I was taught a valuable lesson late last year, whilst nursing heartache and damaged ligaments in the frosty city of Nantes, France.
There are genuine seasons to our lives, and the well-adjusted and resilient person and athlete is one who understands this and adjusts accordingly. Different elements of our increasingly complex lives rear their heads at different stages, and beg our time and attention – increased work load, relationship and family demands, injury and illness, to name but a few.
Unless we are prepared to lead entirely selfish lives, serving only ourselves as it suits us, then we are just bound to be faced with situations in which our limited time and energy is stretched into compartments that we might not typically choose to prioritise.
This was not something that I accepted at the time with as much grace as I might have hoped.
As a twenty-four year old aspiring athlete, with limited strings attached and no serious obligations, it is all too easy to lead, for the most part, a life that suits me just fine. I am blessed to be living in a nation in which I can readily make a liveable hourly wage, allowing me the time to train as obsessively and eagerly as I may be inspired to at the time. I am known for my relatively non-typical and seemingly care-free adult life – able to be found rock climbing, or wrestling, or ocean-swimming, or trail running during the middle of any given workday.
In Nantes, I was faced with serious, adult-life situations to navigate; carrying with them serious, adult-life emotional trauma. Despite my simmering injury, and despite the ever-mounting issues surrounding my personal life at the time, I was as inspired as I had ever been to train, and to pursue my goals (this April’s marathon swim being one of them). As the waters surrounding my life became murkier and increasingly complicated, and my mental health dipped, the meditative task of manual physical training was more appealing than it had ever been.
The problem was that I couldn’t train.
Or I could, but I felt like shit; on a physical and deeply emotional level. The direct link that my self-esteem and sense of worth has with my ability to train hard and perform is perhaps an unfortunate one, but the subject of a much longer article. Perfectionism has only recently become a word that I might use to describe the sometimes unhealthy standards that I impose on myself in the athletic realm, but it was certainly painfully obvious in my life at that point.
I would try to simply push through these painful and emotionally-arduous French workouts, blindly ignoring my screaming muscles, my consciously rising stress and anger levels, and my complete fatigue, with the hope that the act of training might dampen the heartache that I was experiencing at that moment.
What eventually became apparent to me, through a combination of my beautiful partner Julie, and my long-time podcast hero and unknowing mentor Rich Roll, was that a different paradigm of thinking was required here. I couldn’t simply keep pushing my body, with the hope that said pushing might make everything feel okay again.
It’s easy to throw around useless phrases like “no pain, no gain”, and to feel compelled to push through unpleasantness, as I often feel myself. It may seem to contradict some of my other writings, as I do sincerely believe that we are all capable of so much more – but blindly following this kind of ‘push through anything’ thinking, with no genuine reflection on the pain’s cause or the message it’s trying to send, is a great way to physically work yourself into injury or illness, and to dig a deeper mental hole for ourselves.
Sometimes we need to rethink our approach to hardship – I certainly had to here.
You can’t always push. You can’t bench press your way out of chemical depression, or outrun anxiety. I think as athletes, and maybe particularly as men, being kind to ourselves is bizarrely interpreted as being ‘soft’.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Cree Proverb
My time and attention were truly demanded elsewhere, to more important things and to people more important than myself, and I needed to allow them to drift – crucially, with the self confidence that my time and attention would return, and I could turn them to the things that drove me once again.
“Dialing it off and on,” was the phrase used by Julie and myself, in regards to my training and my lofty goals.
I needed to accept the temporary loss of control, and perhaps a temporary and slight loss in fitness and capability, and be self-assured in the knowledge that I could bring it right back whenever I had the time again. I had to make my peace with the fact that the things that I typically did on a daily basis, which brought happiness and meaning into my life, would be gone for only a brief moment – and to assure myself that I had the ability and desire to bring them back, whenever I had the chance.
After all, this was only three months of my life – God help me if something genuinely life-altering or career-ending had happened to me. I was reminded of the Modern Family line, “I don’t think I’d make a very inspiring disabled person”, and I laughed to myself.
This was a difficult but necessary step for me to make, as a person and as an athlete.
I realised that I don’t comfortably cede control away from myself. I realised that the symbiotic relationship between my sense of self and my capabilities was unhealthy, and that my sense of self in general was far too limited in scope and determinate on fleeting things. I realised how fortunate I am to have found a partner as loving, as compassionate and as unconditionally supportive as I have.
Now that I am back in Australia, I look back at this three month patch of my short life as one deep in emotional teachings. At the time, it seemed that I was slipping further and further away from my goals, and that there was no conceivable end it sight. I appeared to genuinely believe that a mild reduction in training volume over the course of those months may somehow alter the course of my life irreversibly – as if a window was closing, and would never open again.
Letting my expectations of myself willingly drop feels like a distant memory now – I am comfortably the fittest I have ever been, seeing huge improvement in my strength, endurance and willpower – but the lessons are obvious and lingering.
Have some real confidence in yourself and who you are, and, for God’s sake, stop taking yourself so seriously.