As far back as I can remember, a little voice of self-doubt has plagued my confidence in my running. It tells me that I’m not good enough, that I’m just an imposter. Who am I to be a world-class athlete? I don’t come from a running pedigree; I’m just a simple girl from northern Minnesota.
I have worked for years and years to conquer that voice, to turn off that negative chatter and replace it with an arsenal of tools to help me.
One of the techniques that has worked really well for me is to pick a power word. I pick a word at the start of a new training block—a word that describes how I want to be in my goal race. I picked the word “courage” in 2008 when I started my training for the New York City Marathon. I had never run that far before, and the word encompassed all that I was tracking for the marathon. I picked the word “confidence” when I ran the 2009 Boston Marathon. I wanted to be confident in my training and preparation so that when I got to that starting line, I knew I belonged. In 2016, while training for the Olympic Marathon Trials, I focused on the word “belong.” After years of injury, I wanted to remind myself how much I belonged out there. But earlier in 2008, when I was training for the 2008 Olympic Games, I picked the word “fighter.”
As I trained for the 2008 Olympics, I constantly repeated the word “fighter” to myself. I repeated it during hard sessions, on recovery runs. On days when I thought I could not go another step, I’d whisper it to myself and will myself to continue. It became engrained in my mind. Whereas in the past doubts would creep in, now “fighter” would come to mind instead.
Throughout the 2008 Olympic Trials, I kept my composure and kept “fighter” running through my mind. Of course I was nervous—there was so much on the line—but “fighter” calmed me and reminded me of all the work I had done to be ready to make the Olympic team. The word carried me through the trials, and I finished second in the 10,000 meters and first in the 5,000 meters, earning a spot on the Olympic team in both events.
As we continued the push to Beijing, I continued using the word. I tried to imagine myself on that start line, controlling my nerves and showing the world what a fighter I was.
In Beijing, the 10,000 meters was first. It was also my best shot at a medal. I had finished third in the World Championships in the 10,000 meters the summer before, so there was a lot of hope that I would land on the podium again. As we arrived at the stadium, all my mental training went out the window. The stadium was so big, and I felt so small. My husband couldn’t get into the warm-up track, and I felt panic start to set in. My coach was late to arrive to the venue, and by the time he got there, we were lining up to head into the stadium. I was fighting back tears as I entered the stadium. As soon as the gun went off, I felt panicked and lost. The negative chatter was loud. Why did you think you belonged here? You just got lucky last year. You aren’t on the same level as these women. It was horrible, and—as you can imagine—the race didn’t go well. I struggled in 10th and felt devastated by the experience. I hadn’t shown all of the preparation I had worked so hard for; instead, I let my mind talk me out of the race I was capable of.
A week later, I stood on the starting line for the final of the 5,000 meters in that same stadium. Only this time, I was a totally different athlete. For the past week, I had stopped worrying about my fitness and instead focused on my mind. I was at the Olympics! This was a dream come true. Why had I allowed myself to self-sabotage my race? I had really focused and gotten back on “fighter.” As the gun went off, this time I didn’t think about anything but my word. I refused to let any intimidating thoughts into my mind. I was a fighter, I had done the work to be here and I was going to fight to the finish. With two laps to go, I was in third. I was not supposed to be there—this was not my premier event—but I just kept fighting. My last half mile was a personal best. I ran under 2:08, which at that time was a personal record for me. Although I lost touch with the leaders, I kept fighting and getting the best out of myself. I finished ninth, and while on paper it looked only marginally better than my 10,000-meter performance, I knew I had done everything I could. I fought all the way to the end, and I was so proud of that race. Unlike the week before, there was no residual regret.
Having self-doubt does not make you a weak athlete or person, but you can’t let it control your life. I found a way to get the best out of myself, and I continue to use power words today. (In case you were wondering, right now that word is “unbreakable.”) So go find your word, and find the ability to get the best out of yourself!
Kara Goucher is a three-time NCAA Division I track champion, a two-time Olympian, an American record holder and one of the most accomplished distance runners of all time. She recently published Strong: A Runner’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of You.