At 2 a.m., my brain has an exceptional ability to explore the ins and outs of every possible mistake I have ever made. Coaching? I definitely said the wrong thing, and I ruined everything. Relationship? I was not the support system I should have been. High-school football? I missed the wide-open hole in the playoff game. If the ceiling in my bedroom could talk, it would say: “Stop staring at me, you crazy person.”
What the ceiling might not understand because it’s a stupid piece of drywall is that those self-critical thoughts are normal. Pretty much anyone that wants to be a good person is filled with existential dread about sometimes being a crappy person. People that want to be the best they can be are worried that eventually it will be found out that they are actually the worst impostor ever. Coaches feel it, therapists feel it, carpenters feel it, teachers feel it.
And athletes who want to chase their potential feel it.
It’s most obvious with injuries. What did I do wrong to deserve this? I should have stretched more. I should have stretched less. I should have run less or easier or somehow avoided stepping on that rock that shattered my ankle.
It’s performance too. Why am I not faster than I am/faster than my neighbor/faster than people in my county/fastest in the state/FASTEST IN THE WORLD? I should have pushed myself harder in that race. I should have started running at a younger age. I should have avoided unhealthy decisions with food/substances/sleep. I should have chosen better parents with better genetics and better thoughts on orthodontics because no one is going to want to see my crooked smile on a podium.
Cut yourself slack
Here’s the stubborn reality. We aren’t living in a video game where you can save your progress and replay each decision. Every little thing we do initiates a butterfly effect of possible outcomes, which then interacts with every other little thing we do, and every other one. There are infinite chances to find perceived screw-ups, because there are infinite alternate realities if the butterfly flapped its wings just a bit differently.
That’s basically what anxiety is when your really think about it. An uncertain world mapped out by a brain that seeks out certainty. If your brain finds patterns in random chaos, then it can find mistakes anywhere. It’s like a Where’s Waldo game where Waldo is a thing you could have done differently and every single person in the picture is Waldo.
So cut yourself slack. That’s easier said than done. As my mental coach Danielle Snyder could tell you, this article stems directly from being upset with myself for one of my many Waldos (Danielle is available through Inner Drive Athlete). What Danielle told me is that you have to be OK with your mistakes, because that is how learning happens. And that process of learning is life. You aren’t perfect, and no one would want you to be anyway.
Or to put it another way, you are perfect in your imperfections. Those things you might not like about yourself or your decisions are indispensable parts of the whole you, that perfect mix of butterflies and Waldos. Yeah, you don’t do everything right the first time. Where would the fun be in that?
In the face of infinite uncertainty, the best way to respond is with as much compassion as you can muster for yourself and others. If intentions are good, then the semi-random outcomes shouldn’t matter too much. That leads to three big conclusions for your athletic life.
First, focus on the day-to-day process, rather than outcomes of that process.
What limited control we have is exercised in the moment. For example, you decide whether to go for a run and what to do on that run. You don’t decide where that decision will lead, what injuries you may get, what race results you’ll achieve.
Try to be smart, but remember that you’re just doing your best in the context of your life. Celebrate each of those little decisions along the way knowing that your intentions are pure, even if the outcomes are messy.
Second, practice self-talk in your athletic life like you’d talk to a friend or someone you are coaching.
Here’s the one I need to write in big letters on a chalkboard in my brain. Putting yourself out there involves taking risks and entering into the arena where uncertainty reigns. That uncertainty is like the Emperor in the movie Gladiator, sticking its thumb down or up due to whims that aren’t always clear.
So what do you say to a friend? You are such an amazing athlete and person. I admire and respect the way you live so much. You are perfect the way you are. You are loved and I am here for you. Turn that talk around as much as you can, especially in moments of self-judgment.
Bad race? I went for it and shot my shot, how cool is that? Heck, yeah!
Missed run? Damn, it’s amazing that I’m able to live this life that others wouldn’t dare even try. What a badass!
Said or did the wrong thing? You weren’t trying to cause pain, and making mistakes is the only way you’ll learn and grow. Learning is living!
A growing body of research on the neuro-physical context of training indicates that how we perceive ourselves and our situations can actually alter fundamental processes of adaptation (see this amazing 2018 article in Sports Medicine). So this self-talk (see this 2011 review study) isn’t just about being happier. It’s also about being faster and healthier along the way.
Third, give as much compassion as you can to others in the athletic community for their mistakes.
People are all going through their own stuff. Compassion would probably be way easier if that stuff was written on all of our foreheads. Imagine walking around and seeing it in a running group.
“Relationship is crumbling”
“Just trying to get by”
“2 a.m. existential crisis”
While we can’t be there for every single person, we can try to spread as much love as we can. If someone intends harm, it’s different. Some people just suck. But short of someone being a bad person, the least we can do is see their struggle and express in our own way that they are loved (whatever that means for you).
An emerging field on human social genomics (see this 2013 study and this 2014 review) posits that these supportive group environments can even alter how our genetic codes work, possibly changing disease risk. Theoretically, you could see the same processes making for faster runners.
Putting It All Together
Being an athlete means making mistakes. Some of those will be objective facts (“I probably shouldn’t have run on that stress reaction,” or “I shouldn’t have made that hurtful comment”).
Some of those will be perceived (“Maybe I could have run harder in that race,” or “Maybe what I said to my running partner wasn’t helpful in the moment”).
Some will just be 2 a.m. brain chatter (“Hey, ceiling, do you think everyone hates me and that I secretly don’t have any idea what I’m doing?”).
But a life without mistakes is impossible. Putting yourself out there as an athlete and person means that you’ll screw up. There are probably many mistakes in your past. And, today, the first step out of bed is the first step toward your next big mistake.
There is that saying: “Forgive and forget.” Well, the brain is probably not wired to forget, and I don’t think we’d want it to be. Remembering things we can do differently is the only way to learn. The 2 a.m. brain is an evolutionary thing, not a personal failing.
But we can forgive. Forgive yourself, for everything. Keep learning. And let’s all go make some mistakes today.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.