Posted On:
Tuesday, April 11, 2023
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Self-Coached Athlete Mistakes: “If only…”

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Fireworks explode against a dark sky.

Yes, there are still things to talk about when it comes to common mistakes made when athletes are coaching themselves.  This week, we’re going to talk about one of the most poisonous phrases any athlete can say to themselves: “If only…”

“If only…” in the endurance sports world is similar to Monday Morning Quarterbacking in football.  It’s a phrase that athletes say when they’re looking back on a workout or a race and analyzing what happened.  While this post-analysis can be applied to any workout/race - whether it goes well or it goes poorly - it is most commonly said after a workout/race that doesn’t go as expected or when athletes are unhappy with what the numbers are telling them about a workout/race.

I’ve heard so many versions of this over the years; here are a few common examples:

  • “I would have performed better if it hadn’t been as hot as it was.”
  • “If only that hill hadn’t been where it was, my times would have looked different.”
  • “I would have been faster if I hadn’t traveled when I did before the race.”
  • “If only it wasn’t windy where it was windy, I would have had a different result.”
  • “My performance was impacted because I didn’t get quality sleep because I was socializing the night before.”
  • “If only the race had started on time, I wouldn’t have been out in the elements when I was and I would have performed better.”

Here’s what all of these things have in common: They happened.  Since the workout/race is in the past, we cannot change the circumstances under which it was completed.  The result is the result; why it is the result honestly doesn’t matter as much as we hope it might.  While it is tempting to wish that things were different or that we can retroactively make them different, this wishful thinking is unproductive at best and harmful at worst.

The biggest issue that happens when athletes reflect using an “If only…” mindset is that they end up lying to themselves about what their current abilities are.  As humans, we are exceptionally excellent rationalizers.  We can justify anything for any reason at any time if we work long and hard enough at it.  This is never more true than when we are talking to ourselves about ourselves; there is no one else in our brain to counter or challenge our internal dialogue, and that’s the crux of why this is such an issue for self-coached athletes.

The only certainty in endurance sports is adversity.  This is true in both training and racing, though it tends to be especially true in racing.  There will always be something that happens that you weren’t expecting or that you weren’t able to fully prepare for that will necessitate you adapting on the fly.  There won’t ever be a situation where every single thing goes perfectly.  By extension, there shouldn’t be a situation where we reflect on a workout and then measure and judge it by an imaginary perfect scenario.  What happened is what happened.  As is said in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went, you can curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.”

It’s extremely important to cultivate the skill of self-awareness, and that’s the heart of what I’m talking about here today.  “If only…” reflections are the opposite of self-awareness; they represent wishes and hopes.  If you catch yourself falling in this trap and reflecting using verbiage similar to this, stop yourself.  Acknowledge that what happened is what happened.  If necessary, take time to grieve the fact that it didn’t go the way you wanted or expected it to.  Then, write down (yes, with an actual writing device and paper - remember, it’s a really powerful tool!) what you did.  If there were circumstances that you feel impacted your performance, don’t automatically assume that if those circumstances were different that you would have hit a specific pace or a specific metric.

Instead, do one of two things (possibly both!):

  1. Correct the circumstance for a future workout or race, and see how you perform under that corrected/different circumstance.  Gather real data about the change; don’t mentally just assume a change in a reflection after the fact.
  2. If the circumstance is not one that can be corrected, seek to change your training to help you prepare better for it when it comes up again.  (Some common examples include (but are not limited to): heat training, dialing in specifics in your training, and making changes to locations used in training.)

We will all fall into the “If only…” trap at least once or twice during our time as endurance athletes.  The key is to recognize it when it’s happening and not go down the rabbit hole that this mindset leads into.  What you did is what you did.  The only way to improve upon it or have it go different is to, well, do something different.  Rather than be frightened by this truth and/or deny it, embrace it as yet another challenge in your endurance sports journey and face it head on.

About

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.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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