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Don’t Look Back
“She looked back,” my dad said, slowly shaking his head.
I glanced at the screen as a distance runner crossed the finish line and into the threshold of athletic greatness. The American flag was draped over her shoulders and tears ran down her cheeks as she realized she’d just won an Olympic gold medal. Five thousand miles away, I was in awe of the scene. My young mind was thrilled by the enormity of such success, but I was also confused. Why did that quick glance over the shoulder matter? And why had she done it?
Fast forward 14 years. I’m nowhere near Olympic-caliber, but I’ve run enough races to know why, in 99 percent of racing situations, looking back is not a smart idea. Why? Because it signals a negative shift in the mindset of an athlete. When a runner looks backwards, it is typically because they are afraid someone is catching up with them. They are no longer running to win: they’re running to avoid losing.
But we’ve all been there, right? The legs that propelled you through the first part of the race begin to tire. You start contemplating a convenient collapse near a water station. Your mind imagines your legs turning to jelly and all the runners passing you. That’s when fear sets in. So you look back—just to make sure you have enough distance on the chase pack, just to bolster your confidence.
What seems like a minor choice can actually have a huge impact on the rest of your race. Think about it: If you look back and see a runner closing in on you, your confidence will be shaken. On the flip side, if you look back and see no one, it might provide momentary comfort, but you’ll soon feel even more paranoid. You’ll want to keep looking back. Your mind will increasingly focus on how to avoid losing instead of how to win.
Running just to avoid losing strips you of enjoyment, the pleasure that you’ve trained long and hard for. What’s more, it significantly reduces your performance by distracting your mind from the race and introducing doubt. It honestly won’t do you any good.
The next time you are in a race and begin to worry about how you are doing, resist the urge to look over your shoulder. Instead, remember what “winning” means to you—a personal best, a victory, etcetera. Latch on to that reminder and don’t let go. As you run, repeat a mantra to yourself and fix your eyes on a runner ahead of you. This will help keep your mind engaged and focused on winning instead of losing. It will help you give your very best. And isn’t that what running a race is about? It’s about making progress toward your goals and having fun in the process. So, as is the case in life, keep looking where you want to go: forward.