimal performance

What Would You Advise?

Principles and ideas for handling challenging situations at a road race.

In response to a recent blog on Psyching Teams, a reader posted a comment with three hypothetical scenarios and asked how I’d handle them as a member of a Psyching Team. Each scenario occurred at a different moment in the race and each focused on things not going as planned, whether before or during a race.

Here are the three questions as they were presented:

1. Right before the race, a runner starts to panic about dismal weather conditions (e.g., starts to pour rain, or cold wind gusts).

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2. At the half-way point, a runner has fallen off pace to accomplish their goal time.

3. A runner has just been knocked out of the race after sustaining an injury (after training for over a year just for this particular event).

To respond to these situations, I turned to some colleagues who themselves have developed psyching teams, to see what ideas we might come up with. Many thanks to Dr. Chelsi Day, founder and director of the Columbus (OH) Marathon Psych Team and to the doctoral graduate students at Springfield (MA) College who have created the Hartford Marathon Psyching Team.

Let’s start with some fundamental principles and issues:

GOALS: Goal setting—and then goal adjustment—is one of the most important issues.

Running—and even more, racing—involves goals, aims, intentions. During all the months of slogging through training and then while running a race, we measure ourselves against plans that we’ve developed. We can talk about the best way of setting and reviewing goals—but what do you do when reality interferes with the goals you’ve set, the goals you’ve planned for?

In “psychologese” it’s paying attention to both the “controllables” and the “uncontrollables.” Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, made popular through Alcoholics Anonymous, summarizes the issue. Leaving out the religious angle, the three phrase statement reads:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

How does that relate to the three scenarios? Well, weather conditions are definitely something we can’t control or change—we can only figure out how to handle them. On the other hand, we may be able to address issues of time while we’re in the midst of a race. And there may be valuable lessons to learn from injuries.

We can address any of these crises well before the race. For example:

• If you set various types or levels of goals before the race, you’re less likely to crash and burn than if you’ve created an either/or situation for yourself.

• If you set some goals that are about running the race itself or an over-arching theme (such as raising money for a cause or celebrating your perseverance in training) your sense of “success” won’t ride solely on your time goal.

• If one of your goals is to learn more about yourself, then no matter what happens, you have the opportunity to reflect and improve for future races (or other challenging aspects of your life).

FOCUS: What you focus on is really important. You always have a choice.

• You can choose to frame the situation positively, for example: “This weather is awful—for everyone, not just me.” “I’m made of sturdy stuff.” “I trained through the awful winter just past. This is just rain.”

• You can create a particular motivational word/phrase or thought or image you keep returning to, whether at regular, predicted intervals or whenever your thinking starts to tank. It might be STRONG or YOU GO! or something particular to you.

• You can write that word on your race bib or on your hand, as a visual reminder and cue.

• Sometimes, it’s helpful to focus on a race-related consciousness: your form, your footfalls, the need to pump your arms and keep your shoulders relaxed. Sometimes, though, these thoughts just shift imperceptibly to how tired you’re feeling or “what if” worries. Then, you’ll probably do better if you focus elsewhere: the scenery, other people, running to a particular melody in your head.

• You can remind yourself of other situations where you needed to dig deep. We call it “going to the well”: metaphorically, scooping water from the “well” of previous experience.

EMOTION: Not everything is sweetness and light. Sometimes, before you can re-organize your thoughts, it’s important to acknowledge your feelings. In situations like the scenarios, your feelings may include frustration, disappointment, anger, sadness—even guilty relief. Letting those feelings be present can give you the emotional space to re-focus on being more rational about your present situation.

RE-CALIBRATING: And of course, diaphragmatic breathing is going to make any of these strategies work much more effectively and thoroughly.

One of the hallmarks of a Psyching Team is that it’s going to offer you the best that science and practice have to offer, in the context of your particular situation and preferences. In response to any one of the scenarios that were posed, the most effective advice will depend on specifics: Are you a first time half-marathoner or a veteran marathoner planning to qualify for a limited-field event? How has the quality of your training been? Are you coming back from a nasty head cold that threw off your training? Did you have a fight with your significant other that you can’t shake?

Taking into account the general principles and adjusting for individual differences, let’s return to our scenarios:

Right before the race, a runner starts to panic about dismal weather conditions. First things first, let’s lower the panic—probably through breathing. Then, perhaps, there’s an opportunity to review other similar situations and how the runner coped before. Do goals need to be adjusted to take the weather conditions into account? Finally: what will be helpful to think about during the race?

At the half-way point, a runner has fallen off pace to accomplish their goal time. This is clearly a moment to adjust goals—particularly if the runner is so far off pace that they’re not going to be able to make it up in the second half. It may be a useful time to re-focus attention, not on the race outcome but the process of racing itself. This may be the kind of race where a later, post-race review will be really useful (probably next day—at the earliest). What happened? How come I was so far off my predicted pace? What does it tell me about training or racing in the future?

A runner has just been knocked out of the race after sustaining an injury. As one of my colleagues commented: “I would validate the fact that it totally, completely sucks. I would talk about what they accomplished in their training and how it benefited their life. I would reframe the training as a life thing rather than just a race day thing. Again, I would never downplay the disappointment or disallow a little pity party time. But training can be positively life changing, and we can aim our focus toward that. I would then do a little pre-planning for what the recovery process would look like.”

Got questions? Feel free to comment here or get in touch with me through my website, www.theperformingedge.com.

 

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author whose practice in Toronto, The Performing Edge, focuses on sport and performance psychology.

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