Part 1: How taming my emotions made me a smarter competitor

This is part one of a four (or maybe five – I haven’t decided yet) part series that details some of the biggest and most influential lessons that I learned over the course of my 2018 triathlon season. These posts are pretty personal and will expose details that many people in my position probably wouldn’t talk about. But I believe in being transparent about my process, and if it can resonate with someone else and help them navigate their life with a little more clarity, I’ve done my job. The universe has been good to me, and I think it’s important to put some of that good energy back into the universe. So here we go.

Exactly one year ago, I picked up my life in Chicago and moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I did this in order to join the Paratriathlon Resident Program, an initiative born under the philosophy that athletic potential is maximized when athletes are living and training together in a squad environment. The program, which formally began in April 2018, attracted some of USA’s top paratriathletes all training under Coach Derick Williamson.

The inaugural Resident Team is a small but mighty group of four athletes, two men and two women. The other woman on the team is Allysa, my chief competitor and the one who has been setting the standard in our class for the last few years. I’ll be honest: before the daily group training started, I was nervous about how it would go. Among my top concerns was that training with Allysa essentially meant that I would be racing every single day.

Racing can be a really emotionally charged experience. There’s a reason they are scheduled sporadically throughout the year – they’re simply too physically and mentally taxing to take on too frequently. I personally have a history of letting my emotions get so out of control that they inhibit my ability to execute. The inflated impact of my emotions on my racing stemmed from an inaccurate yet pervasive association I had drawn in my mind: that my performance was a direct reflection of my worth.

And so for the first week of group training, I went into every single session with the nerves that were once only reserved for race day. I would overthink everything before, during and after the workout (“why does this pace feel so hard and how is she going so much faster and how much time is she going to beat me by and why am I even doing this and maybe I should just retire right now and what should I do as my backup career since this clearly isn’t working out?”). Being the last one to touch the wall felt like a slap in the face. Getting passed on the run path would provoke the same emotional response as being told that I’m inferior.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my M.O. of letting my emotions hijack me in high-pressure, race-like environments wasn’t going to work here. It simply wasn’t sustainable. If I was going to survive in this training group, my only option was to limit the amount of power that this stressful environment had on me — to make racing a little less emotional.

My sport psychologist, Sara helped me do that by honing my ability to redirect my attentional focus. We came up with specific, task-oriented foci (my head position on the swim, my cadence on the bike, driving my arms on the run) that I could direct my awareness to when I was in one of these high-pressure workouts. Having these internal cues to come back to relieved some of the stress of training alongside my competitor, and helped me avoid going down the rabbit hole of unproductive thoughts. I adopted a mantra of “don’t think, just do” to remind me to come back to my internal task cues. By focusing on the things that I could control in that moment, I simply didn’t have the brain space to be affected by the emotions associated with competition.

The skills I worked on with Sara proved helpful in my workouts, but there was another, deeper thing I had to do if I wanted to strip my emotions from the power that they held over me. I had to cut the mental association that existed between my performance in a race/workout and my worth as a person. I’ve long been aware that this link existed, and while I knew it needed to be severed, I had a hard time actually doing it. And quite honestly, I’m not sure I would have had I not put myself in an environment where I was forced to confront it on a daily basis. But being in a training group with my competitor worked similar to exposure therapy. Since every day was a high-pressure day, over time, the pressure no longer had so much power over me. As the months went by, I stopped taking racing dynamics — bridging, passing and surging — so personally. I recognized that some days I would be faster and some days I would be slower, but as long as I was doing the work, none of it really mattered. With a limited number of proverbial shits to give, I had to save them for when they were really warranted.

This change wasn’t one that happened overnight (it’s not fully resolved either, as I still slip up occasionally). But I gradually got a little bit better at brushing things off until one day I realized that I was not the same athlete that I was when I started. I was enjoying the process more. I was happier and less stressed. I was more confident. And I was performing better than I ever had before.

I feel it’s important to mention that learning how to better manage my emotions doesn’t mean that I am void of them. I’ve always identified as someone who feels things strongly, and I considered that passion to be one of my strongest attributes. Throughout this process, I worried that gaining control over my emotions meant that I would lose that important part of myself. I now see that I can be passionate and express my feelings healthily AND exercise control so that my emotions don’t completely overrun my life.

Through all of this, it was my coach, Derick who really drove home the message that I could minimize the extent to which my emotions negatively impacted me. He did this through leading by example, and through the subtle but intentional ways that he chose to speak with me. Instead of matching my energy level when I came to him with a concern, he would remain even-keeled, subduing my anxiety rather than fueling it. He encouraged me to look at everything from time trials to body comp evaluations not as a reflection of who I am, but as mere data points. He showed me that I didn’t have to spiral out of control every time something went wrong, and taught me to evaluate races and training sessions in more logical, objective ways. I’ve heard it said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with; the fact that my demeanor has grown to more closely resemble Derick’s is enough for me to believe that this philosophy is true.

What’s really cool is that my ability to manage emotions under stress has carried over into areas of my life outside of training. As strange as it may sound, I think that falling victim to big emotional swings and getting stuck in negative thoughts had become so much a part of my experience, that they served as a security blanket of sorts. It was only after I started to get a feel for what life felt like when my emotions were tamed that I realized my security blanket was actually suffocating me. So while I certainly still have my triggers, I’ve found that in general, things just don’t seem to bother me as much as they used to. I’ve  gotten better at recognizing stressful environments before they come triggering, understanding that I have control over my reaction, and managing the situation accordingly. It has truly brought a sense of ease to everything I do.

There’s more to come in this series, but none of the subsequent lessons would have been possible without this first one, as it pretty much underlies everything. I hope you check back over the next few weeks for more insights from my season, including next week’s: “How the draft horse effect made me a better teammate.”

2 thoughts on “Part 1: How taming my emotions made me a smarter competitor

  1. Words of wisdom for sport training and life….thanks for sharing 🙂 I am an OB/Gyn doc and a middle of the pack 56yo agegroup triathalete. Your post applies to training for medical professionals too and would be great reading for the medical students I help train. Keep up the great work, in training, racing and writing. Take care, Jill

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