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At the end of last season, I did what you’re supposed to do: look back, reflect on the good and bad, and make a concrete plan to improve in the future. And as I sat there in serious reflection, deep in honest self-examination, I thought, “Really, my biggest play is that I’m just too awesome.”
Unfortunately, the kind of brutal honesty necessary to take a critical look at ourselves isn’t always a skill we have as athletes. In fact, sometimes willful ignorance serves us well. One of my favorite pieces of life advice masquerading as a joke is: All the greats have short memories. It can be opportune, at times, for Serena Williams to forget she’s ever had a bad game or made a bad play. In her mind, nope, never happened. And when we stand on the start line, it’s not the time to rehash every one of our failed workouts. It’s the time to think, “I can totally win this.”
After the races are done is when we need to put aside the blind faith for a bit and get real with ourselves. That’s when we need to recognize the fine line between putting the past behind us and learning from it, between genuinely examining what went wrong and making excuses.
Once, at a cycling race, I heard a guy who had just finished the race bemoaning to a teammate how “if only” and “things would have been different.” If but for an ill-timed bump in the road or a brake cable too loose or, I dunno, the will of God, he could have been somebody. He said to anyone who would listen, “If I had just been up there, I would have won.”
This is not the kind of critical self-reflection that will help you become a better athlete next season. Also, it’s dumb.
It’s one thing to take some time after a bad race or a bad season to wallow. You can cry a little, eat ice cream straight out of the carton, and whine to anyone who cares about how it all should have been different (which is probably fewer people than you think). But then you have to stop. Then, it’s time to move on to the next stage: honesty.
Was it honestly the bad brake cable that did you in? Or the stomach trouble? What part of those problems do you have some responsibility for? What can you do differently? And what’s truly out of your control?
If I’m really being honest with myself, there are tangible ways I could be more awesome. I could work on not falling apart swimming solo and on applying my cycling watts more efficiently. I could get my bike position dialed in better over the off-season, and I could do some throwaway races early to practice managing nerves. I could make a list of what I did right and what I did wrong this year, and I could systematically come up with a plan to address those things. And, then, when I get on the start line in April, it doesn’t have to be willful ignorance. It can be informed optimism instead. I will be able to semi-honestly tell myself, “I’ve done everything possible to kill this race. I can totally win this.”