Easy does it

Aug 3, 2006 | August 2006, Mind & Body

Meeting your goals with compassion

By Shelley R. Probber, Psy.D.

It’s often difficult to be gentle with yourself, particularly when thinking about athletic or fitness goals. Most of us are taught to push through pain, tolerate discomfort and work harder in order to achieve our goals. While these self-imposed dictates are important, it is also important to know when to slow down and be a bit kinder to yourself.

Most competitive athletes, who are interested in achieving faster times when racing, have what we commonly refer to as “Type A” personalities. You know these folks; they’re the ones who are constantly harried, who are always pushing themselves into more commitments than time will allow, who are impatient with others and who have a strong drive to succeed. While it is generally common knowledge that this sort of lifestyle can lead to physical ailments such as heart disease and high blood pressure, our society also tends to look at these individuals with admiration for their achievements. Put this style into the athletic arena, and it is difficult to argue that characteristics such as drive, and pushing to fit more into a small amount of time, will not lead to faster run or bike times.

Ironically, however, this style does not always translate into a competitive edge or faster times. A chronic state of impatience and anxiety decreases your performance in most instances. It often leads to poor form and technique. Perhaps most important, this state of tension, and a strong need for perfectionism, also leads most to be harsh and critical when unable to meet specific goals.

Imagine this scenario: You have planned to do a specific workout this morning. Planning to push yourself past your usual limits, you anticipate that you will experience discomfort. You know this is necessary in order to increase your level of fitness. You look at the workout plan, and a small amount of tension begins to build. As you drive to the track or to the gym, you begin to dread the workout. You know it will be difficult, and you have already decided that you likely will not complete it to your expectations.

In this scenario, even if you do the workout successfully, it is likely to be associated in your mind with thoughts and feelings of discomfort and uneasiness. The thoughts and feelings you experience prior to the workout may be linked to this experience in such a way that you will often feel bad before this type of workout, even when you have had many more successful experiences than not.

The real damage occurs, however, if you are not able to complete the full workout to perfection. Imagine that you attempt the workout, but you are unable to keep the pace you set out for yourself. Just suppose that you have put your “all” into the workout, truly tried your hardest and given it your best effort, but you just were not able to meet the times you set for yourself. If you are too rigid and too much of a perfectionist, you will lose the joy of your efforts and be unable to celebrate your hard work.

Now imagine that you completed the workout, and you feel fabulous that you did your best, even if you were not able to meet every one of the day’s training goals. Psychological research has shown that we tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones. Therefore, if you have eight repetitions in a workout in which you meet your goals six times, you will tend to recall the two times you failed to meet the goals more strongly. You may have had the experience in which you have had to speak in front of a group of people and you perform admirably, with the exception of one or two stutters or missed words. After your speech, you will tend to ruminate about those two or three mistakes, chastising yourself repeatedly for messing up those two or three times.

What if, instead, you recalled the other 500 to 1,000 words spoken well? Envision yourself holding onto an image of yourself speaking clearly and confidently for most of your talk. Now, envision yourself on your workout: See yourself running strongly and meeting your goals for six entire repetitions. Be your own best friend, and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Of course you can improve, but for today you did quite well.

This compassion for yourself allows you to really push yourself from within. It allows you to make choices about what you really hope to achieve and to be kind to yourself when you are not ready to achieve a particular goal at that moment. Being gentle with yourself can give your mind the room it needs to reach down inside and find the strongest part of yourself, so you can push yourself when you are ready and able. Being kinder to oneself allows you to find the courage you need to learn from setbacks and to find the fortitude necessary to keep trying to go forward.

Shelley Probber is a licensed psychologist in private practice in San Antonio. Her practice encompasses children and adults, with a focus on athletes.

South Texas Fitness & Health