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Break the Negative Emotional Chain in Your Tri-Life

Don't let frustration lead to anger lead to defeat.

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One of the great emotional obstacles you will experience as a triathlete involves what I call the negative emotional chain. The negative emotional chain includes a series of unpleasant and interfering emotions as you face the inevitable challenges of developing as a triathlete. The three emotions that comprise the negative emotional chain are frustration, anger, and despair.

RELATED: Exploring the Emotional Side of Triathlon

#1: Frustration

Frustration may be the most significant roadblock to achieving your triathlon goals. Every triathlete, from juniors to Olympians and pros, has experienced frustration when they’re not able to do something, whether physically, technically, tactically, or competitively. You feel stuck, get tense, lose focus, and become discouraged. The best way I can describe the feeling is: AAARRGGHH!! It is a truly infuriating feeling!!!

But what is frustration precisely and what causes it? Simply put, frustration arises when the path towards your goal is blocked, whether the goal is holding a certain power during bike intervals, improving your swim technique, setting a new PR in the bike leg, or qualifying for the USAT Age-Group National Championships. Frustration is an emotion that you probably experience frequently. It can be disheartening and, well, frustrating.

Most people think of frustration as a bad emotion, but it is actually more complex than that. The fact is that frustration is hard-wired into us to help us survive. Frustration starts as a good emotion, because when you get frustrated you’re motivated to remove the obstacle that is blocking the path towards your goals. You try harder and that extra effort can, if the obstacle isn’t too big, result in clearing that path—and then you no longer feel frustrated. 

However, there is a problem that often arises when you become frustrated, which can prevent you from clearing the obstacle to your goals. There is a tendency when you experience frustration to do what you were doing before but simply more and harder, relying on the magical thinking that you will somehow just wear the barrier down by sheer will and persistence (which can happen, but not usually). However, this strategy violates Albert Einstein’s famous Law of Insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” So, your well-intentioned efforts can often increase, not decrease, your frustration, thus leading you to the next link in the negative emotional chain.

#2: Anger

If, despite your best efforts, you couldn’t clear the path toward your goals and relieve your frustration, then it can morph into anger. Most people also believe that anger is a bad emotion, but, like frustration, it too has both positive and negative sides. Anger starts out as being potentially helpful because it too can be motivating. When you’re angry, you want to go after the thing that is causing your anger. So, you direct all your anger-created energy toward ripping down the barrier that is blocking your path. Again, if that barrier isn’t too difficult to overcome, then having your emotional volume turned up from frustration to anger may just give you what you need to knock it down.

Unfortunately, often, anger can turn into an emotion that hurts your performance. The feelings of anger are like those of frustration but increased exponentially. Your body becomes tense, you lose your coordination, and the quality of your efforts declines. Your focus narrows so much you miss important cues that might otherwise help you surmount the roadblock. And your ability to think clearly becomes clouded by the anger, stopping you from making good decisions about how to approach the obstacle. The likely result is that the barrier will remain in place, you will continue to be unable to move towards your goals, and you will progress to the final link in the negative emotional chain.

#3: Despair

If you can’t clear the obstacle that initiated the negative emotional chain at this point, your emotions shift to the final link: despair. You have tried and tried and tried and still can’t remove the barrier, so the natural thing to do is to quit. You feel out of control, helpless, and hopeless. What’s the point of continuing to try if nothing you do works? The unfortunate outcome of this conclusion is immediate and irreversible failure to make progress toward your goals that day.

When you experience despair, everything that would be required for you to ultimately overcome the initial cause of the negative emotional chain goes the other way. Psychologically, you lose your motivation, confidence, and focus. All the physical parameters related to triathlon success, including energy, blood flow, oxygen, and adrenaline, drop precipitously. The result is that you lack what it takes mentally and physically to remove the roadblock in the way of your goals.

It has been my experience that if you move from frustration to anger to despair, continued efforts that day usually fail. You are, quite simply, done for the day. And if you experience the negative emotional chain on a regular basis—sinking repeatedly into despair—you will likely lose your motivation and be unwilling to make a sustained effort in the future. With each descent down the negative emotional chain, you come to believe that you have lost control of your emotions, your actions have little effect, and you progressively lose confidence in your ability to achieve your goals and any desire to continue in our sport.

Breaking the Negative Emotional Chain

Despite the powerful influence that frustration can have on your training and competitive efforts (as well as on life in general), you were probably never taught how to deal with your frustration in a constructive way. Your goal should be to learn to stop the negative emotional chain at frustration by responding positively to the frustration when it first arises. Here are several clear steps you can take.

Take a break. When frustration arises, you should first take a break from the situation that is causing the frustration. By doing so, you create physical distance from the source of the frustration, which also results in emotional distance that can lead to the frustration naturally diminishing.

As a part of taking a break, there are two more useful steps you can take. First, as I note above, frustration causes an increase in physiological intensity, including muscle tension and choppy breathing. To relieve these unpleasant symptoms of frustration, you want to change your physiology by taking deep breaths and relaxing your muscles. Second, you can do something during the break to create emotions that are the opposite of frustration—for example, listen to music, be goofy, or talk to friends. This step lessens the uncomfortable physical symptoms that accompany frustration and generates emotions, such as happiness or fun, that can counteract the feelings of frustration, thus reducing its influence on you.

Another great way to counter the feelings of frustration when you take a break from training is to do something at which you can succeed—for example, if you’re frustrated by your inability to improve your distance per stroke, shift your efforts to something else during your swim workout that you are good at, thus feeding your feelings of confidence and generating more positive emotions such as pride and hope. With these renewed good feelings, you can then return to your challenge with a better attitude.

Finally, when you get frustrated, it can be helpful to have a snack or something to drink. Hunger and thirst can contribute to frustration because your body is in a weakened and needy state. Refueling can give you the energy you need to resist the pull of frustration and help you perform better, thus making it less likely that frustration will arise again.

Gain perspective. Having an unrealistic perspective on your training and competitive efforts can set you up for frustration even before you begin and it can exacerbate your susceptibility to frustration once you’ve started. This perspective revolves around the belief that you can reach your goals quickly and easily. Unfortunately, nothing of value in triathlon (or life) comes without significant time, effort, and energy, as well as setbacks and plateaus.

To prevent this self-fulfilling prophecy from occurring, you can use what I call the 3 Ps of Perspective: patience, persistence, and perseverance. When you begin to experience frustration, remind yourself that progress takes time and that you should hang in there no matter how it goes. You can also commit to persisting for as long as it takes and persevering through the inevitable ups and downs. This long-term perspective may not remove your frustration completely, but it will lessen it, allowing you to take the additional steps to can relieve your frustration completely.

RELATED: Taylor’s Ten Laws of Prime Triathlon Training

You can also look at your confrontation with frustration as an opportunity to become tougher and more resilient. The reality is that the pursuit of your triathlon goals is a frustrating process because it is long and difficult with many stumbling blocks and failures. Experiencing frustration gives you a great opportunity to embrace the frustration and learn how to deal with it in a positive and constructive way. You can think about frustration as emotional adversity that, if you can overcome, will better prepare you to surmount the many types of adversity that are part of the sport. When you allow yourself to be exposed to it and then learn how to respond positively to it, you become a better triathlete more capable of dealing constructively with all forms of adversity in the future.

Identify the cause. At this point, you will have relieved yourself of most of the physical, psychological, and emotional expressions of frustration. But you still aren’t ready to confront the cause of your frustration, because if you reengage it now you would simply become frustrated again.

The next step then is to identify the cause of your frustration. If you can understand the specific problem that produced your frustration, then you can find a solution and, in doing so, remove the obstacle that originally led to your frustration.

Find a solution. With the cause identified, you are now only one step away from being able to return to the situation that was causing your frustration in the first place. Sometimes, the solution is obvious and easy to put into action (e.g., refuel when your body is depleted during a long training ride). Other times, it is too big to act on (e.g., trying to make a major change in your swim stroke). In this case, it can be useful to break down the bigger problem into smaller, more manageable problems. Also, if you can’t figure out the cause of your frustration yourself, ask your coach for help.

If all else fails. The reality, though, is you can’t always immediately clear the obstacles to your goals, and then continued efforts in pursuit of those goals on that given day would be futile and discouraging. The barriers may be just too great to surmount on that day. If you feel as if you have exhausted every resource you have to remove the barriers, then you have two options.

First, you can change your goals to ones you feel capable of striving for and achieving that day. For example, you can shift your focus onto another area of your training that you believe you can make progress on. But there are going to be days when you just aren’t going to make any progress toward your goals and continuing to try without success will just discourage you more and hurt your efforts in the long run. In this case, your second option is to deliberately “give up” and choose to fight another day. If you choose this path, then go do something else productive, such as another part of your triathlon training program, or just do something you enjoy that will take your mind off the day of frustration. I experienced this firsthand the other day when, for the second day in a row, I couldn’t meet my power numbers during a long Zwift workout. Instead of beating my head against the wall and getting more frustrated and discouraged, I cut the ride short and went for a recovery run in which I relaxed and felt much better. And was prepared to fight towards my goals another day.

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Do you want to take the next step in training your mind to perform your best in training and on race day? Here are five options for you: