I feel like in some ways, I don't have any secrets, I don't have anything to hide. I have strong opinions, but it comes out of love for the sport. I think I am at the point in my life where I love what I do and I'm just happy. When you're at a happy point, it's easier to open up a bit. ~ Sarah Groff
In the next 12 weeks I will be posting training tips with examples from my training experiences, but first I want to address the foundation of all training programs: confidence. I generally end a talk on How to Training Effectively, Smarter with a statement that "the most important thing is that you trust in your program, and believe in yourself". I realize how vague of a statement that is, how odd it might seem that I describe the physiological principles of training, the hard science of performance, and end with such a subjective or abstract idea. I get some nods and smiles from people in the crowd, so I know some of you have learned this lesson, but I also realize I am doing something in making that statement that frustrates me when I am an audience member and the speaker offers incomplete advice: "just write down your goals and you will achieve them" is the common advice given on goal setting. I've written my goals down, but it didn't boost my ability to believe I can achieve them - I just end up with a piece of paper reminding me, taunting me.
So, I will try not to speak of confidence as a thing, but rather a conscious practice as opposed to something we have (or don't), it is knowledge we gain through our experiences, and it is not easily achieved. I am not a psychologist, I am an athlete who is learning self-trust through my training and racing, and being mindful of how I coach others in their training and racing. These are some of the actions I have learned to build my training and racing confidence: clarify my goal; discover what signs give me confidence; accept failure; and support why I am doing this in the first place.
Belief in oneself vs. Having Success
When I coach, I use a questionnaire to asses an athlete's needs. It is not a surprise that many people get a coach when they have lost confidence in their ability to achieve their goal. As a coach, I often look at someone's current abilities and their goals and know they can easily get there: I am confident they can, but it is not always the training advice that enables people to achieve their goal, it is having someone else believe that can achieve it that makes a difference. The definition of confidence is defined as "a feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something", and the definition of failure is "lack of success": we do associate confidence with success, and failure with a lack of, but there is a conceptual problem when we conflate them, one consequence is we learn to fear failure. Some of the most successful athletes have written about their lack of confidence, and how some of their success in sport came from fear of losing, not feeling loved, pleasing other people, and even cheating. I want to make the point that confidence is not about how successful you are. I think this is particularly the case when we use the synonym of confidence, self-esteem. When we talk about esteem, we often talk about gaining/losing it through being compared to others. If you are a parent, you are well aware of the changes in schools from when you were young: non-competitive sports teams that every child makes, no one wins or loses in games or tournaments; no more honor roll system because there are no more grades on projects or assignments; kids can't lose or fail anymore because we don't want failure to negatively impact their self-esteem. We want kids to try their best without measuring their best against others to preserve their self-esteem. I have many opinions on this change, but when I talk about confidence, I am defining it as a rational belief in yourself and a belief in others, a form of trust, one that is not gained by comparing yourself to others, or being successful at something. This does not mean wanting to be an age-group champion or qualifying for world championships are bad, or that being proud of placing in the top 10 percent in your age group is shameful. But I am addressing the separate question how do we sustain the belief that we can achieve something that is partially out of our control (i.e.: winning a race), and make sense of our efforts and hard work if we don't achieve such a goal. Some runners address this tension by not having a goal in the first place, or changing the goals to avoid failure, or become non-competitive. I am not opposed to non-competitive events, and don't think that running has to be for competitive people only, but I do still believe competition has value. So, what do you do when your goal is performance based, in a highly competitive age-group race environment?
The obvious answer is to set realistic goals, but it does not end there. Once you have set a goal, how do you deal with the fear of failing. If you are someone who thinks "what if I fail?" or "what will people think of me if I fail?", reasonable things to worry about and two questions that paralyzed me at times, a conscious shift in perspective to "what will I gain, learn, experience, find, etc?" is necessary. Don't limit your goal to an outcome (i.e.: run a sub-2 hour half marathon), instead maintain the process of achieving that goal, don't treat your training as a means to an end. I recently read a story about Sarah Groff, Character Driven, that made me see what having a performance goal, while maintaining the process of achieving that goal might look like. Groff reflected on her Olympic experience and her future in this light: "Being the first one out of the medals is always going to be bittersweet. It was the most important race of my career to date, and I had a great race and I'm really proud of it. But to come home with a medal - how much better would that have been?". Dealing with disappointments and failures are part of building trust in your future goals. Groff simultaneously believes she had a great race while also believing she could do better; if she doesn't ever win an Olympic medal, I don't believe she would walk away feeling she didn't accomplish anything. What steps might we take in our daily training to have that same level of trust and acceptance?
These are some of the lessons I've learned so far in building self-trust in my training:
I may not have clarified all that I wanted to in explaining why confidence is key to a successful training program in this blog post. Maybe by describing the opposite would help: If you finished most of your training sessions feeling like you did not achieve the desired result, would you feel confident in your ability to race? No. Your training should provide you with the confidence in your ability to accomplish your goal, but that does not mean you will do every workout perfectly, or even do every workout planned. We learn something from each session we do, and reflecting on what you have learned is important. The following posts on my training will show you what I am doing in my training, the actions and thoughts that help me to build my confidence in achieving my performance goal.