Dealing with Frustration

As athletes we all establish goals, which for most translate into results on any given race. From amateurs to professionals, we all have those goals in mind when we train, when we have to get up early, when we go out the door even if we don’t feel like, always thinking that it will be all worth it.

Turns out the road to achievement is never as linear as we hope, sometimes that path gets blocked and it can be really discouraging and frustrating. Frustration is a feeling we all experience at some point, due to either an injury, a technical or tactical mistake, a bike crash, a mechanical, etc. Most would say frustration is a bad emotion, but I’ve found it to be a misperception. Or at least, it should not be taken as a bad emotion rather as something that fuels what is next.

Usually frustration comes after a missed goal, a failure and is seen as negative. But fact is without it, we wouldn’t ever improve, and become better. Just put it this way: if everything was easy and smooth from the start, the moment we achieve our goal, it would just feel “normal”. And we don’t do sport to be normal, we do it to achieve extraordinary. Without frustration, the moment when we actually achieve our goals would never be enriched. Surely, we could still achieve extraordinary to the eyes of others, but not to our own.

When you do reach the road block that prevents you from reaching your goal, you get (or should be) motivated to remove the obstacle that is blocking the path. You know deep down you need to try harder and usually that extra effort can result on removing the road block or at least make it more reachable in further attempts. Over the years, I have found that the immediate reaction to the road blocks though is still negative, even knowing this in advance. You feel disappointed and sad and while that is reasonable, understandable and OK on the moment, you must be mentally strong to not let it trigger the negative emotional chain reaction that could and easily follow: unmotivated mindset, negative thoughts, self-doubt and the #1 question of “do I have what it takes?”

Dealing with frustration then may require a little more than just “oh, I will use it to motivate me” because that’s clearly a case of easier said than done. Dealing with frustrations needs to be done properly and with experience I guess you learn to switch it to your own benefit. The trick is to stop the negative emotional reaction that follows, and trying your best to respond to the facts positively. For instance, look back to the moment, event or day, that you feel like you have failed, and identify any positives surrounding it. Every single failure has positives. The positives may be something that you did 100% correctly, an improvement on time at something, an improved motion you went through on race day or just one aspect that you met your best expectations. Once you identify those, repeat, memorize and repeat them over and over again, trying to fill your mind with those as soon as possible. Associate them to the race. I’m writing this after Ironman 70.3 Bahrain, so I will go ahead and identify mine as an example: I did a good warm up before the race, felt properly warmed and ready to go when race was about to start. I also felt good legs right off first transition and onto the bike, same for the run, and while I couldn’t push heart rate and effort level up, my pedal stroke felt very smooth, I felt physically very comfortable at the pace I did both the bike and run and my position on the TT bike felt comfortable. Lastly, I was able to sustain a much faster pace on the run for a very low heart rate zone, feeling like I could have run another half marathon without much drop in pace. As you see it may be anything event related and while you are identifying these points, try to eliminate any negative association within the same points. I’m not going to mention those because it will go against my own “switch frustration into fuel” in regard to this race. And as you filter out the negatives, you try to repeat the positives in your head every time you talk or think of the race.

A good trick I’ve learn is as soon as possible, that same day, doing something that creates emotions opposite to frustration. Usually eating and sightseeing works for me, because we have less tolerance when we are hungry and eating is always a act that gives you positive emotions and because sightseeing gives you distance from the moment that frustrated you –  it keeps your mind and eyes busy, so try to avoid the place where it happened for you sightsees!

Lastly, remove the burden of trying to justify why the failure happened. I, as a professional athete, have a very hard time doing this because I feel the peer pressure to perform, so this is something I’m trying to work on. I guess it’s part of my role as a professional in the sport to justify why I didn’t do well, but mostly because I feel like I’m inspiring others with my journey and I don’t want to let people down. However, reality is that, and I must give credit to my coach on this thought, triathlon is a very selfish sport. No one gives a rat’s ass if you do well or not, because everyone is focused on their own success in the sport. As they should, really. Don’t take me wrong, people care about you and surely they will be happy for you if you do well, but also I’m sure that they will not ask for dividends if you don’t do well. So, remove that heavy weight off your shoulders.

If you follow these simple steps, wake up the next day and get back on the horse with renewed and proactive mindset, it’s likely that you have broken the negative emotional reaction. In my opinion though, there’s still one thing to give attention to, because it’s probably the first mistake many people make once they get back into training and violates the laws of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insane. So, return to training with a focus on finding a solution to remove the road block you hit.

Sometimes I’ve also found that is not as simple as getting back to training, finding the solution and trying to fix the issue. Some road blocks are just too great to surpass, either by physical or technical limitations, or even because you don’t have time (in life or in training) for it. On my case, I don’t think the road blocks I’ve hit over the years are yet too great to surpass but obviously they take a lot more than just a few weeks or months to do it. For most, usually we have three options: 1) you may change your goals, to something more midterm between where you are and where want to go 2) you establish a deadline to accomplish your goals, that is at least a year or two ahead, and accept that no matter what happens between now and that deadline, I won’t matter 3) you accept that some days you will just not going to make any progress towards your goal and on that case you deliberately give up and choose to fight another day. I feel like the best approach is a combination of all three.

The reality is the pursuit of ANY athletic goal is a very frustrating process. Not just at the professional level, at any level really, because usually athletes are very hard on themselves and establish either unrealistic goals or extremely to achieve ones which usually require a long build and many setbacks and failure. We, very simply, run out of patience!

   

Pedro Gomes

Pedro Gomes is a professional triathlete made in Portugal, currently based in Dubai, UAE. He's also a certified Ironman triathlon coach and a self proclaimed donut connoisseur.