Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Confidence Is Not A Naughty Word

Warning: this blog contains naughty words.

One of the biggest obstacles facing athletes is confidence – especially with women.

I’m not sure what it is. I am a woman and you think I would know. Perhaps it’s this idea that there are things we just shouldn’t be able to do because we are too weak, small or frail. Or would be better off spending our time making babies.


The point is if you’re a living, breathing thing you have the capacity to be strong both physically and mentally. It’s a way of thinking, a mindset you have to practice over and over again.

You train your body, right? Take the time to also train your mind. If you find yourself giving up when the going gets tough or stopping because you’re afraid of facing the what if – take the time to work on your mental toughness and self-confidence. Often this is the bridge to gapping good performance and great performance. It’s what gives you the balls to break through – to trust your legs, your training and yourself.

According to the definition, confidence is “freedom from doubt”. In training, confidence is trusting yourself and your training. I guarantee if you doubt your training you will not reach your goals. There are very few things I will promise as a coach but that would be one of them. Henry Ford once said “whether you think you can or you can’t you’re right.” Why? That’s just the way the brain works. To some extent, you hard wire what happens to you – you create it in your head. The brain is not very good at separating images or thoughts from reality (this is why top athletes use imagery because it’s so damn effective).

Try it: next time you get in the pool tell yourself you will completely fuck up the next 50 yards. Go out really hard and the entire time say things to yourself like you’re slow, you suck, you can’t swim, you’re tired, your arms hurt, you hate swimming. And when the clock spits out a slow number, pat yourself on the back and say – see, you were right. You suck, guess what, even the clock agrees.

Now, try it the other way. Start your 50 with an open mind. Tell yourself you’ll be strong, powerful, pull water, you’ve got it, you can do this, you’re on top of your best time, you love the water, you're nailing it. What does the clock say? I’m going to guess it looks better than you thought it would. Congratulations, you confidently cheerleaded yourself to a faster pace.

For the most part, it’s as easy as that. Who knew? But you have to do it most of the time for it to work. You can’t suck Monday through Friday and expect yourself to have a personal best on Sunday. Why on Sunday? Didn’t you just suck and hate yourself every other day? Instead you’ve got to build yourself up – every single day.

Believe me, success isn’t some ancient secret that you find bottled up in some black market for a really high price. It’s out there. It’s formulaic. It’s a hefty dose of patience with a bucketload of just doing the work combined with self-confidence. You can do the work and wait – but if you step up to the line without thinking you can do it – you’ve just waited and wasted a lot of time. But if you step up to the line with a confident mind and trusting legs – chances are you’ll surprise yourself.

How do you let go of doubt, to become free of it in order to become more confident? Become fearless. Before a key workout, hard set or race I remind myself to be fearless. Not just fearless but fucking fearless. There is a difference. Squirrels in autumn are fucking fearless. They want the nut. THEY WANT IT. They will lay their furry little life on the edge for it. You can see it in their anxious eyes. Being fearless is not easy. It requires taking huge risks. Finding yourself at the edge, closing your eyes, jumping off and hoping there is water below. More than hoping – trusting it is there. That is fearless.

Of course this is not a limitless process. True confidence is grounded in realism. At my best I can swim a 50 in :32 right now. Stepping up to the 50 free at a swim meet and hoping for a :28? Doesn’t matter how hard I close my eyes, I am not there (yet). There is a natural progression to progress.

Setting realistic expectations for yourself is critical for achieving your goals – which then builds more confidence. Confidence is contagious. Success breeds more of it and all of a sudden you’re filled to your brim with feel good. Success, however, is not always winning. Sorry, last I checked in sport there is one winner and everyone else – is just in the game. Harsh, yes, but true. Especially in a sport like triathlon, we’re not all out there to win. You have a 2000+ person event and only one person will win.

So what’s everyone else out there doing? Hopefully chasing their own outcome that they set based in realism. Why realistic? If you set your bar too high too soon, you’ll get completely jaded by the process and eventually give up. You’ll stop believing in yourself and your training program. Start small, build success one day at a time. Maybe today’s success is saying only positive things when you go for a run. Maybe it’s breaking 1:00 in the :50. Sure, you might want to repeat your 50’s ON the 1:00 but you’ve got to start somewhere. Give yourself a chance to succeed. Set yourself up for success – small steps, leading to bigger "wows".

When I turned pro last year I realized my measures of success and building confidence completely had to change. That is how you race like crap for a year and still have the passion to keep racing. You find other ways to call yourself a winner. Sometimes winning for me was finishing the event. Sometimes it was staying within sight on the swim. Small steps. I set the bar so low I could walk over it. Heck, in some races I literally tripped over it. But each time I finished a race clearly where not much had gone right – I got hungry for it again because I nailed that one thing. And that one victory fed my confidence.

The easy thing about building confidence? YOU are completely in control of the process. No one else believes in you as much as you. You can have a coach cheerlead you through phone calls, emails, posters and pompons all day but if you don’t have the basic I BELIEVE IN MYSELF when you start your workout, you’re as good as….not. You won’t have a good workout. You will fail. How do I know?

Because I’ve failed some workouts like that.

I was at the track last week. I had a complete mental poop out. I have doubts just like you. I wonder – am I running enough and doing the right thing? So I stepped up to the track with that little seed of doubt in the back of my mind. When the times weren’t going my way guess what I did? Stopped. Got frustrated. Called it confirmation for how bad my running is. But it’s not. I can see that now. Yet it’s funny how we’ll look for any little freakin’ clue for why we suck so much.

Workouts like this once every few weeks – ok. Shit happens. Admit to yourself you had a mental poop out, consider the “why” and devise a way to work around it next time. Then, act on it. Action is all that matters. Anyone can whine and pity themselves all day long. Each day you do that you take away more confidence. Want to build confidence and avoid situations like that in the future? Take action on it – do something. It's in your control.

What if you have workouts like this every week, day to day? Every day, then probably a problem with your training. But when the workouts are hard, when the going gets tough, when the pressure builds, when the demands are high like in a test or race situation – then it’s problem with confidence. How to fix? Buck up. Buck up to doing what it takes to build yourself up confidently. It’s not a secret nor found in any book. It’s inside of you. It’s what you say to yourself when you first wake up, what you post as your status on Facebook, what you think about yourself when doing the work and after the work is done. If it’s all negative and pitiful – as my high school history teacher once said about another student’s paper:

Jessica, dear, if it smells like shit and looks like shit it is shit.

Poor Jessica, I can still remember the look on her face. Ouch. But he was right. You can’t expect success to grow from shitty thoughts. Shitty days we all have them. But the patterns over time – should smell more like roses. Or vanilla. Cinnamon. Clean laundry. Bacon. Coffee – whatever smell you like.

I've been blunt, I know. But I think sometimes women need to be a little more blunt with each other to get the point. Take a lesson from the guys – guys have balls. What I mean is that most guys do not have problems with confidence. Of course when you are born with balls it helps to be ballsy. But anyone can do it too. Get ballsy – gutsy, brave, confident and fearless. Step up to the workout each day and beat your chest a little. Make the pace clock your bitch. Put the puke bucket next to your bike. And when you’re right on that edge of breaking through or pushing through the pain – run like a mad squirrel into the street. Convince yourself you can do it – work at it, confident and fucking fearless. Prove it to yourself for yourself because that’s where confidence comes from.


Marit C-L said...

Wow - Liz. Fuckin'-A. This is awesome. Really great post - simply fantastic. I'll read this again before my bike tomorrow...and place the puke bucket next to the trainer. Very very well written.

Kris said...

– run like a mad squirrel into the street

LOL ~ great image. Mostly because the mad squirrels were trying to commit suicide under my bike wheels last night. :-)

Tri-James said...

I love this post!

I have heard - If you want to run a sub 17 minute 5k then first run a 17:15 and then work really, really hard.

Realistic Confidence!

Molly said...

LOL! Now I'm going to be envisioning hungry squirrels chasing me in the pool.

Awesome post and one I will take to heart. Swimming is going to start smelling like bacon! ;p

Angela said...

Thanks, Liz. Sometimes I feel like I should pay to read your blog. Really good stuff.

Eisparklz said...

I've filed this one away, and will be pulling it out frequently. Thank you!

Keith said...

Best post I've read in a while. Just what I needed to read.

GetBackJoJo said...

Oh tis true tis true.
fucking fearless.

(Still, I don't know if I want to be like a squirrel making a mad dash into the street where hello! there are no fucking nuts or, for that matter, a dumbass guy who thinks he's the shit when he actually kind of sucks.)

But you're still right.

Haliku said...

Well put! Defeat can come from within too easily. Cheers!

TRI-ROB said...

I like it when you say "balls". I also like it when you say "bacon". I especially like it when you say them in a single post.

As the song says... "there's beauty in a breakdown"... we just can't be afraid of the re-building process.


ADC said...

Great post and so inspiring as I used to be one of those people who lacked confidence in training and racing. Love it.

kerri said...

Another one for the fridge!! Thanks...needed that. When are going to put all these blog excerpts in a book for multisport athletes?? BIG BUCKS LIZ.

Bob Mitera said...

The two toughest people I swam with in college were both women.

We were doing 40 x 200 on 2:15 and had to hold 2:00 or better or start the entire set over. (Remember, my college coach was a master of over training and crazy sets.) We had done 29 x 200 with 11 to go.

The guy leading our lane was hurting. He was sick but leading as he was the best freestyler. For general conditioning workouts, our team combined the men's and women's team to add peer pressure. He came in on 2:00.8 - all sets were tracked to the tenth of a second. I was on his feet and told him to pick it up. My friend Lisa comes in on my feet and asks me "Who is slowing down? YOU?!" "No, (guy's name) is sick." Lisa grabs the guy by the chest hair and slams him against the wall. "I am NOT doing 40 more of these F**KING 200s because you are getting tired at #29! Move your ass or I'll beat the sh*t out of you."

Second example is my friend Stacy. She has gold medals on her wall from of the big world class swim events and STILL holds a lot of freestyle swimming pool records in NE IL. We were doing 2 x 8 x 400m IM repeats. Coach says, "I want these FAST and I want your to hold race pace +10 (seconds)." Stacy, being a smart ass says, "Gee, why don't we make it +5 seconds." Protesting a long, boring, hard set. Coach agrees. Stacy holds the entire set at her PR +4 seconds and on the last one goes +1.3 seconds.

Tough chicks will kick down the door.

Angela and David said...

Great post! And I have a whole new respect for squirrels.

Laura said...

Perfect. Thanks!

Jennifer Harrison said...

Yes, after our chats yesterday, this IS great timing. SPOT ON and of course, YES YES YES....but only a few really get this.

Unknown said...

One of your best! I like cussing.