Overcoming Disappointment

It's a fact of triathlon, and a fact of life.

Disappointment is part of triathlon, as it is part of life. Sometimes outcomes and results just don’t match our hope, desire or expectation. Sometimes disappointment is the byproduct of poor goal-setting and/or unrealistic expectation, but that is a topic for another article. For the purpose of this article we will discuss how to handle the aftermath of a disappointing situation. Disappoint can manifest itself in the form of equipment failure, a bad race, a poor training day, injury, or any of a thousand daily frustrations that complicate life, ranging from sickness to scheduling demands to car problems and more. With such a broad and ambiguous topic, the only thing we can be certain of is that disappointment is something we will all deal with in some capacity, and likely with frequency, as we navigate our way through life and triathlon. But this is a good thing! Disappointment can help us determine what is important and helps shape our priorities. Disappointment can also afford us a greater appreciation of the journey as well as our successes when they happen.


While we may not be able to anticipate how disappointment will manifest itself, exactly, it is possible to prepare for how we will handle the emotion. How we cope effectively and move past these emotions will depend on whether we are dealing with disappointment on a short-term (single workout or race) or long-term (injury, chronic poor performance).


Reflection - Look for the positives in the situation.

Spending some time to significantly look over what went right and what went wrong is a good exercise to go through, regardless of outcome. I have all my athletes write up a race report after all races. This allows them the opportunity to reflect a bit on what they went through, as well as offering me an insight into their mentality throughout the event. No matter how bad things seem there are always significant positives, as long as you recognize them. One athlete I know had two mechanicals, in the rain, and was down for 25 minutes, but got back on the bike, finished strong and had a phenomenal run. Of course her placing nor her time were anywhere close to what she had wanted or expected, but the mental strength she exhibited in that situation is far more valuable a takeaway than anything else that could have happened on that day. Another great example of reflection, in a long-term situation is the case of American cycling phenom Taylor Phinney, who crashed out of a race over a year ago and has been rehabbing ever since. In a recent article he described how he’s been able to figure out “who he is outside of cycling,” and how he was fortunate to have that knowledge when many professional cyclists don’t figure that out until they are forced into retirement.


Train yourself to focus on what you can control.

After reflecting – identifying the positives and the negatives in a situation, it is important to further identify the negatives you have some control over. As triathletes, we often think that we can control everything, or at least we try. Recognizing that there are some things beyond our control, dropping them from our focus, and paying attention to those that are within our control can help us to move past a disappointing situation. In many situations, we experience a sense of failure when a circumstance (such as poor weather) takes us out of our game plan. Many athletes in the mid-Atlantic two weeks ago, and many this weekend at Ironman Coeur d’Alene will race in record heat and humidity. It will be the same weather for everyone. Some make the situation more difficult in the days leading up, saying they don’t race well in the heat. Some will refuse to adapt their nutrition plans and/or race tactics. Verbal cues can help in actively shifting your mentality over time. If you don’t like the heat and your racing this weekend, simply telling yourself, “I can race well in the heat” won’t necessarily change the outcome. Remind yourself that everyone has to race in the heat; logically tell yourself that everyone will be slower – this will make it easier to back off your original effort and adapt to the changing conditions. Remind yourself that next time that adjusting to the heat can be broken down into manageable cues (drink more water, take in more electrolytes, utilize the towels and ice on course to cool the back of your neck). Again, you may not believe yourself the first time, but use the “fake it before you make it” approach and if you hear that voice enough, over time, you will start to believe those words.


Seek the perspective of an objective set of eyes.

Sometimes, as athletes, we are just too close to a situation. A coach can help put things in perspective. They can look at a workout or race result objectively and point out what can be improved upon, but also the positive that should be noted and remembered in succeeding training blocks. Likewise, a coach can help maintain perspective throughout the long-term journey rehabilitating an injury. Chances are they have seen similar situations and know how to navigate through the minefield of emotions that come along with a disappointing experience. If you don’t have a coach, a trusted mentor or training partners can help provide an outside viewpoint that can help put things in perspective and help you make a more informed decision.


By following the steps above you can identify what actually is good about a situation and what can actually be focused on to improve the result in the future.


LifeSport Coach Jeremy Howard has guided athletes to their first finishes at every distance from sprint to Ultraman, as well as berths at 70.3, Ironman and Ultraman World Championships. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Jeremy to tackle your first triathlon or to perform at a higher level. Find more tips on Twitter @LifeSportCoach

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