Had a Bad Day? Now What?

Originally posted in March, 2013, this article’s topic is timeless. Never stop examining your response to real limitations and less-than-perfect outcomes. Personal growth happens here!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I’ve always marveled at Olympic athletes. Beyond the amazing talent, drive, discipline, and dedication that impress us all, what has always had me most mystified is the fact that many of them train for their entire lives and have only seconds to execute their craft.  The Olympic record for the women’s 50-meter freestyle swim? 24.05 seconds.  The amount of time it takes for a vault in gymnastics?  In the neighborhood of six seconds.  Sure, marathons take a relative while, but still it comes down to a single performance on a single day after literally hundreds or thousands of days spent preparing.  I’ve always wondered how these athletes deal with chance in this setup–the chance they get sick, the chance they get hurt, the chance they could simply have a bad day when it matters most.

One might argue that the best athletes and performers are defined by simply not having bad days.  Or maybe it’s not that they don’t have bad days; rather it’s their capacity to manage themselves despite having a bad day, their ability to dig down and perform when their bodies aren’t quite right, that makes them special.  But I think this is old news.

My focus here is not on what elite athletes–whose lives have been devoted to training and performance when it matters–do to rise above a bad day, but what the rest of us do–not so much during a bad day, but in its aftermath.  I’m interested here in how we handle the disappointments of a competition, a workout, a race, an event when things don’t go our way.  How do we process our failures?  Where do our thoughts go, why do they go there, and how does this affect our functioning in the future?

The CrossFit Open is a forum ripe with people experiencing all sorts of highs and lows, based on performances week to week and year to year.  My thoughts for this article were spurred on by a post on our TJ’s Gym discussion board by a long-time member whose performance on workout 13.3 was far worse than his performance on the same workout a year ago, despite consistent effort and training in the interim.  He was understandably frustrated, and I dare say he will obsess about this for at least a few days.

His post, combined with many conversations I’ve had with other people, got me thinking about why it is so difficult for us to acknowledge when a less-than-optimal performance can be chalked up not to poor preparation, or mediocre effort, or declining prowess, but to the simple fact that we have bad days.  Sometimes things just don’t go the way we have planned.  Sometimes our systems aren’t fired up on days when a competition or game is scheduled.  Sometimes our hormones are out of whack, our spouses are upset with us, our kids are sick.  Sometimes we just don’t have that spark, and try as we might, we can’t light the fires.  What’s worse is that we may not even realize when our bodies are having a bad day, if our minds are having a good one.  We may feel mentally excited, prepared, rearing and ready to go, while our bodies hold the secret of another fate.  This disconnect can be especially frustrating, because the lackluster performance comes as an unpleasant surprise and unexpected disappointment.

So what do we do when the stars don’t align, and our bodies, our brains, and our psyches don’t cooperate to allow us to put our best foot forward?  We don’t get a hall pass.  The competition for which we’ve registered doesn’t get postponed, just because we don’t feel particularly jazzy.  The 10k race we finally had the guts to enter will go on as planned, despite our malaise.

Are we able to give it our best for the day and move on?  Can we accept a bad day and recognize that it’s part of being human?  Can we let go of the “what if’s” and focus on the “what next’s?”  Or do we obsess for days, unable to let things go, torturing ourselves because we didn’t perform how we wanted?  Most importantly, do we generalize from the experience and let it suddenly and irrationally define who we are as an athlete?  Do we convince ourselves that we simply are no longer up to snuff and must be losing ground in our sport, or can we find the perspective that, plainly and simply, we’ve had a bad day?

I realize that blaming all failures or sub-optimal performances on a bad day is unproductive and unlikely to lead to growth.  It is absolutely important for us to learn from errors and evaluate our preparation and training, in order to make changes and engender progress.  But, on the flip side, if we torture ourselves every time we don’t perform as well as we’d hoped, development is also unlikely to unfold.  Take the guy from our gym who, at least momentarily, interpreted his performance as an indication that he is less fit and skilled than he was a year ago, despite his training efforts.  If he were to allow himself to get stuck there, he might become less and less likely to train hard.  Why?  Because what’s the point of training hard when the results are crap?  What’s the point of going to the gym week after week, when it’s apparent that fitness and competencies have declined?  We can see how becoming too invested in the big meaning of a single failure is a slippery slope to throwing in the proverbial towel.  On the other hand, accepting the reality of bad days would allow this athlete to let it go, have faith in his training, reclaim rational thinking and acknowledge that he is fitter, more skilled, and more energetic than he was a year ago when he probably tested his fitness on a “good” day.

The CrossFit Open is unique and intriguing on a number of levels.  One of its most captivating features is that elite, increasingly professional athletes do the same workouts as regular, everyday CrossFitters.  But let’s not forget that part of the “job” of an elite athlete is to overcome and perform, regardless of internal and external circumstances, while part of the “job” of the other thousands of participants is to fit the Open workouts into everyday life, with all of its demands and curve balls, and to be able to leave it behind and continue with the business of the rest of life, generally unfettered by the “what if’s” of a single workout on a single bad day.  Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that competition is trivial, and we should just let it go, not a care in the world about our results.  Rather, the point is to acknowledge the reality of its import and significance and not let a single instance carry too much weight or define too much about who you are and how you see yourself as an athlete, much less as a person.  If your life is not bigger than a single performance, a single workout, well then, we’ve got a larger set of problems to address in another post.

Invest yourself in your training and your goals, for sure, but don’t over-indulge in the process.  Bad days happen, but so do good ones.  You may even have an awesome day (or ten) if you don’t get bogged down in the bad ones.

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