Advice from a celebrity is helping me cope with a crummy race

Each day, I spend at least an hour in my car sitting in some of the most aggravating surface traffic this side of Atlanta, and because I hate the feeling that I am slowly watching my life tick away as I sit in my car stuck at the busted-ass intersections of Pinellas County (some of which I have been known to sit at through three full cycles of lights), I’ve found that listening to podcasts helps me feel like I am at the very least deceiving myself into feeling as though I am being productive with my life, like I am not just throwing whole hours of my irretrievably precious existence into the black hole of suck known as “car dependence,” never to be seen again.

One of my favorites is WTF with Marc Maron, mainly because Maron has a way of sitting down with some fairly random celebrities and interviewing them in such a way that I am utterly compelled by what I am listening to. I mean, I was riveted during his recent interview with Tom Green. You know, Tom Green. The guy behind “Freddy Got Fingered,” which Roger Ebert described as “a vomitorium consisting of 93 minutes of Tom Green doing things that a geek in a carnival sideshow would turn down.” That Tom Green. I came away from the interview with him going, “You know, that Tom Green sounds like a pretty decent guy. I hope he does well for himself.” Yeah, I know. I was surprised too.

So I’ll pretty much listen to any interview Maron does, because I never know when he’s going to dig up some sort of little hidden gem that will be totally relevant to my life or will blow my head wide open. This happened one evening a couple of weeks ago, while I was listening to his interview with Hank Azaria while driving home from a swim workout. Azaria is maybe best known for doing the voices of a million characters on “The Simpsons,” but I like him best as Agador, the flamboyant housekeeper in “The Birdcage.”

(There is a point to this, I swear. I didn’t just write all of this so I could share that photo with you.)

Anyway, Azaria was talking about how he has struggled with anxiety around being a performer, how he would get so worked up and hypercritical of himself that he would be terrified of performing. And then he talked about this three-step system he worked out with his therapist that helped him deal with his emotions in a productive and useful way. Here’s the basic gist:

  • Take 30 minutes to give yourself credit for the things you did right.
  • Take 30 minutes to consider the things you could have done better or the things you did poorly.
  • Move the fuck on.

I relayed this information to Brian, who came back at me with some therapist-y jargon, which is not surprising considering that he is, you know, a therapist, but which also told me that I’d picked up on something that is considered legit in the world of counseling. I don’t remember the exact words Brian used to describe each stage, but I do remember the three steps I laid out above.

This seemed particularly relevant to me as I am the kind of person who, if left unchecked, is very, very hard on myself. Everyone who knows me well picks up on this. Bosses have said this to me, my husband has said it to me, my professors, my friends, even my pole instructor. I know that some people think this is practically a psychological requirement for anyone with even a glimmer of ambition, but I’ve found that this isn’t the case for me. If I start thinking only about all of the things I’ve done wrong, I will paralyze myself with anxiety and I will find myself doing nothing but sitting on my couch and poking dully at my laptop keyboard like some kind of glaze-eyed zombie.

Instead, I have found that I do much better when I offer myself a clear-eyed assessment of where I am and and what I am doing, particularly when I can point out things I’ve done well at and concrete ways to improve the things I have not done well at. (And no, wallowing in a mud pit of “I suck” does not count as a concrete way to improve.) Anyway, Azaria’s process sounded good to me, so I filed this little system of doing things away in my brain for future use.

What I didn’t realize was that “future use” was going to mean this past weekend. On Saturday, I took part in the Top Gun Triathlon. I went into the race feeling confident and optimistic, and as it was also the very first triathlon I’d ever done, I was looking forward to the opportunity to measure my progress over the past year. I had spent the better part of a year swimming, I’d been working hard on my bike after St. Anthony’s, I had been running in the heat, and I’d presumed all of these things would help me do really well at Top Gun.

This obviously didn’t happen. I won’t go into a full race recap because this was just a sprint, and not a particularly eventful one at that, but I will say that I was very disappointed with my performance. When I saw my age-group ranking, tears welled up in my eyes. I hadn’t ranked that low in months. I was deeply disappointed in myself.

But before I could slip too far into my mud pit of “I suck,” I remembered what Hank Azaria had said during the podcast, and I started reframing my thinking about the race using the guidelines his therapist gave him. First, I spent some time thinking about the things I did right:

  • I showed up. I think this often gets blown off as a “gold stars for everyone!” mentality, but the reality is that everyone who shows up at the starting line of a race should get props just for being there. After all, we could all be tucked in our warm, cozy beds at 5 a.m. instead of slapping away mosquitoes while volunteers use thick black markers to write all over our extremities. Just showing up is definitely worth a teeny pat on the back.
  • I finished. Yes, I did not finish as well as I would have liked, but at least I finished.
  • I gave 100% of what I was capable of giving that day. Again, my best on Saturday was not the best I know I am capable of, but it was all I had that day and I didn’t hold back.
  • I felt confident and strong throughout the swim leg. I have been working very hard at swimming, and it shows. When I started doing triathlon, I would tip-toe my way into the water, and then I would basically flail and panic my way through the swim leg, emerging at the finish toward the back of the pack. This time, I came out in the top third of my age group in the swim leg. Hard work – it pays off.
  • I felt good for the first mile of my run. In the past, the heat has sapped me pretty quickly, and I’d find myself walking – even in 5Ks – because I just couldn’t deal with the heat. This time, I felt okay – at least at first. I think carrying a bottle of water with me and splashing it on the back of my neck helped, too.
  • I had a good kick at the end. I saw a lady in my age group – one who had actually passed me earlier – and I chased her down and passed her with just a few yards to go before the finish line.

Then, I considered the things I screwed up:

  • I need to keep spending time on my bike. I don’t know what happened, but from mile 4 through mile 10, I could not make my legs go. I geared down, crouched over my drops and focused on doing smooth, circular pedal strokes, and nothing, nada, nil. All that effort went, and yet the entire time I felt like I was trying to ride through the La Brea tar pits. I’ve been riding considerably more for the past three months – with my shortest rides being about 20 miles – but I still need to work harder. (BTW the following day I got my answer as to why my legs felt so sluggish when I woke up at 8 a.m. with some uterus-clenching menstrual cramps. As much as I hate to admit it, PMS really saps my energy levels something fierce.) The bike leg has never been my strength but even Brian could look at my split and tell that I had underperformed.
  • I screwed up my nutrition. Normally when I finish my swim, I run into transition, eat an energy gel and then get on my bike. This time I was so amped that I skipped the gel and just sipped Accelerade and some water before getting on my bike. However, when I came back into transition after the bike leg I felt so fatigued that I started worrying I wouldn’t have enough calories to get me through the run, so I decided to take a few huge gulps of Accelerade before running. I did this even though I have never done that before and even though I know that race day is never the time to try something new. My stomach started sloshing and gurgling ten minutes later, and so I pulled off to the side to air-hork. I couldn’t get anything to come up, and so I spent the next two miles battling the nausea, which is bad enough on its own but intolerable when the temperature is in the 80s with humidity also in the 80s and there’s no shade anywhere to be found. Stupid. So, so stupid.
  • I have got to figure out the run leg. You would never know that I am a fast runner by looking at my run splits.
  • Brick workouts need to become part of my training plan. The number of bricks on my current training plan? Zero. I need to fix that. That, along with increasing my bike strength, will help me with my run strength. Each discipline informs the other, and if I am weak in one, it will affect all of the disciplines that come after that.
  • Do a better job of navigating transition. I had used a bright orange swim cap as my landmark to help me find my rack in transition. This would have been an excellent idea, had someone five racks down not decided to do the exact same thing. As a result, it wasn’t until I found myself staring at a rack occupied primarily by middle-aged men that I realized I had totally screwed up my T2.

And then I moved the fuck on. I relaxed and, once the nausea faded, I enjoyed my cold Diet Coke, the company of my awesome husband and the fact that I was spending my Saturday morning at Fort De Soto, which is one of my favorite places in all of Florida (and maybe the whole world). Yeah, I made some dumb decisions and, sure, I was disappointed that I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, but how can I really complain about it? I’ve done what I can do, which is assess my performance and come up with a plan for the future. Anything beyond that is just self-flagellation for the sake of self-flagellation, which is cool if you’re into that kind of thing but I’m really not.

Two days have passed since the race, and I have to say that so far this way of analyzing my athletic performance seems to be working quite well for me, and I’ve tucked it away in my arsenal of psychological tools, alongside the old standbys like visualization and mindfulness.

How do you deal when you have a less-than-stellar performance? What thought process do you use to figure it out and move on?

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32 responses to “Advice from a celebrity is helping me cope with a crummy race

  1. Sweetie, you ARE hard on yourself. Whew! I am, too, but your list of screw-ups is long….

    I tend to be pretty relaxed about anything that doesn’t earn me $$$. I like to do things well, of course, but having been a nationally ranked saber fencer in my mid 30s, (who used to get REALLY mad when I lost), I now see the value of some things just being FUN.

    I take a jazz dance class and just started a modern dance class. It’s been really interesting to watch my progress dispassionately. I am getting a lot better, and losing weight has helped, of course. I see my improvements in the mirror every week even though my pirouettes SUCK!!!!! The day I whip off a double or triple, look out!

    Everyone in my class weighs a lot less and is at least 10-15 years younger than I. So, yeah, they are likely to be thinner, have a better “line” as a result of that alone, and have some more stamina. Yet my arms are graceful and my feet quick and clean…so, there you go.

    My point is that you can analyze it all, but everything takes time. Even improvement.

  2. what an excellent t post race analysis. Both of your categories helped me a lot to think about my own training and race performance. And I love the idea of reviewing what I did right, what I could have done differently, and then just moving on.

    Congrats on showing up, finishing it with PMS (I feel like I’ve got lead in my legs when I have PMS and could sleep for hours on top of that, so yes, a race the day before the period would not be a personal best for me either), reviewing it on the blog, and moving on. You are awesome!!

  3. I love WTF! And I really enjoyed the Azaria interview for so many reasons. Maron has a way of making me interested in people I didn’t think I would be. Did I want to know about the history of CCR? It turns out, yes, yes I did.

    Anyway, to the point at hand, I think that’s not a bad strategy. So often what I remember is what I do wrong. But maybe spending time on good AND bad not only helps keep perspective, but if I look at the bad as “what can I do to avoid that next time” it becomes a little more productive than just beating myself up.

    • Another WTFer! Sometimes the interviews make me like people less, but generally speaking the opposite happens. Like, who knew Seth Green was such a thoughtful dude?

      Yes to keeping perspective! I see this a lot in social justice circles, where something good will happen and immediately a dozen people will be like “don’t get too excited because look at all this stuff that’s still screwed up.” If you are not capable of seeing good things when they happen, then things are going to seem pretty bleak and it’ll be a challenge to keep a good perspective on things. Plus, can we say recipe for burnout?

  4. I’ve been having some issues with my deadlifts in the last few weeks, mainly because I think I wasn’t hydrating properly during earlier workouts, and lifts that would be no problem a month ago were suddenly very, very difficult. So I’ve adjusted accordingly, and I’m giving myself more time to stretch and I’m downing water like it’s my job, and things are bouncing back to an extent. Funnily enough, I was reading an interview with Jose Andres earlier today and he mentioned a quote from Winston Churchill as his own personal mantra: “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” It definitely feels appropriate here too.

  5. I ask myself three things when I don’t preform as expected. 1) Did I adequately prepare myself for the performance I DID turn in? 2) Given factors outside of my control, was my less-than-expected performance caused by something I did or failed to do? 3) If I were judging a stranger, would I feel the same way?

    Usually the answer for my performance is contained in the answer to those questions. Sometimes I’m being unrealistic in my expectations, sometimes I under-prepared and I should be glad I even completed the task in the first place let alone with the results I DID get, and sometimes evaluating it from an outside perspective helps me realize that while there are things I wish I had done different, what I did do I would find admirable in someone else and therefore should find admiration in myself for doing it.

    • Ooooh, #3 really resonated with me. You know, I always tell women that they should compare the way they talk about their own bodies with the way they talk about other women, because the general idea is that most of us have way higher standards for ourselves than for others. I see that I’m doing the same thing, except with performance instead of aesthetics. Yikes, a lot to think about there.

      Your self-analysis is great. Thanks for sharing it with me – I will remember these questions, too.

  6. This is great. You never know when inspiration might strike you and who will provide it. love the story and love how well the tips worked for you. Totally get the “perfectionist” thing. I’m like that too, but have learned not to give myself a hard time w/workouts at least. I do show up and that’s what matters! I did have a similarly odd inspiration from a celebrity–the Chalene Johnson 30 day Push Challenge actually helped me figure out how to get organized by (who would would have thunk?) downloading a to-do list app on my smartphone! And making sure I filled it out and looked and it and actually put things on there so that what is important to me doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It still amazes me I needed someone to tell me how to do this–but it worked and I love her for it :) Thanks for your great posts, and for sharing. I may have to try this tip sometime soon too.

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s pretty funny how sometimes we will hear these things and they will seem so obvious in retrospect, but at the time it’s like, “WOW THAT’S BRILLIANT.” But you know, something doesn’t have to be terribly complicated to be effective!

  7. Man, that is good advice. I’m going to remember that next time I have a crappy run or race. I’m generally an optimist, but sometimes, I like to wallow.

    My favorite fitness advice is something I heard a marathon training group leader say the other day, and it’s this: Focus on something that feels good.

    • I like that advice! I will be keeping that in mind as well, perhaps during the next time I am having a hard time running in the heat. I’ll be like, “Mmmm, that sun sure feels good on my face” or “pouring some water on my head feels DIVINE.” Reframing our thinking FTW.

  8. This is great. I mean, not that you had a crappy race – but the process of processing a disappointing outcome this way. It’s simple, but true. Things went right, things went wrong, but no one died.

    And we are all far more focused on our result than anyone else is (definitely true in a race; but also very true even in public arenas/performances/etc.) – and while that IS what drives people to improve, there comes a time to move on. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment! And yes, I very much agree with this whole thing: “And we are all far more focused on our result than anyone else is (definitely true in a race; but also very true even in public arenas/performances/etc.) – and while that IS what drives people to improve, there comes a time to move on.” In the past it’s the “time to move on” that has given me difficulty, but really, after a certain point it no longer serves a purpose. Instead it’s just feeling bad for the sake of feeling bad.

  9. I don’t think women take enough credit for the things we do, we tend to be self deprecating even if we do something well, being negative even with positive outcomes. I think the 30 minutes to give yourself credit is a great idea.
    Love the whole method, think I will nick it for my comp but it can be applied for something as basic as a training session.

    • Sweet! Yes, I think it can be used in a lot of ways. I just found it particularly useful for helping me deal with my craptastic race.

      Your first sentence reminds me of Jen Sinkler’s “Unapologetically Strong” post – did you see that?

  10. I’m stealing this idea for my comp. Last night I had a shocking training session. I missed a lift and it derailed the entire workout. I usually have good control over my head, but my mind completely fell apart. Because of one stupid lift, I convinced myself that I couldn’t do any other lift, and that I was going to humiliate myself in competition. I actually cried during sandbag carries. My poor coach didn’t know how to deal with me! I need to chill out and get over it. If something like that happens on the day (which I’m sure it will!), I need to learn how to forget about it and focus all of my attention on the next lift.

    • Oh no! I’m sorry you had a rough training session last night. I can just see you carrying your sandbag and sniffling, and it gives me a sad. :(

      For what it’s worth, whenever I have a rough race or training session, I pretty much always kill it the next time out. I still remember this one time I cried through the middle miles of a half-marathon because my IT band hurt, but then the next time I ran one, I set a new PR. It’s like your body knows it’s time to make up for the bad day by giving you a good one!

  11. Really good advice. Is there a reason you do the good first, and then the stuff to work on? I wonder if it would be even more powerful to start with the ‘things to improve on’ and then move into the ‘stuff to definitely keep hold of and repeat’? Just a thought – at the moment I do the good then the bad too, just wondered about switching it around?. We started using ’3 things to keep, 3 things to leave behind for our post-bout derby analysis, and it really does work.

    For reflecting in the moment I love the advice from this post: http://elektraqtion.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/whats-next-after-youve-had-your-oh-shit.html

    It’s basically, if it goes to hell – don’t dwell, just think ‘what next?’. I don’t know if it would work as well for running/triathlon, but it definitely helps me in games and in the weight room too.

    As always – love the post, gives me plenty of food for thought.

    • Thanks for sharing the link – I’m going to read it once I am finished dealing with blog stuff.

      The reason why I listed the good before the bad first is mainly because that’s how Azaria talked about it in the podcast. However, I think that even if I were to design this to meet my own particular psychological needs, I would keep the good before the bad. I have found in my own life – both when dealing with myself and with others – that criticism is generally a lot easier to take if you already know you’ve done some things well. Like, when I have edited other people’s writing, my process is usually to start out talking about all of the things that worked and the things I liked, and then moved on to the things I thought needed some work. It almost softens the blow in a way, and it has generally been effective for me when I’m working with other people in a leadership/managerial/editorial context. Of course, I can see how others might respond better to flipping it the other way around, but there’s also part of me that just feels sort of mean being all, “Okay, let’s start off with what sucked.”

      I like your analysis process for derby. Three things to keep, three things to leave behind – I can see using that for a lot of different things in life, not just sports.

  12. I think a BIG positive you mentioned was that you gave 100%. You couldn’t have done any more. I try and apply that to many parts of my life – job interviews, volunteering, parenting, Monday morning’s horribly slow tempo run. Do I feel like I did all I could do?? Yep? Then I generally am able to find peace in that and let go of the actual results!

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  14. I think you are under-ranking “showing up”. I will never understand why race organisers seem to love early morning starts so much.

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