These next two Coach Tip Tuesdays are related posts about how focusing on the present is what serves athletes best. This week’s post is inspired by one of my all-time favorite movie characters: Edna Mode from Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles. In both The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2, Edna has several great scenes and lines, but none more so than when she tells Mr. Incredible, “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”
The Past is The Past
Every single athlete I’ve ever encountered (including myself ;) ) have - at one point or another - spent time ruminating about the past and comparing their past selves to their current selves. I’m here this week to encourage all of you reading this to listen to Edna Mode: Looking back like that distracts from the now (the present).
Especially when we are in a period of decreased fitness, it is so very easy to look at our past selves and use that as a reference point for where we think we “should” be. I’ve talked before about how the (perhaps harsh) reality is that we will never be our past selves because that version of us is, in fact, in the past. By extension, this means that it’s extremely unproductive to try to be something that we cannot be. Dwelling on the past is a true distraction in every sense of the word; it diverts your attention to something other than what is actually going to be helpful for you.
Comparing oneself to one’s past self is probably the most common form of “looking back” that I observe athletes engaging in, but a close second is athletes lamenting what they did or didn’t do. A common version of this is when athletes are lamenting or expressing frustration that things didn’t go as planned and/or they didn’t do something (such as a workout or a series of workouts).
The Present is a Present
Instead of spending our time ruminating over the past, it’s incredibly important to focus on what we do have control over: the present. The present is the net result of our past, and it can influence the future. However, both of those things - the past and the future - are outside of our control; the past is out of our control because it’s over and the future doesn’t exist yet; it is out of our control until it becomes the present.
Did you not do any workouts yesterday, or maybe even for many days before that? Fine. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go. You can’t change what you did or didn’t do. What you can do, however, is show up today and focus on what you can do today.
Are you not the same as your past self? Congratulations! That means that you’re a textbook example of a human: You are always evolving and changing, and never staying the same. In one way or another, each and every one of us is not who we once were.
When you find yourself thinking about or ruminating about the past, call your attention to it. Often, thinking about calling attention mentally to it isn’t the most effective strategy on its own, though. Speak to yourself in the third person like you would if you were talking to a friend and were seeking to help them focus on what could serve them best. If you want to deploy the most effective strategy to combat this, write down what you’re thinking. This can be in the form of something like a journal entry or it can be a list that you write down. Write down the thoughts in your head, perhaps putting them in a column labeled “Things I Do Not Have Control Over.” Then, think about and write down the things you do have control over in a separate column. Most, if not all, of the things in that column should be things in the present.
The Bottom Line
All of this being said, it should be noted that looking back is not always terrible. There are certainly times when reflecting (not ruminating or dwelling) on the past can help us inform positive and effective choices in our present. The message here is that when we look to the past, we do want it to be serving us well, not harming us.
Don’t look back in a way that distracts from the now. Focus on the present, and that will get you to where you want to go.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.