Beware The Validation Trap, the dark side of athletics

Beware The Validation Trap, the dark side of athletics

Posted by Matt Russ on 17th May 2018

Beware the validation trapNothing motivates like progress. Nothing inspires like accomplishment. And nothing validates like success. I have witnessed these things countless times in over two decades of coaching amateur to professional athletes. People that scarcely considered themselves worthy to be called an "athlete" complete a sprint triathlon; then an olympic, a Half Ironman, an Ironman, several more, and then they begin to contemplate what it would take to quality for Kona. This journey from contemplation to completion, and competition to competitor usually incorporates a bevy of changes. These include lifestyle, diet, attitude, social networks (and not just online), and maybe even life partner. A panacea of benefits opens up to the now athlete; more energy, a better body image, a healthier lifestyle, more energy, and better self-esteem. On race day the work they had put in was rewarded with such a feeling of accomplishment it borders on euphoria. They float away from the racecourse exhausted yet with a deep sense of satisfaction they have never felt before; and with mementos to mark the occasion! This is a form of almost instant validation that rarely occurs in life- the work put in is rewarded and even celebrated as they cross the finish line.

But I have also witnessed a darker side to this validation; athletes that have trained themselves into sickness, bodies so broken down they are beyond repair, and people so addicted to the recognition that it becomes all consuming.  I have seen people choose a sport that they get nothing tangible from (in triathlon even the pros rarely make what could be called a living), over a relationship, family, or even a career.  So where is the line?  When does something so positive begin to become a negative, something healthy unhealthy?

There are a great number of videos on the net that poke fun at triathletes, runners, cross fitters, well nearly everyone.  The punchline is the sort of terminal myopia that athletes can develop around their sport or activity.  They become part of a subculture that can only be understood if you are part of it.  I can of course speak from experience with this myself and I look back on it with humor and a grimace.  They begin to dress the part, eat the part, train the part and especially talk the part.  I recall listening to three athletes having a post race recap in our parking lot.  Each was equally animated and excited about the race waiting their turn to discuss the most minor details of the event.  And no one was listening to the others- they were just waiting for a small enough gap in the conversation to insert themselves.  To the outsider they seem silly.  Why would anyone tattoo a corporate brand to their calf?  Why do they need to wear seven pieces of Ironman branded apparel?  What about all those numbers on the back of their car and what is up with wearing spandex even when they are not training?  Do they really think they are better then everyone because they did some stupid race no one cares about?  But to the insider this all makes perfect sense, in fact it is part of their identity and maybe all of it in some cases.

And here in lies part of the pitfall, all glory is fleeting.  In order to sustain the emotional high of accomplishment more accomplishment must happen, and in the case of athletics that is on a very limited timeline.  For example, Ironman triathlon has a very high injury rate, some estimate as high as 90%.  It is not a sustainable sport for the vast majority of the participants and physical and mental burnout usually happens within a few years if not sooner.  It can put extreme pressure on marriages, families, and jobs as well as bodies.  And what happens when an athlete is no longer an athlete?  What happens when that something they have poured everything into, perhaps at great personal expense, is suddenly taken away?  I recall one of my professional triathletes reading on article on "post Ironman depression" in amateurs and remarking "white people problems..." with a laugh.  This may seem glib, but I think the difference in the case of a pro is that they know their career has a shelf life.  There is no "aging up," you are as good as your last race and when you are no longer fast enough you are out, by choice or by force.  A great many pros still have a hard time making the transition and continue to attempt to race with their best day clearly behind them.  But at least they understand the time line.  Many amateurs simply do not understand the physical factors at play.  They believe the new lifestyle they have adopted is sustainable indefinitely, and that they will continue to improve at the same rate.  The truth is that the biggest gains by far come in the beginning and after that they become progressively smaller and harder to obtain, and the athlete is working against the aging process!  For this reason I have always tried to set reasonable expectations with my athletes.  I recall a 60 something year old woman who ran a 10k in over an hour remark that her goal was to get under 40 minutes.  It is easy to laugh at this- but she started at 90 minutes.  She simply did not know how that it was likely an impossible goal after lopping off 30 minutes from her time, another 20 should be easier right?  Telling someone they may never get where they want to go can be a very difficult thing.  On one hand you don't want to take away their momentum and motivation, and on the other you don't want to watch  them pursue a pipe dream that will never come to fruition.  Having a good sense of physical progression, reasonable and attainable goals, and a focus on short term objectives helps keep them grounded.         

As with so many things in life getting your athletic house in order requires balance.  If your goal at the first start line was a healthier lifestyle, this should still be your foremost goal.  If you body is breaking down due to too much exercise (training now) then that is your wake up call; what was once unhealthy is now unhealthy.  That is not to say when an injury occurs you should quit, but if you find yourself attempting to train when injured- there it is.  Not being able to train for a few days should not lead you to depression and anxiety, that is another sign you are to wrapped up in your sport.  If you find yourself foregoing time with your family or spouse in order to train, or getting angry when your loved ones infringe on your training that is your wake up call.  If you feel insecure leaving the house without a race shirt or branded apparel you may have too much of your identity tied up in a sport.  No one is going to remember who placed 8th in their age group at Ironman whocares.  And if your family does not understand how important that is to you remember, that it is only important to YOU.  What is important to them is that they support you.  It is the journey not the destination that is tantamount, and you should take more pride in how you got there over what you earned at the finish line.  Again- no one cares, that may seem harsh but it is true.

I have found that the most successful athletes, the ones I have enjoyed working with the most, are the most balanced.  This is not to say they don't care about getting faster, they may be just as focused on shaving another 10 seconds off their mile split, but they have relationships outside of their hobby and put their family first.  This is not to say they don't have objectives and goals, but their sport is an enhancement to their lives and a celebration of their fitness, not just a number to hit.  They find a level of sustainability that may mean racing shorter races for a while, or being a "one and done" athlete that hits a goal and moves on to the next.  After all life is full of challenges and living a rich life means a myriad of experiences, not necessarily chasing the same one over and over.  They include their family instead of leading a double life.  They do not condescend but set an example.  The biggest award they will receive is health and longevity, and socialization as they give back to the sport.  They would rather be happy than fast.