Tips to successfully deal with setbacks
From injury to illness to fitness plateaus, everyone (including us pros!) encounter setbacks in our triathlon journeys at one time or another. Learning how to cope with tough circumstances, overcome and come back a stronger person and athlete is essential. This has never been more relevant for me than right now, as I will be shortly undergoing surgery to correct hip impingement and repair a torn hip labrum.
Helen Keller once eloquently said that “character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Although our setbacks can be overwhelming, difficult and seemingly unending at times, we can rest assured that they are making us stronger and ultimately make the comeback that much sweeter and more meaningful! Here are a few ways that have helped me successfully deal with setbacks:
1. Acceptance is key - For several weeks, I was in-denial about the seriousness of my injury. Like many, I have an extremely high pain-tolerance, as well as a knack for compartmentalizing my emotions and pushing hard through setbacks. It goes against my nature to “take a step back,” breathe and accept the physical (and mental) rest from training/racing that is so often necessary to make a successful comeback. If something consistently does not “feel right” physically, mentally or emotionally, don’t ignore it or just hope it will eventually go away. Seek medical or professional help! Accepting that there indeed is an issue is the first step forward towards recovery.
2. Give yourself some grace - As type-A, high-achieving athletes we are often our own biggest critics. I blamed myself for the injury and had negative thoughts for a few days following the diagnosis. Viewing setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow is essential and we must give ourselves some grace during this process. Constantly dwelling on or beating ourselves up about perceived failures leads us down a rocky road. Injuries, illnesses and other setbacks are part of life, especially the triathlon life! It has helped immensely to talk to friends and family, as well as journal and pray. All of these have been healthy mediums for myself to process emotions and thoughts related to the setback.
3. Leave no stone unturned - Injuries, illnesses and other setbacks can not always be prevented, but always present an opportunity to meaningfully reflect back on training, racing and lifestyle choices. Trying to identify causes of a setback, especially in the case of injury, can be helpful in preventing recurrence. After reflection with my coach and doctor, we believed that an increase in run mileage on hard pavement and extra life stress due to moving likely pushed my body over the edge. Knowledge is power and successful athletes don’t necessarily train harder, they train smarter. This setback has given me valuable knowledge about how to move forward with training once I am recovered. Consulting with a trusted doctor, clinical psychologist, registered dietitian or any number of sports professionals can play a huge role in “leaving no stone unturned” and getting answers needed to move forward.
4. Focus on what you can control - It is easy to become overwhelmed or feel like everything is spinning out of control during setbacks. Accepting that which is out of our control is the first step. Identifying that which is in our control is the next. Attitude and how we perceive our setbacks is an important part of that. Maintaining daily, positive inner self-talk and thoughts that affirm our personal strengths is incredibly helpful in setbacks of all forms. Much of how we respond to setbacks is controllable as well. With injuries, it might be possible to focus on strengthening weaker areas, like swim technique, if the injury makes running difficult. During illness, staying hydrated and getting healthy meals might be another area within your control. Whatever the setback, awareness and action regarding controllable matters are a huge part of a successful return to sport.
5. Keep calm and carry on - Finding joy and peace during a setback sometimes seems like an impossible task. Triathlon, and the amazing community, bring so much happiness into our lives. As result, it can feel like part of our identity is being stripped away if our abilities or capacity to train or race are limited. Finding other things that infuse joy and purpose into my life has been a huge part of the coping process. Less time training for the time being has allowed me to focus on my relationships and being the best wife, daughter, sister and friend I can be, as well as developing professionally as a mentor for young athletes. This has been a dream for a long time, but I just didn’t have the time to get around to it! Setbacks can be blessings in disguise and can lead to personal growth if we stay positive, calm and carry on with the many other wonderful aspects of our lives that make us who we are!
By Sophie Watts - Zoot Professional Triathlete
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