Finding The Balance Between Optimism and Realism

"Everything's amazing, horrible." With so much up in the air and out of their control, how can an athlete find the right balance between optimism and realism when goal setting going forward?

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Whatever your mind is set on achieving the next time you race, the approach should be to dream big. Why? Because studies have shown the benefits of optimism for athletes include better performance, healthier lifestyle habits, more wins, and less likely to burn out. 

As endurance athlete (and self-proclaimed optimist) Eric Hinman put it: “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Think like a bumblebee and train like a racehorse.’”

He explained, “Scientifically, a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but because it believes it can, it does. A race horse doesn’t overthink its training and recovery. It just executes daily.”

The Denver-based athlete previously persevered to race Ironman Lake Placid with a painful hand injury. The experience taught him to rely on a ‘power of now’ mentality when working towards a goal despite adversity (in this instance, qualifying for the World Championships in Hawaii).

“Positive thought and purposeful practice will turn optimism into reality,” Hinman insisted. “I practice activities that force my mind to be in the present moment, like ice baths, mountain biking, yoga, meditation and long endurance efforts. It gives you an endurance mindset: not to dwell on the past or worry about the future. Just be in the now.” 

“Ironman taught me the importance of positive thinking and patience,” Hinman continued. “I was able to experience something I thought was unattainable through a long focused effort. I now know I can achieve anything with time and relentless focus.”

Hinman says structure and focus is the key to achieving any ambitious goal. 

“If you want to excel at anything, you need to be intentional with your daily routine,” he outlined. ”Fill your days with intentional habits and you’ll begin to eliminate distractions. I work out and eat at the same time every day. I take phone calls and meetings only during set times. You must intentionally design your days in order to achieve your goals.”

Dr. R. Alexandra Duma, a Team USA sports chiropractor at FICS, a fitness recovery and wellness studio in New York City, agreed that ultimately it’s key to err on the side of optimism rather than being an eternal pessimist. 

“Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars,” she quoted. 

“It’s good to set high and specific goals and optimism is a desirable attribute to have,” Dr. Duma said. “Paired with hard and smart work, optimism should turn goals into reality, but these goals should be achievable and realistic. I think a good formula is: optimism + hard and smart work = reality of achieved goal.”

Being overly optimistic tends to work in an athlete’s favor, although Dr. Duma was keen to note that there’s a marked difference between the former and just being cocky. Yet on the other hand, self-doubt can be a fast ticket to failure too. 

“At the elite level, everyone is putting in the hard work and what will differentiate the ones who win a medal/competition is their mindset. A self-fulfilling prophecy of someone believing that they will lose will come true,” she warned.

Are you that kind of someone who tends to think everything is always bleak? Elite performance coach Sam Tooley, founder of Alpha Fit Club in New Jersey, advised starting a detailed training log. 

“It helps a pessimistic athlete recognize the work they’ve put in,” he says. “I love to have athletes look back on months of tough sessions to remind themselves what they’re capable of and what they’ve put in. I love to highlight their best sessions. Even if they are plagued by less than stellar performance in between, those highlights go a long way.”

Being in the right headspace is so important to how you perform on race day, and Tooley maintained that it is possible to reframe your mindset. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s simple. (Simple isn’t always easy!) I want my athletes to step the line with a bit of swagger and confidence but make no mistake about it, they know they will need to leave it out there. Too many athletes are good at training but poor at racing. How you perform in practice means very little if you can’t summon it on race day,” he said. 

“That said, how you practice has a direct correlation with how you race. I find that rather than try to play mind tricks on race day, help an athlete practice the mental habits that will get them to where they need to be by habit. We want what you do in practice to be second nature on race day. Pose the question: How do you want to feel? Then focus on that, and the rest will come.”

Though setting lofty goals is a powerful motivator and Dr. Duma ultimately recommended striving for gold, it’s equally as important to set some realistic limitations. Particularly after lockdown, and remember it’s OK to readjust goals if needed. 

“Pick goals that are achievable,” she said. “A full marathon might be too much if there was no possibility to train, but a half might be more realistic. The same with a triathlon if you had no possibility to get some swimming in because pools were closed.”

Tooley agreed, “You don’t want to take away that optimism as confidence is key, but you want athletes to be realistic in terms of what it will take on the day. Sometimes you have to bring people back down to reality. We forget how truly hard racing is when we haven’t done it in a while. It never gets any easier to push ourselves to the limits, we just get faster.”

Though, maybe there’s something to learn from the eternal optimists out there when outlining your future race goals, no matter how big or small.

“My approach to life has not changed with the pandemic,” five-time Ironman finisher Hinman said. “I focus on what I can control and become creative when there are limitations. I don’t dwell on what I can’t control.”

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