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How To Look At Disappointing Race Results In A Positive Way

A talk with a sports psychologist helped changed one runner's outlook on her performance—and her race results—for the better.

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I went into my race with a totally different mindset. Instead of focusing on what I needed to do, I focused on positive aspects of my preparation. With that mental shift, I smashed my 5K PR and came away with first-place female.

That was the way this story was ‘supposed’ to go.

I mean, you implement a new way of thinking about your training and running and suddenly, success! Right?!

Race Day

The truck accelerated into the curve of the Vermont back road on which I was driving. I always drive a little faster when I’m thinking about running fast.

You have to keep them in your sights the whole time.
You need to give it your all.
This is going to be painful.
Get ready to push that last half mile.

I sped around another curve, visualizing the race in my mind. I’d be up against some really fast women and I knew chasing them would take everything I had. Running with the best usually brings out our best and I wanted to give this race everything I had. As I wound my way towards the mountainside where the race would be held, I focused in on what this race would require of me. Mentally preparing myself for the difficulty that lay ahead.

How I did it in the past

My race preparation has always involved honing in on what the race will demand from me and how I will rise to meet those demands. Until recently, I thought of this as the most effective way to prepare mentally. I’d visualize the race and think about my performance during the race, what I would do when it got hard, how I would react to pushing myself to my limit—everything I needed to do.

After a recent conversation with sports psychologist Evie Serventi, I discovered I’d been operating as a “demands-based” athlete. I approach every race with the mindset of what I “needed” to do and in the process of placing needs-based demands on myself, created a huge amount of pressure. Even though I thought I was preparing myself for race day, I was actually setting myself up for a slew of mental hurdles during the race. Because if I didn’t do the things I’d mentally prepared myself to do, I would suddenly become filled with doubt and discouragement.

That’s exactly what happened to me on that chilly Vermont morning. As I raced along the side of the mountain, I fell behind the lead pack of women, losing sight of them I suddenly felt as if I wasn’t giving it my all. I hadn’t met my pre-race demand of staying with the lead pack and my mind flooded with doubt, causing me to slow.

A new approach

In my conversation with Serventi, she suggested approaching each race as a “resource-based” athlete. Instead of focusing on the demands of the race, she suggested recalling all the aspects of my preparation that would support me during the race (for example, thinking about the training I’ve done or the way I have optimally fueled my body prior to the race with a good breakfast). I was excited to give this new mindset a try and my “mental race plan” for my 5K looked quite different than my usual approach. The morning of the race and during my warm up, I focused on things I knew to be true: my consistent training through the winter, my delicious breakfast and the fact that I would be loose and ready from my warm-up. It would have been easy for my focus to shift to the strong winds, the hilly course or the fact that I had no idea what to expect in terms of finish time. During the race my plan was to focus on three words each one inspired by my three children: sassy, resilient and love.

After the first quarter-mile of the race it was clear that it wasn’t my day and that I had grossly overestimated my fitness level coming out of winter training. Doubt and negativity came rushing at me along with the brisk headwind. “Remember the words,” I told myself and pushed forward. As each mile ticked by I repeated the mantra for that mile, trying to push the negative thoughts, excuses and explanations for my poor performance out of my mind. Despite my positive mindset though the race I crossed the line in disappointment, I hadn’t run that slow in three years. It was a hard pill for my pride to swallow.

Later, as I sat in my car processing the race I realized that I couldn’t possibly have given any harder effort. I ran absolutely the hardest I could run on that day. I’d had a positive outlook throughout the race and everything about the day and the race had been enjoyable. It was only the finish time that was leaving me dissatisfied.

Lessons learned

I realized that I was looking at my race results as a demands-based athlete. Despite my positive outlook and mantras, I was still quantifying the results of my race by what I thought I “needed” to run to prove to myself that I was “fit.” A resource-based athlete would quantify the performance not by the time, but by the effort in the moment. In my next race I’m aiming to eliminate the “demands” I place on the outcome and hopefully in the process will eliminate the disappointment and dissatisfaction I sometimes feel. Shifting our performance outlook is important, but we can’t neglect to change the way in which we look at our results as well.