Mental Talk with Christye

OK people, time for some real talk from Christye. Here on the good ol' Volt blog, we write about the process of training for performance—new training tools to better develop your speed and power, corrective exercises for better body mechanics, myofascial release techniques for quicker recovery, etc. But we don't usually talk about our own experiences with athletic performance. We write for athletes because we’re athletes, too: Coach Jace is a competitive Olympic weightlifter and I am a mid-distance runner, and we both know what it’s like to compete—if not against others, then at least against ourselves. So today I want to talk about the ugly side of competition: what happens when your athletic performance kind of, well, sucks. Let’s get real! 

IT ALL STARTED IN THE 'COUV...

Feeling good at the starting line.

Feeling good at the starting line.

Two weeks ago, I ran a half-marathon in my parents' hometown of Vancouver, WA. My whole family—including my newly-minted fiancé!—came out to support me in the race. It was a beautiful course, looping through the quaint downtown district before heading up through Fort Vancouver's historic grounds, up rolling hills of evergreens, past fields of tall grasses and wildflowers, and ending along the Colombia River Gorge—easily one of the prettiest courses I've ever run. And as far as racing conditions go, the weather was pleasant enough: low 60s and light showers, fairly typical in the Pacific Northwest. But despite the lovely course and nice weather and my own personal cheering section, I finished in 1:52, far off my modest goal time of 1:45 for the day...and my slowest half-marathon time ever.

So here’s the million-dollar question: what do you do when you don’t hit your goal? When you’ve put in the work, logged the training hours, done everything you could do, and still failed? In front of your family, your coach, your teammates (your fiancé?!)—what do you do?

GRUMPY CAT CHRISTYE

I did not cross the finish line with a smile. I once read a great article about racing advising runners to finish with a smile—instead of looking down at your watch as all the cameras snap your photo, look up, put on a big grin, and raise your arms overhead, victorious. And I’ve taken this advice to heart, crossing the finish line of each of my previous six half-marathons with a huge smile on my face, showing the world how proud I was of finishing strong. Until this race. Here is a photo of me taken just a few miles into the race (notice my thumbs-up for the cameras). But that was before I had a crappy race and missed my goal time. Next is a a photo of me in the finish chute.

Here's me a couple miles into the race, on pace and feeling fabulous...

Here's me a couple miles into the race, on pace and feeling fabulous...

...aaand here's me at the finish line, thinking some serious four-letter words.

...aaand here's me at the finish line, thinking some serious four-letter words.

This photo shows a grumpy, tired, pissed-off athlete. She definitely does NOT look proud of, well, anything. Now, I’m always tired when I finish a race. (Who isn’t tired after sprinting the last 100 meters of a 13.1-mile race?) But this was the first finish photo where I actually looked unhappy. I let my performance determine my self-worth at that moment.

As a trainer, I am constantly encouraging and motivating my clients to push a little harder, go a little further, and be proud of every accomplishment, no matter how small. This is my job! So I find it ironic that, despite the kindness and encouragement I show to others, it is so difficult to show to the same kindness to myself.



I feel like this is one of the truest mental battles of being an athlete. We are so positive toward our teammates, so motivating to those around us, and yet hold ourselves to some truly impossible standards. We may say we’re OK with failure, but, in our hearts, we’re really not. What a tough truth to acknowledge!

WHEN THINGS GOT DICEY

At the halfway mark of the race, I was moving at a nice clip of about an 8:00 min-mile, short of my all-time PR of 1:39, but right around my goal for the day of a 1:45 finish. But somewhere between miles 9 and 10, I just lost the pace. My quads were burning from some steep midrace hills, my form was starting to falter, and I was starting to feel really anxious about not being able to cross the finish line—especially in front of my family—at my goal pace. And then people started passing me. At first, it was just a couple, but as I struggled to keep up even an 8:30-pace more and more followed—people I had already passed a few miles earlier. My pace slowed even more: 8:45…9:00…9:15… The more runners that flew by me, the greater my fear of a poor performance grew. And when I hit mile 11, realizing I was going to finish nowhere near my goal, I just kind of gave up. My knees were hurting, my calves were on fire, and if I couldn’t hit 1:45 then I just didn’t care anymore.

I ran the final two miles of the race dejected. I tried to give myself a mental pep-talk, I cranked up the volume on my running playlist, but even Beyoncé couldn’t snap me out of my utter despair.

Just before the finish line, I saw my mom and fiancé in the crowd. I didn’t realize they were taking a video until they showed me later. In the video I see myself running toward them—not smiling, not waving, not yelling, not cheering, just running—looking sad. And it’s this moment, NOT my finish time, that I am least proud of.

DEVELOPING MENTAL TOUGHNESS

Being a good athlete isn’t just about performing. Being a good athlete is also about developing mental tenacity. We need strong bodies to succeed in athletics, but we also need strong minds. In training for my race, I practiced the movements that would help me run fast and strong—but I neglected to practice the confidence and mental resilience that would have helped me run with pride. Practicing a positive mental space is a crucial part of training for performance—we have to train our minds to cope with the feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, and self-doubt that bubble up to the surface during competition.

Recognizing that mental training for performance is just as important as physical training, Volt has partnered with our friends at Positive Performance Training. Their team is dedicated to helping athletes develop mental toughness, and they have a ton of resources for athletes looking for that missing piece of a well-rounded athletic experience. Check out their short post on mental warm-up techniques, and get a feel for this unseen side of athletic performance!

LETTING IT GO

I’ve got another race coming up in October. To prepare for it, I am going to analyze my recent race, reassess my training plan, and then, in the words of my favorite Disney song: let it go! A bad race, a bad game, a bad lift—these things DON'T define you. I will NOT let my performance dictate my self-worth. I will practice remaining confident in the face of competition. And I will keep striving to make myself better—inside and out! After all, that’s what being a true athlete is all about.


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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye