3 Steps to Embracing Reality
How to make the best of a bad situation, whether in training, competition, or life.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Watch the Q&A with journalist Matt Fitzgerald about his new book, excerpted here, The Comeback Quotient.
The idea of embracing a bad situation may sound masochistic, but it’s not. To embrace a depressive episode or hitting the wall in a race is not to take pleasure in it, but rather to cope with it. Having accepted the reality of a bad situation, an athlete has the option to either give in to it or try to make the best of it. Embracing the reality of a bad situation entails committing to making the best of it. There are times, of course, when the best that can be made of a bad situation doesn’t look a whole lot different from the bad situation itself. But, again, sometimes a small difference makes all the difference. So, what does it take? Three specific psychological mindsets show up again and again in athletes who habitually choose to try to make lemonade from the lemons they are dealt in training, competition, and life:
- Internal locus of control
- Growth mindset
The good news for athletes who aren’t so good at embracing a bad situation is that all of these mindsets can be nurtured over time. The first step is understanding them—a step we’ll take together now.
Internal Locus of Control
It goes without saying that in order to commit to making the best of a bad situation, you have to believe you have the power to change it. Not everyone believes they have this power. The term locus of control refers to where individuals place responsibility for their successes and failures. Individuals who have an internal locus of control see themselves as having the capacity to achieve their goals by their own initiative in most situations, even if external forces are working against them. Individuals with an external locus of control see themselves as being dependent on favorable external forces to succeed in challenging situations.
Research has shown that “internals” and “externals” have different ways of coping with stressful events and that coping methods favored by internals typically yield better results. Among the pioneers in this area of research was Carl Anderson of the University of Maryland. His best-known study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1977, involved 90 business owners whose coping methods Anderson observed for a period of two and a half years following a “major disaster” affecting their business. At the beginning of this period, all 90 owners completed tests designed to assess their locus of control. After analyzing the data he collected, Anderson reported that “Internals were found to perceive less stress, employ more task-centered coping behaviors, and employ fewer emotion-centered coping behaviors than externals.” Task-centered coping behaviors are simply practical actions taken to solve or limit the impact of the source of present stress (e.g., fetching a fire extinguisher in response to fire), whereas emotion-centered coping behaviors include avoidance, apathy, and anxiety (e.g., screaming, “Fire! Somebody do something!”).
Let’s look at an example of how an internal locus of control and its associated coping skills can help someone embrace, and thereby make the best of, a bad situation in the endurance sports context. On July 11, 1999, professional triathlete Stefan Laursen was on his way home to Delray Beach, Florida, from a training stint at Lake Tahoe when stormy weather turned what was supposed to have been a short layover at Houston International Airport into a six-hour encampment. Worse, upon finally arriving in Florida late that night, Stefan discovered that the airline had lost both his bike and his gear bag. A nuisance under any circumstances, the screwup was especially problematic in Stefan’s immediate circumstances, as he was supposed to compete in the Coca-Cola Classic Triathlon in Boca Raton the next morning. At this point, an athlete with an external locus of control might have thought, There’s no way I can do tomorrow’s race without my bike. But Stefan believed it wasn’t his bike but his legs that made him competitive, so he borrowed a bike and shoes from a friend, slept for two hours, and won the race.
In bad situations, externals get discouraged, and internals get resourceful, putting their energy into managing the problem itself rather than their emotions. There are five proven ways to cultivate an internal locus of control like Stefan Laursen’s:
1) Focus on what you can control. Having an internal locus of control does not mean believing you’re in control of everything. The problem for externals is that they believe they have less control than they do. To avoid this situation, consciously enumerate—even write down—the factors that you can control whenever something goes wrong or threatens to spoil your training or racing. For example, suppose you’re training for an early-season triathlon and a friend comes home after a course reconnaissance trip three weeks before the event and reports that the lake water temperature is a bone-chilling 57 degrees. In this scenario, an external is likely to become anxious and spend a lot of time hoping the lake warms up in the next three weeks. But no one can control the weather. Your time and emotional energy are better spent considering sensible equipment changes (e.g., neoprene swim cap), finding ways to practice swimming in cold water, and mentally bracing for a cold swim.
2) Censor yourself. Certain self-limiting words and phrases appear repeatedly in the thoughts and speech of externals during stressful moments. These include “can’t,” “impossible,” “I wish,” and “What’s the use?” Banish such expressions of helplessness from your thoughts and speech and replace them with alternatives that put you in the driver’s seat. For example, replace “There’s no way I can get down to my competition weight for January’s race with the holidays coming up” with “With the holidays coming up, I need to make a concrete plan for getting down to my competition weight for January’s race.”
3) Pivot from problem to solution. Externals are prone to fixate on problems while internals tend to shift quickly from recognizing a problem to identifying solutions. In my coaching work, I never allow an athlete to spend more time than necessary describing or discussing the nature of a problem. When I see an athlete start to go down this path, I step in and ask, “So, what do we do about it?” You can do the same for yourself. It’s okay and even necessary to consider a problem long enough to properly define it, but once that’s done, it’s time to start thinking about fixes.
4) Don’t think in all-or-nothing terms. Before she died of cancer at 32 years of age, American middle-distance runner Gabriele Grunewald told an interviewer, “It’s worth doing even if it’s not perfect. And I think sometimes we’re too quick to give up on the things that we love and the things that make us feel alive when something is going wrong in our lives, but I just feel really strongly that we have to hold on to them.” One of the reasons externals give up on their dreams too quickly is that when an obstacle comes along and renders a dream unrealizable, they are not able to imagine any other outcome that makes the best of the situation. It’s all or nothing.
Gabe didn’t have this mindset. She finished in last place in her final race (an opening-round 1500-meter heat at the US championships) in 2017—a race she ran during a two-week break between chemotherapy treatments. Having won a national title at 3,000 meters three years before, Gabe would surely have much preferred to win again on this occasion, then go on to win the semifinal and the final, and then go on to earn a medal in the same event at the world championships in London. Cancer, however, placed such ambitions out of reach. Yet if Gabe hadn’t committed to making the best of the situation, she wouldn’t have even made it to the start line of that last race, which became something more than a race when the crowd gave her a standing ovation as she finished alone and her fellow competitors then huddled around her to pray and shower her with love. The next time a setback tempts you to revert from the “all” of your next big goal to the “nothing” of giving up, remember Gabe Grunewald.
5) Ask for help. There’s no law that says you have to go it alone when facing challenges. Getting help from others is not the same thing as leaving yourself dependent on outside forces. Rather, it is one of the task-centered coping methods that internals use to solve problems, as Stefan Laursen did in borrowing a bike and shoes from a friend so he could race the Coca-Cola Classic. No matter how good your coping skills are, you can’t solve some problems without a little help. Don’t hold back from getting the help you need when you find yourself in a bad situation you can’t get out of alone.
The second mindset that strongly affects our ability to embrace bad situations has to do with how challenges are perceived. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford University have demonstrated that whether a person believes intelligence and other abilities are fixed or can be increased through hard work has profound implications for their success in school and elsewhere. Those who tend to see their abilities as unchanging have what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset,” and they struggle to embrace challenges. Those who believe that through hard work they can increase not just their knowledge or skill in some area but their underlying ability have a “growth mindset,” and they readily embrace challenges.
You might assume that all athletes have a growth mindset. After all, sports are challenging by their very nature, and the time and effort athletes put into training are predicated on the belief that through hard work they can increase their fitness and performance. But although athletes as a group may be more growth-minded than the general population, some are more growth-minded than others.
In my coaching work, I see this most plainly in the different ways athletes approach challenging workouts. According to Dweck, the reason folks with a fixed mindset don’t like challenges is that they view them as tests, the results of which pass permanent judgment on their ability. Over the years, I have worked with a number of athletes who clearly viewed their harder workouts as tests. These athletes typically experience intense anxiety before and throughout these workouts, an unpleasant emotional state that harms performance. They are also more likely than other athletes to push harder than they should to hit their numbers on days when circumstances are against them or their body just doesn’t have it. Additionally, these athletes are quick to hit the panic button when a tough session doesn’t turn out well, suffering a crisis of confidence that often precipitates bad decisions.
I once received an email message with the subject line “Pounding the Panic Button with a Sledgehammer” from an athlete who was following a custom training plan I’d built for him. On reading the body of the message, I learned that the athlete had just bombed a long, marathon-pace workout after many weeks of problem-free training. One bad workout in an otherwise smooth training cycle and the poor fellow was “pounding the panic button with a sledgehammer”? That’s the fixed mindset for you.
Athletes who have a growth mindset view challenging workouts not as tests but as stimuli, whose purpose is to provide an earned benefit, not to pass judgment. If they crank out numbers that attract lots of kudos from their Strava followers, so much the better, but they know the workout served its purpose regardless. In my experience, athletes who have this perspective don’t get as anxious before important sessions, they don’t force things unwisely when circumstances are unfavorable or their body just doesn’t have it that day, and they’re less prone to panic when a session goes poorly.
When working with athletes who have a fixed mindset, I offer up little mantras they can use to shift from an outcome orientation to a process orientation during challenging workouts. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Just do the work.” This is a blunt self-reminder that a workout’s true purpose is in the doing, and that the benefits result from simply getting it done, irrespective of how you feel or perform.
“It doesn’t all have to happen today.” Too often, athletes get anxious when their performance in a challenging workout reveals how far they have to go to achieve a goal. Such anxiety is based on a fixed-mindset tendency to forget that, unless your next big race is tomorrow, it’s not how fit you are today that matters but whether you’re getting fitter, and challenging workouts make you fitter, regardless of what they may say about your current fitness.
“Check the box and move on.” Not every workout can be a transcendent breakthrough experience. But even the ones you have to grind through have value—indeed, no less value than the transcendent breakthroughs do as stepping-stones toward your ultimate goal. I’ve found this mantra works well to dispel the frustration that might otherwise attach itself to workouts that are a struggle.
It’s worth noting that hard workouts are chosen challenges. Athletes plan and execute them willingly. Many challenges we face as athletes—and indeed as humans—are not chosen, and here the growth mindset makes an even bigger difference. As we’ve seen, many athletes recoil from unexpected setbacks in a variety of ways, but growth-minded athletes tend to embrace these events, too, as opportunities to move forward.
In the 1990s, UNC psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term post-traumatic growth (PTG) to label “the experience of positive change resulting from the struggle with major life crises.” Since then, a number of studies have found that a substantial fraction of individuals who endure a major life crisis later see themselves as having been changed for the better by it, citing benefits that include new opportunities or possibilities in life, an increased sense of personal strength, positive changes in their relationships with others, a greater appreciation for life in general, and an enriched spiritual life.
Not everyone grows through suffering, however. When asked in a 2012 interview for brainline.com who does experience post-traumatic growth, Tedeschi said, “I’d say the type of people who may tend to experience PTG are those who would actively approach difficulty rather an avoid it. Someone who is open to change, open to the novelty and serendipity of life. People who can accept that bad things happen, that they can no longer do certain things, but who focus on engaging in the things that they can still do. And people who are open to new opportunities . . . possibilities and choices that may not have presented themselves before the tragedy.” Sounds a lot like Dweck’s growth mindset, doesn’t it?
To be clear, it’s not the traumatic experience itself but how some people process it that yields growth. The growth-minded way to process unchosen challenges is to narrativize them, investing them with a particular meaning that furthers your progress toward a happy ending to your personal story, even if it’s not the ending you planned originally.
No trauma is too great to narrativize in a way that makes something better of it. In an interview she did with The Morning Shakeout podcast host Mario Fraioli several months before her death, Gabe Grunewald said this: “I do think that my life has a purpose—and maybe it’s not what I thought it was going to be, but I think that it does help me at some junctures with this disease. This isn’t how I would have chosen my life to turn out at all, but maybe this is my way of fulfilling my life’s purpose and trying to raise awareness for these rare diseases that really do actually need it. I would never have raised my hand to do this, but someone has to.” Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.
You need not have depression or cancer to benefit from narrativizing your struggles and cultivating a growth mindset. Thinking of your athletic journey—which is inseparable from your overall life journey—as a story, and interpreting the challenges you experience as necessary steps in this journey, will help you embrace all manner of bad situations and make the best of them.
A third way in which ultrarealists embrace bad situations is by seeing them as not all bad. In even the worst moments, a lot is happening. Each slice of conscious experience has layers and facets, and they’re truly never all bad simultaneously. Those with a positive mindset tend to focus on the silver lining of an overall bad situation, which helps them embrace it. Psychologists refer to this skill as cognitive restructuring or cognitive reframing, the first term applying to the technique’s formal use in therapy and the second to its informal use in everyday life. I like to think of cognitive reframing as finding the most helpful interpretation of a bad situation—a way of seeing it that preserves hope for an acceptable outcome. This makes it quite different from mere spin, like the Black Knight saying to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail after his entire arm is hacked off, “’Tis but a scratch.” To be truly helpful, a positive reframing of a bad situation cannot be untruthful. You’re changing the frame, not the picture.
Another mantra that I encourage athletes to use in hard moments is “I’ve been here before.” Repeat this phrase when you find yourself struggling in a way you’ve struggled in the past and gotten through. For example, if you hit a bad patch in a race, remind yourself that you have experienced similar moments in even your best races.
To take the positive mindset a step further, practice gratitude. Whereas general positivity entails finding the good within a bad situation, gratitude entails putting a bad situation in a broader context, specifically a context that reminds you how much worse things could be. It’s no accident that some of the greatest masters of gratitude are survivors of near-death experiences, who are able to say in almost any bad situation, “At least I’m alive!” Research by psychologist Araceli Frias of Eastern Washington University and others suggests that, as with post-traumatic growth, it’s not the scare itself but the subsequent perspective shift that enhances gratitude. In a 2011 paper published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, for example, Frias reported that subjects who were asked to spend structured time reflecting on death experienced an increase in gratitude.
As Araceli Frias’s study indicates, it is not necessary to have a brush with death—or to be threatened with the permanent loss of your ability to do the sport you love—to become more grateful. All you have to do is make a regular practice of cataloging things you’re grateful for or writing letters of gratitude. I like to give thanks in an informal way during workouts and races, and I encourage my athletes to do the same. If you’re cruising along the trail and feeling good on a beautiful fall day, don’t take these things for granted—give thanks for them. If you complete a familiar hill climb on your bike and feel a pinch of disappointment when you see a substandard time for the ascent, remind yourself that you’re healthy and training and getting fitter. These thoughts won’t merely make the training and racing experience more enjoyable; in the long run, they will also make you faster.
Adapted from The Comeback Quotient by Matt Fitzgerald, with permission of VeloPress.