How do I deal with adversity? A question posed to me recently after a run of difficult moments in ultra races this year.
Here I am at Housedean Farm, the half way point of the South Downs Way 50, feeling really sorry for myself after a the onset of terrible cramps left me unable to run. This was the first of what I’d planned to be a “Grand Slam” of four 50 mile races over 2018 and here I was looking to bale out with 25 miles to go. Feeling fed up I needed a little word in my ear from my number 1 canine supporter and training partner to get me back out on the course. Being wise beyond his years he knew the answer; if you can’t run then just walk! So I power walked the last half for a decent finish and the first leg completed.
How do you deal with setbacks? Would you like to be more resilient when bad luck or problems come your way? In this blog I will set out how to deal with these moments and come back stronger.
It is said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but this isn’t always the case, if we choose badly setbacks can cripple us. So much depends on how we process them.
Picture the scene… the men’s triathlon at the Athens Olympics in 2004 another triathlete crashes into Britain’s Marc Jenkins breaking his wheel. Two kilometres from the finish of the bike ride at the biggest race of his life you’d have forgiven Marc for throwing his bike or spitting his dummy out. Instead he shouldered his bike and ran back to transition with bare feet before completing the 10k run and finishing last. Sport is littered with such stories of athletes rising to the occasion when faced with adversity.
And who can forget the heart-breaking but incredible moment when Derek Redmond pulled up with a torn hamstring at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
How do you respond to adversity? Performance psychologist Jim Loehr says that “adversity is probably the norm in sport, it comes in many forms, from difficult weather conditions, equipment malfunction, poor officiating, to facing the toughest opponent and sometimes [like Jenkins] just sheer bad luck”.
Loehr suggests that some people hide or shy away from adversity, they psychologically withdraw when things are not going their way. Some accept the reality of adversity and deal with it, though they don’t really relish it. And others – usually high performers – actually welcome it. They learn to genuinely love adversity.
Sports psychologists encourage us to work out what factors we have some influence over and then “control the controllables”. The scenarios above and a whole host of others present us with a mixture of factors which are to varying extents controllable.
You can probably rattle off a whole list of things which affect your ability to exercise, race or perform in any given circumstance. Some of which utterly beyond your control, others you can influence to some extent and some which are largely within your realm of influence. The theory is that many of us focus too much on the things we can’t do anything about, in the process wasting valuable energy and time which would be better employed focusing on factors that we can influence.
Instead of endlessly checking the weather forecast ahead of your big triathlon, why not clean your bike’s drive train to save you valuable watts on race day. Here’s a video from those lovely people a Global Cycling Network showing you how.
So let’s look at three issues which may affect us.
The Opposition – whilst in some sports it’s useful to have a handle on our opponents strengths and weaknesses (ask Leeds United!), it’s often much more useful and productive to spend our energy looking at ways to improve our own performance. You can probably think of a time when you have set off in a race with a particular plan only to find yourself caught up going at someone else’s pace. Or in a cycling time trial when you discovered that your best mate is your ‘minute man’ (set off one minute in front of you) and you think how much bragging you’d enjoy in the pub if you caught them, before you inevitably overcook it.
The Weather – sometimes when we want to train the weather is not ideal for the session we’d like to do, we may even find our race day ‘ruined’ by the adverse conditions. There is clearly nothing we can do to affect the weather, but as they say there’s no such thing as bad weather just the wrong clothing. What we can control is to know what to expect if we are setting off for a race, match or training session and to prepare for likely meteorological eventualities that may come our way.
The 2018 Boston Marathon was a case in point. Many of the race favourites couldn’t handle the conditions, they just weren’t physically or mentally prepared to deal with the extreme wet and cold. Two unlikely but very worthy winners emerged in Desiree Linden and Yuki Kawauchi.
So we can make sure we are as equipped as our budget allows and that our kit is organised and ready to go. We can also use adverse conditions as a useful way of training to compete in similar conditions. Olympic and World Champions Alastair and Jonny Brownlee eschew the allure of the triathlete’s endless summer, for most of the year favouring toughing it out in the worst that the Yorkshire dales can throw at them rather than heading for the Med at the first sign of autumn.
Colds, bugs and sickness – at this time of year we can be subject to sneezing commuters or work colleagues, sick kids and all the exposure to bugs and colds that make it so hard to avoid getting ill. It’s extremely frustrating to be side-lined or hampered by illness and there’s often not much we can do to avoid it. But there are factors that we can control that put the odds of avoiding it or recovering quicker in our favour.
Rest, recovery, plenty of quality sleep, good nutrition and hygiene are vital to avoid the bugs. If you are training hard you are more at risk of bugs as your immune system is depleted, especially by longer than usual sessions. Preventative action such as taking fish oil supplements and multivitamins are a good idea if you are “building your base” over the winter months. Zinc, Echinacea and Vicks’ “First Defence”. As with injury avoidance it’s also important to make sure your training is gradually progressive.
We may also want to reflect on the extent to which, in life in general, we spend time fretting over things we have no control over and worrying about things that never happen. There’s a wider life-lesson here; discern what you can do something about and act positively, let everything else go.