TOUGH ATHLETES RESPOND TO ADVERSITY
When things get hard, don’t react, respond.
Responding, rather than reacting when life, training or a race gets tough is a key part of navigating and working through challenges. But, knowing to respond and actually having the tools and awareness to do it when under stress can feel incredibly challenging, and that’s because it is.
Licensed clinical social worker and coach Sarah Strong defines a reaction as automatic, emotional and instantaneous. Reactions are often the result of a triggered stress response, meaning it doesn’t involve input from the rational/logical part of our brain. Reactions don’t take consequences into account.
A response is intentional. It comes from a regulated nervous system and the logical part of the brain. The goal of a response is to make intentional actions with a specific outcome in mind.
Responding is hard because our brains are hard-wired to prefer immediate and decisive action. Traditional models of “toughness” have held up quick and authoritative reactions as the ideal. But, emerging research shows that when we make space to respond instead of reacting, our outcomes tend to be better.
Imagine you’re doing a workout. It’s a tempo, a tough one. You’re seven minutes in, long enough to really feel the burn, but not far enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Your legs, lungs, and lizard brain are screaming at you to quit. It would be so easy! You could just let up off the gas, pause your watch, and walk to catch your breath. Should you?
Reacting would be immediately following through on your lizard brain’s desire to stop and walk. Even though you know you’re hitting approximately the right effort – you stop because it’s hard, and it doesn’t feel fun and easy.
Here’s what you should do instead: make room for a response. Start an inner dialogue. Okay legs, I hear you. This doesn’t feel great, and yeah, it would definitely feel better to stop – but I’m training for my A race and I know I’m capable of finishing this effort.
Instead of reacting, you respond. You check in with yourself: nothing is hurting in a bad way, your effort is spot on, and even though you’d really rather stop, you’re making the conscious decision to push on. That is real toughness!
When we’re in the thick of a challenge, our world often narrows. We get locked into the thing that’s causing our distress and that narrowing causes anxiety as we divert more and more attention to what’s bothering us. As that stressor becomes more consuming we lose valuable perspective that allows us to respond mindfully.
Think about that time when you had everything planned out perfectly for your long run. You had all your fuel and nutrition set out. You knew when and how much to drink and exactly what type of fuel to use. Despite all that preparation, your stomach starts to bother you just a few hours into the run. Your stomach hurts so bad it’s all but impossible to eat, let alone run. As soon as that GI stress kicks in, it’s like we’re hardwired to say “I can’t make it, I totally screwed this up, the day is wasted.”
What’s happening is that in these moments, our focus doesn’t just narrow, but our cognitive control, or ability to think and accurately assess our situation, changes too. Our body’s go into fight or flight mode, creating total focus on the stressor, limiting our ability to consider multiple perspectives, gather information and mount a response. Instead of thinking through alternative solutions and problem solving (responding) so we can ultimately navigate the situation, we often react with force, frustration, and anger.
An athlete stuck in a reactive state might quit that long run altogether, rather an athlete mounting a response to the challenge might work through a check-list of things to try to mitigate the GI distress. That athlete might first stop and walk, and/or respond with different cooling techniques if they feel like things are hot. They’ll try a series of things to restore homeostasis and get blood flowing back to the GI system. They may assess other factors and go through a series of checks to see how their body responds. The list of things to check before throwing in the towel goes on and on, but the point is the athlete is working through the situation, looking for opportunities to course correct and navigate the challenge rather than immediately jumping to the conclusion that the day is over.
As humans, and athletes, we need to develop a tool set to help us navigate challenging situations, whether in life or a race. Having the right tools at your disposal can make any challenge less daunting.
TOOLS TO HELP YOU RESPOND
When we narrow our focus, it’s easy to get caught up in the challenge and adversity. One of the keys to responding to a challenge is broadening our focus. Zooming out allows us to see the full context in which our challenge exists. It gives us the opportunity to see that more possibilities exist and takes us out of the here and now.
–Take a break. Step away from the challenge. Start a new task or activity. Stepping away often clears mental space and allows the problem solving process to take place.
-Take a walk. Mindful walks can help create space between you and the problem. Research suggests that most problem solving happens when we’re not actually engaged with the problem itself.
–Meditate. Meditation can help regulate your parasympathetic nervous system, helping to give you a sense of calmness.
–Breathe. Breath work like box breathing or cycles of 4-7-8 breathing can help regular your nervous system. In tricky situations that don’t allow for stepping away to zoom out, a minute or two of breath work can be very helpful.
In tough situations, using your inner coach can be a total game changer. Motivational inner dialogue like “I’ve got this” or “I can do this” can be really helpful, but it does narrow our focus. When that’s not working, try self-distancing by tweaking your internal dialogue to the third-person. Visualize yourself doing the work while saying “he’s got this.” This helps us shift our frame of reference, making it as if a friend were supporting us through the challenge, rather than leaning on intrinsic motivation.
SHIFT YOUR TIME FRAME
When we’re struggling through a challenge, we often become very stuck in the here and now. Although being present is helpful, distancing ourselves from the challenge can help us break away from the cloud of emotional energy that often encompasses difficult tasks. To break away, visualize what it would feel like to have already completed the task. Then look back at yourself putting the steps in place that will help you realize that future. In my coaching I like to have athletes visualize what it will FEEL like to be an athlete one year from now, three and five years, in order to shift our perspective on the present and look back on our current experiences through a different lens.
BREAK THINGS DOWN
When in doubt, make things small. If you’re racing, break the race down into the smallest steps possible. “Let’s just make it to that next tree,” is often something I tell myself in low moments during races. When we can break big, challenging tasks apart in small pieces, and focus on those individual pieces, it helps remove ourselves from the totality of what we’re trying to accomplish, allowing us to act more mindfully.
Coach Sarah Strong, LCSW believes that the most important part of moving from a place of reaction to response is in gaining self-awareness in the following areas.
Learn what your triggers are.
Learn what signs and signals your body is giving you that indicate you’re in a reactive state.
Learn what type(s) of coping skills or tools are most effective for you in shifting from a reactive to responsive state.
COACH SARAH’S TOOLSET
-Pause. Build in processing time before speaking or taking action.
-Regulate. Pick your favorite tool, like deep breathing, intentional movement, or grounding exercise. Engage in that activity.
-Ask. Don’t push thoughts and feelings away. Instead, give yourself the time and space to be curious about them. Accurately label what you feel. Try to understand what may be influencing your reaction to the current challenge or stressor. If you can put words to your thoughts and feelings, it gives you greater control over them.
-Challenge. Look at the thoughts you’ve identified and see if they can be challenged. Are they based on assumptions? Are they based in black and white thinking? Are they catastrophizing thoughts or thoughts that ignore other facts? Notice how challenging those thoughts make you feel.
-Be Kind. Whether you made a mistake, or someone else did, whether you are struggling with a tough situation that’s within or outside your control, move forward with love and kindness. Give yourself grace, rather than use the challenge as an opportunity to beat yourself up or engage in self-criticism.
Responding is hard. It takes effort. When facing a significant challenge or stress, the easiest thing to do is often what’s right in front of us. Reacting is easy and it’s often the default. The more we practice using the above tools to help us respond, the easier it gets to move to a default of responding to challenges, rather than reacting. Like anything, it takes time and practice, but when you do it, your brain learns to keep you thinking rationally instead of consumed by the stress itself.