Sunday, May 16, 2010

Doubt and the lesson it brings

Well yet again I have failed to update my blog in an age. I am starting to see a trend though... my last post was on my day off training; today, unsurprisingly, is my first day off training since then. So, I will make a mental note to ensure I complete a post on at least every day off. Anything more than that is a bonus!

The past couple of weeks have been those kind of weeks that every athlete dreads but knows (after 10 years) are inevitable and an important part of improving performance - every session I've been performing under par. My erg scores were miles off my usual for what felt like ten times the effort, my HR was high, my legs felt like they were disconnected from the rest of my body, my arms ached like they were doing all the work and my general enthusiasm for my sport (read: life) was evidently missing. Yet I wasn't ill, I was trying hard to get enough sleep and I'd done nothing differently.

And it's those last three points that are the most pertinent. Any athlete knows that staying 100% all of the time is simply not possible. When you put yourself through the level of training we do whilst trying to maintain a job, a relationship, a social life and still have downtime it's a fait a complit that you are going to, at some point, be under the weather as your immune system shouts loudly 'hey, give it a rest, damnit!'... And when that happens you learn to accept it, back off a bit, and treat yourself with a little bit more care until you feel back to your usual self. In the long run, you will benefit more that way than trying to battle through it. However, when you don't feel ill and everything seems normal yet you simply can not perform, that's a whole different kettle of fish. You start to ask questions of yourself... and that's when the doubt creeps in.

Self-doubt is an athlete's biggest enemy; it is a well known and widely held belief that an athlete who sits on the start line questioning their ability or, worse, thinking that there's no way they can win has already lost. An important part of being an athlete - as important as training and everything that goes with it, diet, sleep, etc. - is mental strength and belief in yourself. It is sometimes mistaken for arrogance. However, there is a big difference. I looked up the definition of arrogance to be sure of what I'm talking about: 'having or showing an exaggerated opinion of one's own importance, merit, ability, etc.; conceited; overbearingly proud'. When you look at it like that you can understand why the lines between self-belief and arrogance are often perceived to be blurred; no-one goes to the World Championships/ Olympics believing they can't win or at the very least are the best that their country can send. In other words, in either case you have to believe that you are the best. You have trained hard with the same focus in every session - to be the best you possibly can be. Granted, there are athletes out there that have an inflated opinion of their capabilities - however, if they race often enough that should be rectified - but in the vast majority of cases, it isn't arrogance you're witnessing; it's weeks, months and years of training, both mentally and physically, to believe that they are the best in order to face the challenge that lies ahead of them.

But I digress... my point is that over the last two weeks - after enjoying a long run of getting faster and faster and producing PBs over and over - I rapidly started to go the other way. And that caused me to doubt myself. To question my abilities. To wonder if I was right all along when I looked at the erg screen and thought that there was no way the scores I was producing could possibly be real. If in fact it was all a run of luck, a bit of a dream. And that made me miserable - worse than that, it made me fearful. As an athlete, your body is your daily job and your performances the measure of how your work for the day has gone. A bad score is a bad day at the office. And the repercussions of persistent bad days at the office are the same as in any job - you lose your position or, worse, you lose your job altogether. And there a lot of people who want my job, and there a lot of people who can do my job - to a better or worse capability - and therefore I have constant benchmarks.

So, facing this weekend's task of a 2k speed order to rank and confirm the crews for the first World Cup was a daunting one off the back of the last two weeks. Essentially, all the proposed crews for the World Cup team race over 2k and are then ranked on % gold medal speed in order to compare boats of different classes. Those who are not performing to the level expected will be reconsidered. In my case, I'm currently in a 2x with Andrea Dennis - a fantastic athlete who I admire immensely and consider it a huge privilege to be training and racing with, not least as she beat me by 13 seconds at, and won, the April Final trials. My reasons to desperately want to to do well were therefore much more than just for me and all the training I have done to get this far; the Wlwt2x is the Olympic class boat so it is a fantastic opportunity to race this class at the World Cups against the best athletes in the world, with one of the best athletes in the world.

I wasn't nervous - I was doubtful, and fearful. And that's far worse than nervous. Nervous means you have an opportunity, you know you have a chance, and you're going to have to race hard to beat your competition. Doubtful and fearful means you've already convinced yourself that you're out of the race and you therefore have to race yourself in your mind all the way down the track to beat your own fears. All this without telling Andrea how I felt as I didn't want to affect her race over and above what I already felt were my physical limitations. So, I told myself it was a process, one that I'd done hundreds of times before - in the majority of cases under more difficult circumstances (like racing a single scull at final trials as your first 2k race in that boat class!) - and as much as I didn't feel up to it/ excited/ nervous about it, it was my job so I just had to get on with it. Just another day at the office. I just had to ignore the hangover of an underpar set of sessions...

I won't bore you with the details (well done for making it this far... you must be really bored, have nothing to do or be avoiding something...!) - we did really well and I personally had one of the best races of my life. The rhythm was fantastic, my legs were strong, my calls were good and the result was reflective of what we are capable of. It was a fantastic learning experience and one that I will carry with me into future races: have faith in your training, have faith in your crew and, most importantly, have faith in yourself. Even when things are not going well, remember the person you are when things are good and you feel strong - because you are still that person.

The first World Cup is in 2wks in Bled, Slovenia. It will be tough, it will be fast and it will be require me to bring my A game. No matter how I feel, how nervous I am, I know I will have packed it somewhere, even if I think I forgot it. Bring it on.