The "Lazy" Edge

When you're trying too hard, the polar opposite may work.

Posted Jul 13, 2017

Marion (as I’ll call her—I’ve disguised details to maintain her privacy) limps into my office for an initial meeting, her steps careful and cautious. A dedicated and committed runner, she has been sidelined from running—and racing—by a stress fracture. No running, said her sports medicine physician, for two to four months. Impossible! she thinks. Running, for Marion, is not only her (avocational) identity; it’s also the way that she copes with stress.

At one level, she’s aware that she brought it on herself. She’s created the conditions for something to go terribly wrong: under-eating, over-training, getting too little sleep, ignoring tell-tale persistent aches that her body tried to communicate to her. But that most recent race was so important, so necessary, so fulfilling…slowing down or even bailing had seemed ridiculous. Of course she could run through pain—even if it was more severe than normal.

And now she’s one month into enforced rest…and is, at best, restless. Well, she’s rest-less, feeling frustrated, agitated, and unhappy. Even though she’s been advised to walk less (and certainly not run), she’s focusing on creating a training plan so that she can get up to speed to race again. Maybe she won’t race in three months, but surely she can do so in four.

She’s so focused on what she wants to do that she’s continuing to not pay attention to her body and to dismiss medical advice. (“I know my own body; I’ve dealt with other medical issues that people thought I couldn’t.”)

Marion is feeling depressed and un-moored, which is why she’s come in to meet with me. Physical activity, we know, is an anti-depressant. Lack of physical activity—especially for someone accustomed to movement, is indeed a depressant. Not to mention the reality that she’s now cut off from her running friends and running partners; she’s sitting around worrying about getting fat; she has time on her hands to think about all those issues she can avoid when running. No goals? This whole experience feels like not-Marion.

And she’s begun “cheating:” trying out a run-walk idea. How about run for a minute—one minute! Surely that can’t be a problem. Then walk for a minute, so that she can build up and be ready to race again, once she gets the all-clear.

As we talk, I’m reminded of a wonderful vignette, written by a man I’m proud to call my colleague: Dr. Sean McCann, Senior Sport Psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Along with being a skilled sport psychologist, Sean is a gifted writer, and so I was delighted when he wrote a chapter for a book I edited, Performance Psychology in Action. The book was published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2009, and this excerpt is reprinted with permission by the APA—and Dr. McCann.

Hoping to shake up the stubborn and ineffective tactics of a competitive business executive, Sean recounted this story:

"An endurance athlete came to my office one day. Let’s call her Sarah. She was consistently one of the best in the U.S. but struggled in big international races. In particular, she was frustrated that another American woman always beat her in those big events, even though that athlete didn’t work nearly as hard during training. I asked her some questions about her training, and Sarah told me that she was “the hardest working athlete in her sport, never missing workouts, pushing the envelope, training no matter what.” I asked her about the other athlete, and she mentioned one main difference was that her competitor tapered, intentionally reducing her training to peak on race day.

"I asked Sarah why she didn’t taper, and she said, 'Well that’s just not me. Like I said, I got here by work, not necessarily by talent.' I asked her why she wouldn’t try tapering. She said, 'Well what if I got to the race and she had trained more than me? I mean, I would be a wreck! I mean, I know it makes sense, but that just isn’t me.' So, I said to Sarah, 'It sounds like your main problem is you are lazy.' She responded in a shocked voice, 'Lazy? What are you talking about?'

“'Well,' I said, 'If you want to be the hardest working athlete in your sport, you already are doing that, but you aren’t doing what you need to be the fastest athlete in your sport. You say you know tapering for races makes sense; you see your competitors doing it and succeeding; but you won’t do it just because ‘it isn’t who you are!' If you know what you need to do, and you won’t do it. Isn’t that being lazy?'

“'But wait,' Sarah said, 'I just told you I train more than anybody, how can you call me lazy?'

“'Exactly,' I said. 'Training is what you do; that’s easy for you. For other athletes, training is hard, but not for you. For you what is hard is trusting that tapering will work. For you, you don’t taper because it doesn’t feel good. Tapering is hard for you. You don’t do it, even though you understand it works. Lazy.'

Well, I kept using that word lazy, and Sarah got madder and madder. But ultimately she understood that for her to make it to the next level, she needed to do what was hard for her, take more recovery days and manage the anxiety that came with this change in behavior."

I have to admit that Dr. McCann is a gutsier practitioner than I am: He confronted his client directly, whereas with Marion, I “hide” behind reading the story to her. Of course, she is as incensed as McCann’s client, Sarah. “What do you mean, lazy?” she challenges me. “I’ve been as patient as I can be. It’s time for me to begin gearing up again!”

Sharing McCann’s story is not a one-session cure. Marion and I have been meeting over a number of months. Her one minute run/one minute walk plan of course kept her from healing. Reluctantly, she abandoned it. Gradually, she’s been appreciating her physician’s advice and becoming more responsive to the exercises her physical therapist prescribes. With my assistance, she’s explored other ways to relieve stress. She has begun approaching issues more directly and constructively.

Sometimes, Marion hangs out at the coffee shop with her running buddies after they’ve done their weekend workout—and is able to absorb their stories of times they’ve had to stop running because of injury or illness. She’s not the only one—and she doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone.

 Marion is more tuned into her body, both at the time of exercise and the next day. And that in turn has given her the freedom to stop predicting when she’ll be ready to race. She’s been able to set new—and very different—“goals” for herself. They’re not about distance or time, but about joy and savoring the moment. 

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