Updated: Dec 15, 2020
by Laura Henry
"Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck." -His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV
As any of the athletes who I work with can tell you, I am very into quotes. I love hearing the ways that other people think about and experience the world (whether that is in “real” life or in media such as books or movies), and it’s even better when someone else’s words can cause a shift in your own thinking or even some personal growth. The above quote from His Holiness is one of the quotes that has resonated with me most over the course of my life, and with each passing year, I see how true his words really are.
I’m coming off of a very busy couple of months, and I was chatting with the athletes who I work with about what they accomplished in 2019 in the endurance sports world, what they hope to accomplish in 2020 in that same world, and how we can work best together to help them reach those goals. While many of the athletes who I work with had very successful seasons, some of them didn’t have the season that they originally envisioned for themselves. Whether it was due to missed goals, altered life rhythms, or other changes in their lives, these athletes didn’t achieve what they hoped to in 2019. For several of them, it left them wondering, “Why?”
The longer one is involved in endurance sports, the higher the probability is that there will be missed goals, less-than-ideal race days, and compromised training. It’s a numbers game; things simply cannot be “perfect” (what is that, anyway?) all the time. When athletes are newer to endurance sports, they typically see a lot of gains in a very short amount of time. This ends up being a double-edged sword. It’s WONDERFUL because seeing progress from where they were helps to keep folks off of the Struggle Bus, on the Motivation Train, and to see the value in adopting a healthy, active lifestyle for themselves. It can be a tougher thing since those initial, frequent, and sometimes massive gains give athletes a false indication of what longevity in endurance sports is really like.
The “Law of Diminishing Returns” starts to apply to athletes once they progress beyond their first 1-2 years in endurance sports. In economics, “the law of diminishing returns states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant ("ceteris paribus"), will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns” (“Diminishing Returns,” Wikipedia, 2019). In endurance sports, this means that typically, the gains that can be made over time are not as large as the gains that one makes when they are newer to the endurance sports world.
For all these reasons, the chances of not achieving a desired result increase over time, and thus, some athletes start to experience “failure.” As I’ve talked about in the past, I don’t ever think that athletes themselves are failures. I do, however, think that something in the process can fail and lead to less-than-desireable outcomes, and that’s especially true if there are several missed goals in a row.
Unfortunately, my experience as both an athlete and as a coach has taught me that athletes typically will not recognize that something in their process has failed until they see a failure in a “tangible” way, and that usually means that they have to have a bad race or they have to miss meeting a goal before they will take the time to reflect on their processes and accept that something along the way didn’t work. Even more unfortunate is that some people cannot handle “failure” at a goal race or cannot handle missing a goal, and they shut down completely. This - the departure from the endurance sports world and dropping a healthy lifestyle - are the exact things I am always seeking to help athletes to avoid.
When athletes don’t get what they want (i.e. a PR, a particular time at an event, a measurable gain of any sort, etc.), it truly can be a wonderful stroke of luck. It’s honestly not possible to make gains for every single thing in athletics for one’s entire time in endurance sports. Experiencing and accepting this reality is not only a really great life lesson, but a necessary lesson for athletes to learn if they are going to have longevity in sport. Additionally, this situation provides a wonderful opportunity for an athlete to mindfully consider the process that led to where they are. In other words, it provides an opportunity to learn from your experiences and to grow as a result of them.
If everything goes your way all the time, are you truly learning anything? Are you truly growing? The answer is this: probably not. Forrest Gump summed this up well, “I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both.” Each and every athlete does have a destiny, but many are floating along accidental-like on a breeze, not giving much thought to either what exactly that destiny might look like or how best to fulfill it. The trick here is to switch from being accidental to being intentional.
Not getting what you want in endurance sports is one of the most beneficial things that can happen to an athlete - if they can learn to see it this way. It can light a fire to work even smarter and harder to reach goals. It can teach athletes about the things that don’t work for them, therefore enabling them to dial in what does work. It can put athletes in a position where they need to be mindful, deliberate, and intentional about what they are doing, which yields more success over the long haul.
Of course, this is a hard path - for so many reasons. But the road is tough to anything that is worthwhile, and that definitely rings true in endurance sports. Yes, not getting what you want is hard. But it truly can be a wonderful stroke of luck. Learning to accept the challenge presented when you don’t get what you want is quite possibly one of the toughest things an athlete can do, but it definitely can lead to the greatest success stories. If you don’t reach your goals, I strongly encourage you to try and view that disappointment through this lens and see where it can take you.
"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” -A League of Their Own