One of the phrases that my coach Derick uses a lot is “consistency breeds confidence.” When we first started working together in the summer of 2017, I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that. It was rare for me to miss a workout, so I mistakenly thought that I was already perfectly consistent. However, consistency does not just refer to frequency; it includes quality as well. By the latter standard, my training was far from consistent. I’d have great days and terrible days, but not a lot in between. I’d have periods where my cycling was phenomenal and my running was a mess, but rarely felt like all cylinders were firing. The constant ups and downs were not only exhausting to manage; they also made it hard to feel truly confident in my fitness.
Of course, establishing consistency in quality is easier said than done. Being in a group training environment at the Olympic Training Center – being told where to be and when to be there, as well as eliminating the logistics around commuting and post-training nutrition – certainly helped by freeing up brain space that was once spent on ancillary details, allowing me to be 100% focused on the workout at hand. But there were two bigger, more challenging things I had to do to achieve the consistency we were after.
First, I had to develop more of a long-term mindset. As athletes, it’s really easy to get caught up in the short-term. A bad workout can lead us down a rabbit hole of dwelling; a couple days of bad workouts can leave us questioning everything we’re doing; and all this dwelling and questioning sets us up to fail at the next workout, continuing the vicious cycle. But one of the points that Derick really drove home with me is that success doesn’t come from a couple great workouts here and there. It comes from stringing along many average workouts, day after day, week after week, year after year. And it takes time and it takes trust and there’s nothing sexy about it. But the cumulative effect of all those average days compounded – that’s where big results happen.
With Derick’s encouragement, I slowly started to adopt that long-term mindset. I stopped allowing individual workouts or races to carry so much weight. Instead of feeling defeated by a bad workout, I would brush it off and focus my energy on coming back stronger the next day. Instead of getting strung out after a disappointing race result, I would look at it as an opportunity to learn what I needed to do differently in pursuit of my long-term goal: Tokyo 2020. With that long-term vision operating in the background, I found it much easier to manage the inevitable ups and downs of training.
The other thing I needed to do in order to establish more consistency was address my own fears and self-doubt that were holding me back. Up until this year, I didn’t think I was capable of handling a consistently heavy training load. After falling into the dark hole of overtraining earlier in my career, I was terrified of pushing my body to that dangerous point again. I became a proponent of listening to my body, and had no shame in shutting a workout down if my body wasn’t feeling it. Don’t get me wrong — I still think it’s important to be in tune with what the body needs and be willing to make adjustments to training when warranted. However there is such thing as doing it too often, and I can see now that I was guilty of doing just that in an effort to safeguard myself from harm.
I can pinpoint the exact moment that I became aware of the self-sabotage I was doing. It happened this April, a tough and exhausting period where I was just beginning to adapt to the heavy training load that was to become my norm. At the end of one particularly hard week, all of my physical and mental fatigue culminated into an epic disaster of a tempo run. I felt like a zombie on the warmup, and remember thinking if I closed my eyes for even a moment, I would fall asleep and fall right off the treadmill. I decided to shut it down just minutes into the mainset, called Derick, and told him my body just didn’t have it today.
His response shocked me. His voice took on a sternness I hadn’t heard before as he told me I needed to do this run today. He said there’s a time to scale back and a time to push, and this was one of those times where I needed to push. Then things got real. “I think you have a tendency to let yourself off the hook too easily,” he said. “But you are stronger than you give yourself credit for. Now’s the chance for you to prove that to yourself.”
If I’m being honest, I was livid when I hung up the phone (I think because, deep down, I knew he was right). But I composed myself, came back to the treadmill a few hours later, and absolutely nailed it.
I’ll never forget the way I felt in the last ½ mile of that run when I realized that I was going to finish it. To have been at rock bottom just hours earlier, and then to come back and complete a workout I believed was impossible – it doesn’t get much more empowering than that. I truly surprised myself that day, and I realized that my coach was on to something when he said that I was capable of more than I believed. As difficult as Derick’s words were to hear, they were probably the most important words he’s ever said to me.
From there, Derick continued to give me increasingly harder workouts. Every morning I would read the workouts for the day on my phone and think there’s no way in hell I can do that. And then I would do it. Session after session. Day after day. Week after week. It took time, but these daily successes earned my trust both in Derick’s ability to keep me healthy, and by own ability to execute. For the first time, I experienced what consistent, quality training felt like.
That’s not to say I always felt great. In fact, most days I felt exhausted. But I came to see that I could begin a workout feeling like I had nothing in me to give, and somehow manage to nail it. That even on the days when I wasn’t feeling 100%, I could still execute pretty close to 100%. And sure enough, after stringing many of these days together, my confidence naturally followed. The confidence that I gained through my consistency in training impacted everything I did. I started to feel more comfortable taking risks in training, more open to trying to new things with my equipment, and more receptive to feedback in general.
Perhaps most significant is how this confidence manifested in racing. The confidence I gained through training took away a lot of the anxiety that I used to have on race day. The reality was, I showed up every single day for many consecutive days and did some really hard things. I woke up most mornings feeling like crap and still did those hard things. So I knew that no matter what was thrown at me on race day, I’d still be able to get the job done. All I had to do was do what I do every day in training.
Similar to how I didn’t know what true consistency was until I established it, I had no idea what true confidence was until I gained it. And I believe that when you find both, there is no limit to what you can do.
Thanks so much for reading, check back next week for Part 4: How changing my story made me a faster swimmer.