“You got this!”
“You’re gonna do great!”
It was two weeks before my 70.3. Friends and family were sending enthusiastic words of encouragement, designed to spur me on and quiet my nerves.
But it didn’t feel that way. In fact, all this well-wishing was making me feel worse. Each upbeat platitude made me more anxious, like I had no business taking on this quest. My first 70.3 attempt had ended in a DNF, and I was not at all sure I “got this!”
I knew all this encouragement should be boosting me up, not making things worse. It made no sense, so I decided to investigate.
I discovered I was not alone. According to triathlon mental performance coach Neil Edge, it’s not uncommon for friends and family to communicate with athletes in ways that don’t actually help. “Outsiders have to know how their words will resonate with an athlete. What they say may seem positive, but can easily trigger negative thoughts.”
But what’s wrong with saying nice things?
First, imposter syndrome. “It’s like they have no idea how I’m feeling,” I told Coach Edge. “These super-confident comments make me feel fake, or like we’re on totally different wavelengths.”
“Absolutely,” he replied. “Comments that don’t ring true can make the athlete feel like a fraud, like they aren’t ready or don’t belong in this competition. Imposter syndrome strikes athletes at all levels.”
There’s a second problem, too: teamwork breakdown. Misguided comments create a sense of separation, a distance between supporter and athlete. If an athlete is feeling less than confident, or their training is off, hearing “looking good!” rings false. Triathlon is an individual sport, but our psyches work better when we feel part of a team. Comments that do not reflect the way an athlete feels reveal the fault lines between athlete and speaker, reducing that sense of solidarity and teamwork.
Don’t say this:
A few common expressions that can sometimes make things worse:
- “You got this!” (A major race is not a given, after all. Athletes know this.)
- “You can do it!” (In fact, we may not be so sure.)
- “You look great/you’re doing great!” (In fact, today’s workout was terrible.)
- “Shouldn’t you [insert advice here.]” (Unsolicited advice: big red flag.)
- “You’ve been training so much. This will be a piece of cake for you!” (Actually, it will be a boatload of work. But thanks anyway.)
Say this instead:
- Ask. “How are you feeling about this?” or “What would be most helpful to you?” Then really listen. Trust that athletes understand themselves. Use those insights to tailor your remarks.
- If you do have advice, try presenting it from your own perspective. “For me, what works well is…” That leaves space for the athlete to accept or reject.
- Acknowledge the effort. “I get it. I know how hard this is,” can be very effective. This reduces psychic distance, making us feel united in effort.
- Many athletes have their own affirmations, mantras, and positive self-talk strategies: remind them of those. That way you’re on the same page, reinforcing what the athlete already knows they want to focus on.
- Finally, as Coach Edge reminded me, sometimes “it’s best not to say anything.” Find all the ways you can to transmit support without commentary; just being present with a smile can go a long way.
And athletes, how can we do our part? If a well-intentioned comment triggers a truly negative reaction, pause and reflect. It may be a sign of something you need to explore, some lessons worth learning. The problem might not be your partner, remember, it might be you too.
Then go out and get that race done. You’re looking great.