Coach Tip Tuesday: There’s Nothing Wrong with Saying “I don’t want to do that”
“I don’t want to do that.”
An empowering, wonderful sentence that so few people use when they should. Very often, people will come up with “reasons” why they “can’t” do something when the reality is that they just don’t want to do it. Athletes are not immune to this.
Being an endurance coach means that I am a paid observer of human behavior. Via each of the athletes who hire me to coach them, I get an inside look at their individual psychology, habits, goals, and more.
Over the years, one big trend has stood out to me: The human tendency to seek to defer blame to an external source. I've experienced it first-hand in my own mind. In endurance sports training, I see it in many forms, but one of the most common examples is when athletes are telling me why they did or didn’t do something in their training schedule. Very often, they use phrasing such as “I can’t do this because…” or “It’s unsafe for me to do this because…” or “[Insert event or happening here] is why I didn't do this."
Are there times when there are legitimate reasons why something cannot be done? Sure. There will always be times when unexpected things happen, circumstances or conditions are actually unsafe, etc. However, these things are truly exceptions, not commonplace occurrences.
When I am having conversations with athletes about their training and the subject of “I can’t do this” comes up, I generally challenge their statement if I perceive that the reality is that they don’t want to do it. Most of the time, my challenge makes athletes uncomfortable and defensive. They don’t want to admit out loud (and especially to someone else, such as me, their coach) that they don’t want to do the thing. They are much more comfortable saying that they cannot do something.
I think the reason for this is both simple and hard to hear: It is easier for us to be victims - to blame something other than our own selves for what is happening to us. Think about it. When the weather is unpleasant outside, saying you don’t want to go out to do your workout most likely sounds worse to you than saying that the conditions are unsafe. Saying you don’t want to be uncomfortable, wet, too hot, etc. may sound like you’re being “weak.” However, if the conditions are unsafe, then it isn’t your choice not to do the workout. You’ve been put in a situation where you can’t do the workout, which means that you aren’t “weak”.
I challenge athletes saying that they can’t do something because I want athletes (and all people) to choose language that is both honest and that gives them power. I don’t want athletes to be victims. I don’t want them to spend mental time and energy seeking an external source to blame or an external “reason” for not doing something when the truth is that they don’t want to do it. I don’t want them to think that it is weak to voice their opinion and to articulate their preferences about what they want to do. It is not weak; it’s the exact opposite. Being honest with your coach, your friends, and - most importantly - yourself is both powerful and strong.
Though this is a behavior that I observe year-round, I do see it a bit more frequently in the Winter (hence the timing of this post). Athletes have trouble staying motivated over the Winter - for a variety of reasons. The weather is more gloomy, and seasonal affective disorder is a real thing. Conditions are more challenging and take a bit of extra planning and gear to go out in. And while there are certainly times in the Winter when conditions might be unsafe than they are in other seasons, many times athletes are not doing workouts because they don’t feel like it or they do not want to. (Be honest with yourself and raise your hand if you resemble that statement.)
It’s okay to say you don’t want to do something. In that same vein, it’s also very okay to be clear, specific, and honest about what you do want to do. Maybe doing outdoor workouts does stress you out at certain times of the year, and you’d rather do something indoors. Maybe you can’t stand the idea of being indoors and being outside is critical for you and your mental health. Maybe you hate swimming and don’t want to do it anymore. Maybe you like riding your bike, but pedaling to nowhere on a trainer drives you mad. It’s okay to say any/all of these things.
There is one asterisk to this; while it’s so important to be honest about what you do and do not want to do, it doesn’t mean that what it takes to reach certain goals changes. For many goals, it takes what it takes; you can choose to do it or not do it, but you cannot change what it takes. Therefore, it’s important to understand that being honest about what you want to do and putting that into practice may be a catalyst for having to reevaluate goals. You always want your goals to be in line with what you are willing and able to do so that you have the highest probability of reaching them. Having your expectations and reality be in alignment also increases the probability of your overall happiness.
Be honest with yourself and all of the people who are a part of your training life. Be clear about what you are willing and wanting to do, and let that be your guide for setting your future goals. And when the inevitable circumstance pops up when you don’t want to do something, do not be afraid to say clearly and out loud, “I don’t want to do that.”
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.