Sunday, April 9, 2017

Graduating Sports Psychology

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know about my work with a sports psychologist. A few weeks ago, Greg asked me if I had been to see him lately. And I realized that it had been over four months since my last appointment. I hadn't intentionally chosen to stop going, but things had been pretty hectic over the past few months with the holidays, marathon training, and my new job, and I hadn't felt the need to see him. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was probably time for me to "graduate" from sports psychology. Just as I write race reports to gain closure on my races, I think it's a good idea to close out the sports psychology chapter of my life with a "report" of sorts as well.

Why I Sought Help
On my way to a DNF in May 2012
In May 2012, I had hit rock bottom with my marathon running and my feelings associated with it. I had DNF'ed three marathons, and had hit the wall hard in five of them over the course of several years. Most of this was due to race anxiety, as I had been well trained for each of these races. Every time I failed, I sank lower and lower into a depressed state about my running, which eventually overtook my entire state of being. I wanted to rid myself of the race anxiety and resulting inability to cope. I wasn't happy about my running and I realized that I wasn't happy, period.

It's not like I didn't know what my issues were. But I had no clue how to solve them:
  • I took my running way too seriously
  • My sense of self was wrapped up in my running
  • I was a perfectionist
  • I couldn't help but compare myself to other people
  • I didn't cope well with things outside of my control
I felt like I had no choice BUT to seek help from a sports psychologist. I had tried to simply chill out and relax, but the more I tried, the harder it became.

The First 15 Months
I saw my sports psychologist, Neal, every week. I decided that if I was going to invest the time and money in this process, that I needed to trust him fully. 

Neal typically did about 75% of the talking, which I liked. After our initial session, in which I walked him through not only my racing history but struggles that I had experienced before I began running (which running seemed to solve), he had a structured approach to working with me on all the pieces of the puzzle. I always left his office with "homework" and several items to think about in preparation for our next session. This was work, and it required that I be an active participant.

In terms of what we discussed, it's too much for me to get into in a single post; I have it all laid out in my book. But suffice it to say, there was a lot of ground to cover. He essentially educated me on what the most effective and healthy mindset looked like and challenged me frequently on things I said that demonstrated an unhealthy mindset. As I said above, it took a great deal of trust. After all, I didn't develop my beliefs and attitudes overnight, so I couldn't simply change them overnight. 

Over the course of these 15 months, I had races that I would initially consider to be failures, but Neal
Did I PR?
showed me how to re-examine my judgements. Who was to say if a race was a failure or success? Why was setting a PR the only metric of success? Why did I devote so much time to running if my single goal was to PR, when in reality, PRs are the exception not the rule? Neal likened a race to a buffet with many different food options. Sometimes a PR was one of the items, but sometimes it wasn't. And if a PR wasn't available, why not enjoy the other items from the buffet? 
  • Did I have fun?
  • Did I learn anything?
  • Did I challenge myself to push really hard?
  • Did I have a new experience?
  • What did I do well that I can apply in the future?
It was extremely challenging to run what I considered to be a "bad" race but find ways in which I succeeded. To not let the race eat away at me for days. To not let it impact future races. Neal encouraged me to always find the positives in my running and if I ultimately determined I wasn't happy with a race, to shrug it off as quickly as possible and focus on something else.

Having this healthy mindset was not automatic and I constantly had to re-program my self-talk as Neal guided. It didn't take too long to learn what I needed to learn. But connecting emotion to it and truly owning/believing it was a different story.

The Breakthrough
My biggest breakthrough happened about 15 months later when I was injured. I was still seeing Neal every week and at this point we were working on coping with injury.

It was August of 2013 and I was in the locker room after an elliptical session. I was registered to run Chicago in October, and I started thinking about whether or not I would run it. I was confident that I would be recovered by then and physically able to complete a marathon, but I also knew that my time would be on the slower side. I went back and forth on whether or not it was worth even trying. I thought to myself that I could run a slow time, but then people would think I was slower than I knew myself capable of. That's when epiphany struck. I realized that I was actually considering denying myself of an experience I wanted to have (Chicago) simply to avoid being judged by other people. I realized that I was making a decision based on how other people would potentially perceive me. And why on earth would I live my life for anyone other than ME? 

I let that thought sink in and everything click. I was someone who lived her life to please other people. Who made decisions based on what other people thought. If I wanted true control over my life, then I needed to life my life for me. It was such a liberating thought. I had freed myself of other people's opinions.

With that followed an entire change of mindset over the next few months. I questioned why I was worried over certain things. So instead of Neal having to be the one to challenge my unhealthy, counterproductive mindset, I was able to do it on my own. 

The Other Side
Hills and freezing rain? Sure!
Neal welcomed me to the "other side" and I was so happy that I had experienced such a life-changing revelation. Greg started to notice a change in me and I began to feel like a new person. Things that used to bother me so much suddenly didn't seem as important. I definitely still cared about running and I was definitely still motivated to run PRs and qualify for Boston, but it was for entirely different reasons. 

I started to embrace challenges instead of shy away from them. I began to seek out hillier courses for my training runs. Instead of getting upset by warm race weather, I looked forward to seeing how I would handle it. Running was no longer a numbers game; it was about experiences, challenges, community, and being my "best" self. I learned that sometimes it was just about getting out there and doing it. I learned that some days I just didn't have a strong performance in me, and that was ok.

As a byproduct of all of this, my race anxiety started to slip away. Racing became "the thing I was doing that weekend" instead of this huge life event that I would obsess over all week. I was able to sleep well in the days leading up to my races. I stopped DNF'ing marathons and started PRing them. And when I didn't PR them, I was still proud of my achievement.

I reduced the frequency of my visits with Neal to every other week for next two years, and in 2016, I saw him about once a month, mainly to ensure I didn't slip back into old thought patterns.

Don't get me wrong, the journey from August 2013 through today certain has had hiccups and hasn't always been smooth. I've had my share of disappointing races and a three-month bout of mono. But my new perspective on life made these things much easier to cope with whereas previously they would throw me headfirst into depression. 

Looking Ahead
I'm 38 years old and I think I still have a few good years ahead of me before I start naturally slowing down. I want to continue to test my limits and see what I am capable of in terms of my training load and my speed. And when I do start to slow down, I'm confident that I will still find ways of challenging myself and enjoying the process of running.

Aside from marrying Greg, seeing a sports psychologist was the best thing I've ever done for myself. It allowed me to do much more than overcome race anxiety. It enabled me to set myself free from the limitations and barriers I was unknowingly creating for myself. When I compare my current mindset/perspective/approach to life to that of just five years ago, I see a huge difference, and so do my friends and family. I'm far more laid back and I don't take myself as seriously. I make myself laugh more often, I'm at peace with who I am, and I sleep well at night.


  1. Wonderful post! Thx for your honesty and "putting it out there. Brave and strong.

  2. I think you have a lot of good years ahead of you! It's been fun following your journey. I've been seeing a therapist (not a sports psychologist, but a runner) and I think it's been helpful.

  3. I think it's interesting that your sports psychologist did so much talking. I've never seen a sports psychologist but have been to counseling for several stints (one while in college and another post-college. I always felt like I did 75% of the talking- particularly early on.

    It sounds like going to Neal really helped you and it's good that you were able to "graduate" from it. I think many people can benefit from counseling of some sort, and especially runners because of the types of people who are drawn to this sport (high achieving, perfectionist, Type A... well, everything I am basically). It is good that you have the option of a sports psychologist, too. Obviously all counselors are educated and can help, but at the same time, it's like seeing out an orthopedist or a PT- if you have the option of one who generally works with athletes, that's who most runners will opt to see.

    Through all the injuries I've learned to set goals that were not always performance based. I've set race goals to get a good picture. In the end of the day none of us are making a living running so you've got to have fun with it.

  4. I have enjoyed following along your journey these past several years. I have noticed your new attitude and your willingness to simply have fun and enjoy a run. Definitely not easy but doable with some time.

  5. Glad you're in such a good place :)
    I definitely think I've relaxed a fair bit about running. When I first started every race had to be faster and I was so disappointed when I didn't PB and thought everyone was judging me or thinking I was slow. But really no one cares and I started to care less too. And then I began to enjoy running SO much more.

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  7. Your post is most excellent and really sums up your book in a nutshell! I am in last 50 pages or so. My perspective is that prior to your sports psychology breakthrough you took running as a journey, but now you do it aa adventure. The former is mission-driven with expected outcomes, the latter has unknown outcomes or results. Both your blog posts and your Boston Bound book are excellent compositions of discovering the distinction between life as a journey vs life as an adventure. Coupled with MacMillan coaching...the two factors that have allowed you to more fully achieve your potential, not only in running, but all of daily life. If you ascribe to simply live and run and race "in the present." Good work you do...keep it up!

  8. I LOVE this post. I have only known about your blog for a couple of years at this point (after your breakthrough) and I enjoy reading your approach to training and races as it is always very well thought out, but without putting too much pressure on yourself. I try to approach running the same way! Freeing yourself of "people pleasing" is amazing. I would classify myself as a work in progress on that front ;)