How often do you make up your mind about how you’ll perform in a workout before you even touch your first piece of training equipment? My guess is that it happens more than you realize.
When you train, you can become hypersensitive about how you feel, in almost every sense of the word and in every phase of a performance – before, during, and after.
My goal in this article is to simply raise your awareness. Judging the way you “feel” can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that can alter your actual performance, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. I also hope to convince you that, while it would be nice to feel great all the time, doing so is not only unrealistic but, more importantly, not a prerequisite to performing well.
Part of the mindset of all great performers needs to be this – It doesn’t matter how you feel. It’s about how you perform.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Perhaps you think that “feeling well” is a prerequisite to doing well. You can probably think back to a time when you started your warm-up really loose and powerful and, subsequently, had a phenomenal performance. But was it because you felt good? You can also probably think of a time when you started your warm-up and felt sluggish, sore, or just tired and, subsequently, had a really poor performance. Was that really because you felt bad?
The constant temptation is to establish causal connections between how you feel and how you perform. But I don’t think this is the case. You don’t perform well because you feel well. You perform well because feeling well increases your confidence, changes your emotions positively, and gets you excited to train. In essence, you performed well because you made the decision to do so.
The same thing happens when you feel sore or tired, in that these perceptions often lead to negative thinking, decreased motivation, and the development of excuses. You then performed poorly because you made the decision to do so. You changed your approach. With few exceptions, I do believe it is as simple as that.
The truth is that an athlete is capable of having a great performance even though he or she feels far from that leading up to it. And I have a theory that when we look back on our best performances we tend to do so with rose-colored glasses, so excited about our performances that we selectively forget how bad we may have felt going into them. Conversely, when we perform poorly we often try to find a reason for the poor performance and are more likely to recall that we may have not felt great leading up to it, again establishing a causal connection.
I’ll give you an example. Between 2008-2012, USA Swimming established an Olympic training program at the Janet Evans Swim Complex in Fullerton, right down the road from where I teach at Cal State Fullerton. I was working with one of the swimmers who trained there, a former Division I National Champion who was preparing to make the 2012 Olympic Team.
We had talked about one of her bad habits, which turns out to be very common in elite swimmers: during warm-up of a race at a big meet, if she was feeling less than perfect and unable to meet her race pace, she would start questioning her readiness and allow doubts to creep into her mind about her ability to swim well during the meet. She thought that, in the past, she tended to swim best times when she felt good in warm-up. She also had some of her worst performances when she expected to feel good in warm-up, but did not.
Upon further reflection, though, she realized that this was actually not true. When we talked about her best performances and I had her walk me through what led up to them, she recalled that some days she felt great in warm-up but then later swam poorly, or conversely, felt bad in warm-up but still performed well in her races.
It turns out that even prior to her winning the national championship, she had been sick and hadn’t trained very well going into the meet. It wasn’t until after she entered the spotlight as a national team member that she started to worry about not doing well, as she warmed up. The stakes and pressure had been raised.
I wanted her to believe that she could perform well no matter how she felt in warm-up. So, I met with her coach and told him that, when she was doing a timed swim for her warm-up, to just confirm whatever pace she wanted to hear, no matter how far she was actually off of that pace. In essence, he agreed to lie to her and she agreed to be lied to, as long as it meant that she didn’t set up expectations about how she would perform in her race based on how she did in warm-up.
At the end of the summer she had managed to drop times in all of her events and, more importantly, was able to approach each race with confidence, no matter how she felt leading up to it.
“Have a Good $#!*& Day”
Let’s go back to your training.
Let’s say you didn’t sleep much last night. Or you are surprisingly sore from a prior workout that you didn’t think was that intense. Or, maybe you’re coming back from an injury or time off and are sluggish. Whatever the situation may be, you have the all the makings of having a really bad day. So what do you do? Think negatively? Go through the motions half-heartedly? Change your motivation and excitement for your workout? Change your workout altogether?
A colleague of mine, Dr. Ken Ravizza, has a great perspective on this scenario. His recommendation is that if you are having a shitty day, you may as well have a good shitty day. If you are sick, sore or just not feeling 100%, you can still give 100% of what you do have.
Make the best with what you have and you avoid creating a habit of only perform well when you feel like performing well. During a training cycle you can expect your body to go through all kinds of natural fluctuations and adjustments, and you will miss an awful lot of cumulative training if you adjust your intention and focus to only those days when you feel like doing it.
Give this a try and you will be surprised – Once you shift your expectations, your performance will also become much more within your control.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
There are multiple interpretations of this famous Mike Tyson quote. Many years later, when asked to elaborate, Tyson explained, “If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere in the duration of that event…you’re going to get the wrath. The bad end of the stick. Let’s see how you deal with it. Most people don’t deal with it that well.”
In other words, many people have the tendency of giving up when things aren’t going well. I believe that this mentality is as applicable to a workout as it is to a fight. Will you stick to your workout goals even if you are not feeling well? Will you allow yourself to adjust your ambition when you are tired? Will you commit to your plan even when you don’t feel like it?
It comes down to choices. As I said earlier, you perform well because you make the decision to do so, and you perform poorly because you make the decision to do so. As the old cliché goes, we can’t always control what happens to us, but we certainly can control how we respond.
“You’re not training to be the best in the world. You’re training to be the best in the world on your worst day.”
-AnnMaria Demars, Mother of Ronda Rousey
Work on your mindset.
I encourage you to create a mindset that enables you to put forth a consistent level of focus and energy no matter how you feel. If you can create that mindset and commit to being consistent with what you can control on a daily basis (which is, admittedly, extremely difficult), then you’ll be much more likely to display the mental toughness needed to perform when it matters most, no matter how you feel.
Remember, in the end it doesn’t matter how you feel. The only thing that matters is how you choose to perform.
Train your mind,
Dr. Lenny Wiersma is a Professor of Sports Psychology at California State University, Fullerton, where he has taught since 2001. He has researched and worked with a variety of extreme sport athletes, including big-wave surfers, ultra-marathon runners and cyclists, channel swimmers, and even UFC fighters.