The Winning Athletes

Confessions of a competitive mind.

Refusing to be Broken

Being broken is a state of mind. It's your choice.

When an athlete is psychologically broken, he or she doesn't simply give up, but actually loses the physical ability to perform. This doesn't have to happen, though. Like so many things that affect performance at work, school, and home, being broken is a state of mind. It's a decision that you, and only you, control.

In our last post, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-winning-athletes/200910/when-racers-are-pyschologically-broken we discussed how Holly was broken in a race in which the ultimate winner passed her like she was standing still, midway through. She went from leading to just wanting to finish - and not even caring if she did so in a good time or a bad one.

It's possible to have the opposite experience. When people are running away from you in a race - or doing the equivalent in any other endeavor, for that matter - they fall into two camps: those who are better than you, and those who are going out too fast.

The former are irrelevant. You're not going to catch them, so you might as well run your own race. Be the best you can be, and all that.

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The others are going to burn out. That means they're also irrelevant unless you burn out, too, chasing them. We forget how much psychological wisdom there is in the old tortoise and hare story.

Being broken comes from assuming that everyone is in the first group. It means you've pre-determined the result, at which point it's probably a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The truth is that you never know who is, and who isn't, faster than you until the race is over. When you're suddenly feeling left behind, worthless, or just plain wondering if it's not your day, resist giving up. Wait and see what happens. Even if nobody comes back, you may still be doing well by the most objective of standards, the clock. Some things aren't graded on a curve.

A few years ago, Rick ran a national championship masters race, cross-country. He had no chance of winning (dead last was more likely) but it was a championship event, and he wanted to do well.

Late in the race, he caught up with a rival, Joe, who he'd never managed to beat in prior cross-country races. A kilometer from the end, he passed him at the crest of a hill.

Joe, however, retook the lead on the descent, then extended it at the bottom, as the course led into a marshy area, never Rick's best terrain. Rick dropped back and bided his time. When the footing improved, he surged back past Joe about 300 meters from the finish, on a long upgrade. This time he stayed ahead.

At the end, Joe was entertainingly frustrated. "I've never had anyone do that before," he said, "to be broken, then come back on me."

The answer, of course, was that Rick had never been broken.

You're only broken when you feel broken.

And you're the one who controls that.

Richard A. Lovett, Ph.D., and Holly Hight are a coaching/running duo from Portland, Oregon.

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