All great athletes have gone through periods of time when they feel the effort and sacrifice being made are not worth the outcomes they are experiencing. The gap between what one thinks should happen and what is actually happening is often responsible for discouragement, non-persistence, and negative feelings. It is easy to be positive, train hard and dedicate yourself to the task at hand if the fantasy you play over and over in your mind coincides with your reality. However, when you find yourself in your own personal “Valley of Disappointment “ it is imperative that you stay the course.
Over my thirty-year college coaching career, I observed many unimagineable breakthroughs occur when the “Valley of Disappointment” was traveled through. Conversely, I wonder how many such breakthroughs awaited one’s arrival on the other side only to be disappointed to learn the individual’s journey had been discontinued.
A few suggestions on how to survive your journey follow.
Enjoy the Process
“The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way.” ― Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
James Clear states, “We often expect progress to be linear…people feel discouraged after putting in weeks and months of hard work without experiencing any results”. Track and Field is a numbers driven sport. Its’ participants live and die by inches and hundredths of a second. Oftentimes, arbitrary numbers are dreamt up and a goal is set. When that arbitrary number isn’t actualized the journey is considered a disappointment. I would suggest (as do many, many others) to focus on the process and to enjoy the moment at hand. For instance, you are training and competing alongside your best friends. The moments shared in a pre-race huddle will accompany you for the rest of your life. As a coach, I would often encourage my athletes to stop and take it all in, to fully grasp how cool what you are experiencing really is.
Don’t Over Analyze
“When the mind is allowed to relax, inspiration often follows.” ― Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
There is an old Indian Proverb that states, “If you live in the river you should make friends with the crocodile”. It is imperative to realize that the sport of track and field and cross country will be filled with ups and downs, each quickly passing and reappearing. One of the most challenging aspects of my personal coaching career was managing the emotions of such. A PR and Ivy League upset win by one of my hardest working athletes would be soon followed by a false start by my best athlete moments later. As an athlete – don’t over analyze the journey through your "Valley of Disappointment". Just keep putting in the work, remaining positive and allowing yourself the opportunity to succeeed.
Focus on Small Incremental Wins
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” - ZEN PROVERB
As the season progresses without your goals becoming actualized, it becomes increasingly more common to become even more outcome-focused. Athletes become fixated on splits, PR’s or qualifying marks. Instead, focus on small, daily winnable goals – improve 1% each day. The difference small daily improvements can make over time is astounishing. Focus on relaxation techniques before the race or a small aspect of your race that you can fully control.
As Stoic philosophers so often stated, “We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?” Meet conditions, field sizes, trips and falls, wet rings and headwinds will always exist. Focus on what you can control and eagerly await for your moment. Your work, commitment and positive attitude will not be wasted. Your breakthrough has already happened somewhere in your future and it awaits your arrival. Do not disappoint it by not showing up!