Edit: I realized after posting this that to some people it might sound like I’m fishing for compliments. I’m not. Really.
Here is a fun story: I have been rejected from a lot of stuff, like, no really, A LOT. (What does this have to do with running or sports? Wait for it, I’ll get there.)
In junior high, I tried out for the school soccer team, basketball team, the school play, show choir, the talent show, and, I dunno, some other stuff — each year. And, I made none of it. Not a single thing my entire 7th and 8th grade years. The thing was, though, that I just kept coming back. Didn’t make the soccer team? Try out again next year. So, by the time we moved on to high school, I had wracked up nine or ten times that a list of names had been posted on the wall without mine on it. Eventually, you start to think, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m just not very good.
I did make the select regional soccer team, but that wasn’t connected to school and I only barely made it. I was wait-listed to the B squad and given a trial period. And, that was pretty much just because they liked my “gumption.” But, the real kicker was that I so lacked confidence — felt intimidated by the suburban girls after years in the city and couldn’t see without my glasses during games — that I was terrible, just awful. After playing soccer since I was five, I briefly forgot how.
When it came time to apply for college, I again batted close to zero. I got pretty good grades in high school, great test scores, was a four-year All-Conference runner, state champion in speech and a bunch of other shit — (I was bad at picking and specializing, ok) — so I thought I belonged in an Ivy League school. Everyone more or less agreed with me. The school counselor even told me: well, you never know with these schools, you’ll get into some and rejected from others, but you’ll definitely get into some. I got into none of the Ivies. I was rejected from eight schools and I got into Cal, which I had only applied to last minute on a whim. I went to Cal. And, I spent a whole lot of time wondering if maybe I was wrong, maybe I just didn’t belong anywhere “better.”
There have been other things in there, of course, other long lists of things I went for and didn’t get. Of course, obviously, there have been some I did. But, really, trust me, I do better when the competition is not subjective. I stick with running and triathlon because they’re quantitative – which was probably why I also long considered a future in physics/math. You can’t reject my answer if it’s objectively right.
Last year, when I was flailing about trying to decide how to leave a job I didn’t want anymore, I applied to business school. Again, I thought I belonged at a top school, because why wouldn’t I? Again, I got into none. I applied to a few journalism and writing and TV fellowships. I got into none. I applied to different jobs (even a few I didn’t really want at all); I reached out to people I knew at places I wanted to work and threw myself into networking opportunities. Nothing came of any of it.
[And, I can recognize now that was probably for the best, that things will work out. I wouldn't be able to take the job I really want if I had taken one of the ones I didn't even want at all.]
At that point, though, if you’re a reasonable and rational person, you have to think: maybe I’m just not as good as I think I am.
I mean, I’m not being a downer. I just don’t lie to myself. I’m incapable of it. So, it’s impossible not to look around at the evidence and think: OK, there’s a reason I keep getting rejected. Maybe it’s just my resume; maybe it’s something else. But, either way, you have to self-evaluate. Sure, perseverance is good, but no one wants to be that girl on American Idol who just CAN’T sing and won’t listen to everyone telling her so.
Now, the problem is that that kind of self-evaluation and reflection and honesty really has no place during a race.
You know what works in a race: delusional self-confidence. When you’re hauling ass, you want to have no thought in your mind other than: I am amazing, I am a beast, I own this.
For two years, I raced “pro” in triathlon and I was never as good as my training indicated I should be. Partially, that was a result of nutritional issues after moving up in distance and a few injury problems. But, mostly, it was because I suddenly lacked self-confidence. After a set number of races struggling to be in the mix, you have to rationally and reasonably wonder: maybe I’m just not good enough. You can only be rejected so many times before you have to self-reflect.
I never would have phrased it that way, because I fully understand the value of positive thinking in sports, but I can’t lie to myself. I went into every race knowing exactly who was better than me and by how much. It was impossible to unknow those things. I wasn’t capable of lining up and not knowing how I stacked up.
Yet, at the same time, we KNOW how valuable positive thinking is in athletic performance. You can read study after study about the impacts of positive self-talk on athletic performance. Summary: the impact is big and it is good. The best athletes know how to remain positive in the face of adversity and challenges. The very best athletes know how not to put any limits on their expectations.
But, I don’t know how they force it. When I’m struggling and I know I’m struggling, telling myself I’m not feels like a lie. When I try to cover up the honest voice in the back of my mind saying maybe this is as good as you can do, I know I’m covering up the rational analytical voice that says, that swim was pretty weak and maybe if you bike really well you might be able to catch two girls, but realistically you can’t catch enough of them.
It’s like when I made that regional select soccer team back in junior high on a test trial basis. I knew, KNEW my lack of self-confidence was hurting my ability to commit to plays and manage the game. But knowing that didn’t make me more self-confident, it made me less — because I knew I was sucking.
So, here’s the question I come back to over and over and over: If you know and rationally understand the power of positive thinking and self-confidence, how do you make it happen when rationally, logically forcing it has the opposite effect? How can you know what you’re capable of without putting limits on what you’re capable of? How do you keep the perseverance and the never-say-die attitude without becoming that girl on American Idol who CAN’T sing but won’t listen to all the people who tell her so? How do you never wonder if you are that girl?