Turning Silent into Resilient

An athlete’s mental toughness can be self-destructive when they don’t reach their goal. Here are 4 tips to help you get something out of disappointing experiences.

Down and Out: Even though the road to the 2004 Olympic finish line ended in injury for British marathon champion Paula Radcliffe, she came back in 2008 and also won the NYC marathon that year.

Down and Out: Even though the road to the 2004 Olympic finish line ended in injury for British marathon champion Paula Radcliffe, she came back in 2008 and also won the NYC marathon that year.

If you're an athlete quietly beating yourself up about performance, motivation, results, or injury, it’s time to turn your silent suffering into resilient strength! Try these four tips for the big shift you need.

1. Focus on effort over results: Results DO provide useful information. BUT by focusing on the process–and the effort we put into it–we set the stage to reach our goals. An athlete came to me frustrated that his teammate was working less hard in practice, but having better competition results than him. He was able to regain focus by giving himself specific praise on effort. "I had a great warm-up, my legs felt good, and I still put some work in." He began to enjoy his training again, and regained perspective that translated into better results, AND more mental toughness.

2. Set achievable goals: Don't sabotage your success by setting goals out of reach or that break you down. A healthy goal is one that stretches, and not strains, you. Consider the data from your current and past training, and let that inform your targets. If you find yourself lacking motivation, maybe the goal is not right, or not right for now. One of the athletes that I work with gave herself permission to not do her morning runs, because she was resisting, and feeling bad about herself. It wasn't long before she was missing running, and got back into the groove. She's more self-aware about honoring her needs. She gives herself permission to not do morning runs, but limits it to one a week. 

3. Learn don't judge: Whatever happens in your athletic life, learn from it. Judging often comes from comparisons to others, or trying to meet someone else’s expectations, or an unrealistic ideal. A rower that I worked with naturally carried more weight, and was struggling with anxiety and low self-image as a result. By shifting her focus to what she was doing well, and who might help her improve, she came up with a new plan moving forward. Using open-ended questions like, "how can I get the most out of me?" and "who can help me improve?" can snap you out of a dark place and spark curiosity, which sparks solutions. 

4. Fail Up: Messing up is part of the game and life. It's important to maintain focus, so dwelling on mistakes in ways that are self-destructive wastes your time. A young soccer player that I worked with was beating herself up during games if she missed a pass, and then would lose focus, which led to more bench time. She learned to shake her hands, as if shaking it off, to get her head back in the game. Even setbacks become gains when we embrace ALL of the lessons of sport, and not just the wins.

Point 5: An Elegy

January 24, 2014, Philadelphia, PA: 

Seven days ago Nineteen-year-old Madison Holleran took her life by jumping off of a parking garage in Philadelphia. There, I said it. As quickly as it took me to write that sentence, she was gone. Is gone.

But let's go back 5 months, or maybe before that. Madison Holleran had come to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania and run on the track team. I’m guessing that she expected to continue in the same trajectory as high school--winning at sports, getting straight A’s, and chomping at the bit of life. If this had been how the life-map unfolded, there was no reason it wouldn't continue in a teenager's mind--a teenager who was recruited by college coaches not just in one sport, but two. 

Serious runners--like many athletes--measure things in numbers. But not just whole numbers, specific numbers, like, point something. “How far did you run today?” I ran 8.7 miles. “What’s your marathon time?” 2:59.57. “What did you run in the 800?” 2:08.87. That last number was actually Madison’s time when she won the event in last spring’s NJ Meet of Champions. She was also a standout soccer star with offers to play that sport collegiately at other schools. Madison chose instead to accept the Ivy League offer. Wouldn’t you?

When I heard of Madison’s suicide, I was disappointed and pissed off. It hit close to home. I had been a collegiate track runner, as well, and two girls on the team at different times had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately for all of us, they had succeeded in living. I decided to head over to 15th and Spruce to retrace Madison’s steps, and try to sort out the thoughts I had.

High above the sidewalk, yellow caution tape swung in the cold afternoon air out of the opening in the parking garage where she jumped. Below was an altar of sorts--large vigil candles in glass containers, notes from friends taped to the wall, and a frozen pile of flowers in their store-bought paper wraps. The notes read like the common teenage sentiments in a school yearbook. "Madison, you were so beautiful." "You were such a good friend." "I wish I had known you longer."

In grad school one of my areas of interest is sport as a rite of passage. Coincidentally, one of the early sociologists who developed the theories on rites of passage also extensively studied and wrote about suicide. Émile Durkheim, a turn-of the 20th century french sociologist, suggested that suicide is a fact of society, and it arises from rules that govern behavior and group attachment. He believed that society is formed from the collective consciousness of a group of individuals, and that we are bound together by strong emotional and moral ties. These ties are reinforced through our rituals, like birthdays and sporting events, where we celebrate our common values, and recognize the passage of our members to new roles and privileges. Conversely, these shared beliefs that fuel our collectiveness, also constrain us. Some members who feel this constraint opt out, and choose to live outside of the broader society, like the Amish, or Timothy Treadwell, the infamous ‘Grizzly Man,’ or Henry David Thoreau. Some, however, opt out totally. They choose to die.

In one research study on college student-athletes, the sport of track and field has the 4th highest suicide rate behind football, basketball, and swimming. As I write this, I'm looking out over Rittenhouse Square from the Barnes and Noble Cafe. It's the same view where Madison posted her last Instagram, after she'd walked or run across the Walnut St. bridge from the Penn campus, before she wound her way through smaller streets to a parking garage, above a sports bar, and across from a CVS. The banality of it was surreal. I remember writing a poem years ago about what it must have been like for my father to meet his end on a train platform in Orange, NJ--the sudden collapsing to his knees from a heart attack, the swirling drone of concrete and overcoats, the usualness of a Wednesday morning commute in America. My conclusion? What an absurd place to die.

The Physics Fact Book says that a single raindrop falls at 25 feet per second. The more compact and dense the object, the higher its terminal velocity will be. How long did it take her to walk or run the 1.6 miles to her destination? How much time did it take to ascend in the elevator, to get up the nerve to jump, how much time to land? How many seconds and milliseconds did it take for her to fly 85 feet, before being stopped in our memories at the age of 19 forever? Did it take 3.19 seconds? Did it take 2.5? Did it take less? It’s a number I don’t ever want to know. 

Speaking of decimals, Madison’s GPA in her first semester at Penn was 3.5. That number is exactly .5 lower than what she had always expected to receive. Exactly .5 lower than what she had always gotten. Point 5 is the time it can take to go from 1st to 6th when you fumble the baton pass in a sprint relay, or 1st to 3rd in the epic closing of a distance race. Or the time it takes to let your feet leave a high ledge and soar down past the first few floors of a parking garage. Point 5. That is what it came down to. Point 5. Not even a whole number--a fraction. And that fraction made all of the difference in the world--our world, now that we live in it without her.