When I was a kid, I would sit for hours by myself reading books. ALL kinds of books - mysteries, love stories, tales of adventure, and classic tales that are “as old as time.” As I grew up, I realized that stories occupied far more space than just the pages in books. They are everywhere: in movies, magazines, newspapers, conversations passed down from generation to generation and shared over family meals and celebrations.
Yes, indeed, stories are omnipresent in our lives, but nowhere more than in our own heads. Our existence is a constant self-narration of the stories of our lives - in effect, the stories we tell ourselves.
As a coach, I work with many athletes who want to achieve goals that sometimes seem unattainable or very lofty (hence why they hire me). A huge part of my job is helping people construct a good narrative for themselves.
Sure, I know the science and theory behind writing a training plan/schedule that will help an athlete achieve an endurance-related goal, and I do provide that as part of any coaching service. But so very often, what I ultimately provide athletes is a series of tools that enable them to enhance their belief in their own abilities, recognize how strong they really are, and visualize a successful outcome that they are then able to execute.
So what is our self-narrative? What are the stories that we tell ourselves?
Very often, the stories that athletes tell themselves are shrouded in at least some level of fear and doubt. And even more often, the core of these feelings is the result of something that I call the Comparison Monster.
How many of you out there have felt a particular way about a workout or a race because of how you perceived others to have completed the same thing? I bet every single person out there has experienced this. In this world of endurance sports, competition is a cornerstone of sport. So, it’s natural to stack yourself up against other people engaging in the same sport as you.
This becomes detrimental when it starts inhibiting your progress or growth in the sport; then it stops being a healthy evaluation and turns into the “Comparison Monster.”
How many of you have sat out from group workouts because you didn’t think that you would be “good enough” when stacked up against the other folks participating in that activity? How many of you have looked over at someone else at the gym or in the next lane at the pool and constructed a narrative in your head about what that person must be thinking of you and your performance at that moment in time?
Again, I am sure that many of you, if not all of you, have done this. What I’m here to tell you is that “spend” of mental energy is not going to lead you to success when it comes to reaching the goals that you set for yourself. So, I offer this: become aware of the story that you are telling yourself.1 This is a great tool that can be used in any circumstance - in sport or in life in general - that is troubling or bringing you down.
Using one of the above examples: Let’s say that you go participate in a group workout, and you end up being the last person to finish the workout. You’re feeling upset because you feel that everyone in the group is silently laughing at you, thinking that you are not a “real” athlete, and that you aren’t worthy of being there. The more you think about this, the more upset you become. When you start to think this way or feel these emotions, use the phrase: The story that I am telling myself is that I am slow, unathletic, and unworthy.
Once you use that phrase and more accurately frame the story that you are telling yourself, ask yourself the following questions:
Can I be absolutely certain that this story is true?
How do I feel and behave when I tell this story?
What is one other possibility that might make the conclusion that I reached be true - i.e. what else could this mean?
If you frame your thoughts in this way and then follow up those emotions/thoughts with these questions, I think you might be very surprised at what you come up with. Often, you will realize that the story that you are telling yourself is a fictional narrative. You might start to see that there are other reasons you feel the way you do. They honestly don’t have a lot to do with other people’s actual actions; they have much more to do with your own fears, insecurities, and embellishments that you assign to other people and their actions.
You deserve to tell yourself an honest, truthful story. You are WORTH THAT. That’s right; you are worth being kind to. And, the first person you should always expect kindness from is the person staring back at you in the mirror. So, give yourself the time and space to consider the narrative that you are constantly writing for yourself.
Make it a goal to think better - overall and of yourself - on a daily basis. Yes, this is challenging. Yes, this takes practice. But like so many other things, excellent results are the fruits of very hard work. Often in sport, we think about the “hard work” as being the physical effort we put forth in workouts preparing us for our goal. But at the end of the day, the internal work we do on ourselves, in our mindsets, and the tools we give ourselves to manage negative or troubling thoughts is just as important - if not more important - than the physical work we do. The work on our mindset enables us to unlock our top-end physical performance and give us the confidence we need to soar toward our goals.
The next time you feel doubt, insecurity, or a troubling thought about something in your life, and especially in your endurance sports life, ask yourself this:
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.