When I was fresh out of college, a psychology grad, and starting my coaching apprenticeship at Michigan State, I created a blog to share everything I was learning, reading, and thinking. A lot of it was probably garbage, but this post was one of my favorites. It still resonates with me today, and I wanted to share, as I think it’s an important sentiment for all athletes. Whether you’re preparing for a high school or collegiate cross country season, or gearing up for a fall marathon, you should know you don’t need ‘perfect.’ Here’s why.
The great warrior Achilles had his heel. Samson, the strongest man alive, had no self-discipline. Macbeth was brought down by his ambition and lust for power, and Hamlet by his inability to act. In literature, we call it a tragic flaw. Mine, without a doubt, has been perfectionism. Maybe that sounds like a humblebrag (See also: “My Lamborghini is so flashy, cops always think I’m speeding when I’m not”… “I wish people could like me for me and not the famous people I always hang out with”… “I can’t find a dock big enough to park my yacht around here.”). I assure you it is not.
The thing is: perfectionism sounds like “perfect” by its name only. In reality, there is no correlation to “perfectionism” and “perfect”, and more often than not, perfectionists are not the high-achievers – in sport, in business, in academia, et al.
In the psychological literature, we recognize that perfectionism is a multi-dimensional construct. That means it has implications in various different branches of psychology – from motivational psychology to social psychology to cognitive psychology. It is also multi-directional – there is both what we call positive and negative, or adaptive and maladaptive, perfectionism. Most of the research focusing on perfectionism and sport has focused on evaluating the effects of maladaptive perfectionism on performance. This type of perfectionism is characterized by rigid, black-and-white thinking. Things are either “good” or “bad”, and there is nothing in between. There is either “success” or “failure”, and often nothing in between. Perfectionists strive off of rules, structure, and clear expectations. When adversity strikes, the maladaptive perfectionist athlete might feel the whole “plan” has been thwarted, and they may mentally check out because they feel there is no way the end goal can be reached any longer.
Life is messy.
Write it on your mirror, on the back of your hand, in your diary, on the top of your training log. Write it wherever you will see it – if this is something you need to hear.
Life is messy.
Training is messy.
Performance on any given day is complicated and imperfect.
We are not robots who exist in a laboratory!
The beautiful and heart-breaking thing about our sport is that you can check off all the boxes in your training, live a simple, ascetic life; you can run all the workout times that all the coaches and exercise physiologists agree will allow you to run xx.xx, and you can still miss the mark. Sometimes, you will lose a race and it will have absolutely nothing to do with you or how you prepared. And you have to be able to be okay with that in order to be able to move on. In order to be able to free up the mental space you need to put yourself back out there and on the line again – hungry and ready to compete at 100% of your best effort.
I don’t think I ever fully realized this in all my four years of college. I’m just learning this now.
By now you’ve probably realized I am a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing. I will share another quote of hers. Several weeks ago, after lots of travel, she posted this to Facebook, and I think it illustrates, again, not only how messy life can be but also how the messiness of life is everything. There’s no changing it; you’re stupid to try to fight it or mentally resist it; you might as well just embrace it – it’s the gift we get for being fully alive.
“Been on the road now for two and a half months, Dear Ones. Three more events in Germany — and then home. It’s cold and raining. I’m super tired by this point. I’m out of toothpaste. A huge construction project right outside my hotel woke me up with a bang-boom-crash extra early today — hooray! LIFE IS IN SESSION! We can do this! We get to be alive another day! I embrace every single bit of it. There’s no other world I would rather be in than this world — this weird, loud, chaotic, beautiful, exhausting, jacked-up, freaky world. Let’s roll.”
The high-level athlete is: relaxed, open-minded, even-keeled, able to think on their feet, and able to respond quickly to competitive demands. Just like a high-level runner is one who can quickly and effectively change gears in a race, a high-level athlete (in any sport) is one who is able to “change gears” in any competitive situation – for example, if the weather is bad and demands a training session be modified; if a bag with some gear is lost en route to a competition; if the pre-competition warm-up area is limited; or the meal you always eat before a competition is not available.
Every runner who has competed for at least a few years can probably recall a time they felt like garbage on the warm-up or pre-meet shake-out and ending up running a personal best or really great race. This is a fairly common experience.
I’ll share with you, though, how some of my best races in college were fundamentally founded on “imperfect”. Hopefully this serves as a reminder for anxious athletes to always stay engaged and open-minded in the days leading up, and during, a competition. You never know how your body is going to respond, even if the signs appear against you, and never, ever underestimate your potential. You have NO idea what you are capable of, and your next breakthrough could be just around the corner. That’s what makes our sport so fun.
In outdoor track my sophomore year, my first race of the season was a 5K at the Colonial Relays at William & Mary. My sophomore year of college was more like my freshman year, because my actual freshman year was a mess of sickness and injury compounded on more sickness and injury. My freshman year, I hardly competed at all. Come my sophomore year, I was still kind of figuring things out and was still very new to collegiate competition. I had some success already sophomore year, running 40 seconds faster for the 5K than I had in high school. Still, it was the first week of April, I was just coming off a month of very tough, high-volume training, and I didn’t particularly feel ready to run fast yet. Nonetheless, my coach took a risk on me and petitioned to get me moved up to a faster heat of the 5K. I remember him looking me in the eye and telling me not to mess this up. I nodded and promised him I wouldn’t.
Things I remember about the day of and day before the race: Our bus ride down was 6 ½ hours or so. The pre-meet once we got there was very rough – I don’t think I cracked 8:00 pace once, and that felt hard. I was worried my legs wouldn’t feel good come race time the next day. The morning of, I felt super lethargic, and ended up lounging in my hotel bed all morning after shaking out. Once again, I was nervous this was a bad sign. Where was my energy?
The night of the race: I was the only one from my team in my heat, so I had to figure out a warm-up route on my own. Anyone who knows me knows I have just about the worst sense of direction ever. Naturally, I got horribly lost. My 2 ½ mile warm-up ended up turning into about a 3 ½ mile warm-up (including a stop to ask for directions to the stadium), and the last half mile was me tempo running back to the track (but trying to look casual once I made it to the infield). I had to cut short my drills, because I was now behind schedule. I started doing frantic strides. Then, a couple of minutes before I thought my race was about to go off, my coach told me they run fast-to-slow, not slow-to-fast (the opposite of what we originally thought), and I suddenly had about 17 extra minutes before my race. I had to add some more jogging back in, and then re-start the drilling and striding-out process over again.
Now, much of went wrong logistically I could have easily prevented, but that’s not the point. The point is, it didn’t matter. What I did right was: once the race went off, I was totally composed and calm like nothing had happened, and I executed the race plan my coach gave me perfectly. It was the most patient race I’ve ever run. I ran a 27-second PR. To this day, my coach doesn’t know any of what happened on my warm-up (he will now). I was just determined to deliver on a promise to run well.
After a year of huge improvements my sophomore year, I came out my junior year thinking I had to PR in every race again. Constant, linear improvement, or I wouldn’t be happy. Come my indoor track season my junior year, I had not yet surpassed my PRs from outdoor the following year. I thought this was a failure. I thought I needed to beat my outdoor PRs in indoor in order to feel assured I’d hit even bigger PRs come outdoors, when it really counted. Our league meet was a week or two away, and I was down in the dumps and probably not very fun to be around. I had pretty much already written off the season as a failure. And if I wasn’t hitting my goals for indoors, how could I possibly expect to hit my goals for outdoors? The whole year was a wash!
Going into this league meet, I had an attitude totally different from my normal attitude leading up to a big meet. I was still checking off all the boxes, taking care of the details, but I was doing it much more detachedly. I pretended like I didn’t really care about running (probably self-protectedly), but this meant I also wasn’t overthinking running, or my training, outside of practice. I showed up, did the work, and then just left it at the door of the field house. I felt so bad about myself at that time that I decided I just wasn’t going to attach myself to any outcome any longer.
About ten or so days out, we did our last big workout before the meet. It was a Bucknell standard 2 x 2 miles on a road loop. Me, with my moody new “unattached”, “not-caring” attitude ended up running one of my best times on that course ever. Suddenly, a switch went off in my brain. I felt like I had put myself back in the running. Maybe this thing could go well for me after all. I decided I’d be mentally engaged for this one race and just give myself a shot to see what I could do. It was Leagues, after all, and the team needed me. At our League meet that year, my legs ended up feeling really great on the day, and I just went with it. I put myself in the race, ended up scoring, and running 15 seconds faster than I’d run yet that season (just 6 seconds off my personal best ever). My time also qualified me for the Indoor ECAC meet, which I had never qualified for before.
This taught me that things can change on a dime. It also taught me the value of sometimes letting go and letting things happen on their own, without obsessing and overthinking.
What I would consider to be the best race of my college career came during cross country season of my senior year. Boston University had joined our league the previous year, and that first cross country season, they just crushed us. They continued to crush us in indoor and outdoor track. At the end of the year, we regrouped and decided, “Enough is enough.” We made some changes in order to elevate our program, we went to work over the summer, and each race of that next cross country season, we focused on getting better and better. Come November, we were ready for a second try.
What we lacked in a front runner, we knew we had to make up for with incredible depth. Our goal was to place a big pack just off the front of the race and to keep this pack together for as long as possible. If we were to give ourselves a shot at winning this race, we knew we had to be very deliberate about our approach. We were given a very specific race plan through 3K, and after 3K, it was simply attacking the course and pushing as hard as we could to the finish.
On the day, I remember nothing about the warm-up felt good. I tried doing an extra minute or two at up-tempo pace during the warm-up to try to get my legs to come around. I did a couple extra snappy strides. But sure enough, the whole first mile of the race, I felt like garbage. At the mile mark, we executed our plan perfectly and had all five of our top five runners in a pack up front. But I felt like I was barely holding on. I knew I was working way harder than I should be in the first mile of a 6K race. I didn’t think I could sustain this pace. However, I was so locked in to our mission, I wouldn’t let myself consider the possibility of dropping off that front pack. I told myself, “Just one more K,” and I got through the first 3 K’s of that race just willing myself to the next one.
My coach told me before the race I needed to be right next to our top runner, Katie Jessee, at the 3K mark. In fact, he told me he would be standing right there at the 3K mark with a camera, and I’d better be in that frame! Right before 3K was when I slowly started fading. I was increasingly having trouble holding onto the pace. But I thought of my coach, and the picture, and I put in a surge just before that 3K post in the ground, and come 3,000m, I made sure I was right at her side.
After that, Katie and one or two of our other runners started taking off, and I just focused on maintaining a good, steady pace and not going backwards. I knew I couldn’t fall too far off them if we were to have a shot at winning. Between 4K and 5K, we approached the toughest (mentally and physically) part of the course. Right around that point, I got the strangest, most remarkable second wind. I’m not sure I’ve gotten anything like it in any race before or since. My legs were turned around. Suddenly, I was powering through the winding trails and uphills, and I caught my teammates who I thought were long gone. I put myself in the top 10 of the race, and then into 9th place, and by the finish, 8th place. My highest finish at a cross country league meet ever – by 14 places, and a big 6K personal best. And best of all, we ended up tying the race, coming so heart-breakingly close to winning and beating a team that destroyed us the year before.
From this race, I learned how to self-sacrifice for a greater good, and I learned that whether you feel good or bad at any given point in a race, that will change. This also brought full-circle for me the idea that “perfection” is an illusion, and that being at your best has more to do with fighting through imperfection than it does with achieving this illusive “perfection” in the first place.
I think it is important to hammer into athletes that there is an important and distinct difference between working relentlessly hard (which you need to do if you want to be competitive at the highest level… there is no sugarcoating this) and putting together “perfect” training. From my experience and learning from the experiences of others, what is able to constitute for Type-A people a “perfect” training block is usually the early stages of overtraining syndrome. This is a very slippery slope and can easily ruin seasons. And it is especially important for college athletes, who only have a limited number of seasons to explore their potential.
I think one of the best tools you can have as an athlete is a keen awareness of both your greatest strengths and weaknesses. You need to let both guide your training. If you know you are a Type-A person, that is something you can be aware of. If you are a Type-A person, you can use that awareness to know you will always overtrain yourself before you undertrain. You can know you might need to finish every workout, every training day, every training week feeling like you are “satisfied” but not entirely content with what you have put in. You can know you might need to feel like you gave 95%, versus 100%. For the Type-A athlete, this will always feel itchy and uncomfortable, but it is a necessary and small sacrifice one needs to learn to make to be able to give everything they have come race day, when it counts.
Athletes should always be reminded that they are “training to race” and not “training to have impressive training logs”. This is not a take-home test. Everyone’s training logs are not collected at the end of the race, evaluated and tallied; the medals are not awarded to whoever has achieved the most “perfect” and consistent mileage progression, or strung together the “perfect” series of uninterrupted workouts. You do not get an asterisk next to your name on the results sheet because you left your race in that 4 x mile workout two weeks ago.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
– John Steinbeck