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Managing Expectations

Long-distance running has a way of motivating and humbling us at the same time. There are times in the runner’s life when a solid workout or a breakthrough race pushes us to try harder, focus more, and strive for greatness. Simultaneously, some efforts break us down in ways that can humble even the most confident athlete. What these countervailing experiences teach us, especially over time, is to expect the unexpected and focus on what we can control rather than what we can’t.

I’ve been reminded of this over the past few weeks as I have spoken with over a dozen athletes who’ve recently finished goal races for the year. For some of these runners, the event exceeded their expectations while for others they fell woefully short. In both cases, I have been struck by the realization that for both types of athletes, the ways in which they managed their expectations before, during, and after their events has ultimately been the key tool in determining how they perceive the effort and how they can learn and grow from it.

I remember years ago working with a fantastic child psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area of California who spoke to parents and teachers about the importance of developing in young people what she called the “disappointment muscle.” Her point was that many kids these days have an underdeveloped capacity to handle disappointment and as such when faced with hardship they do not handle it well and ultimately this causes them to shy away from challenges in the future. For us as runners, we need to develop that disappointment muscle early and strive to keep it toned on a regular basis.

When I reflect on the conversations I’ve had recently with runners who have had what they perceive to be unsuccessful races, it seems that those with a more highly developed capacity for disappointment have been able to move forward more quickly. And interestingly enough, it has not necessarily been running disappointment that has led these athletes to a way through, but simply any kind of life setback. It really does seem to be more about attitude and mindset than anything.

And so, in the end, what this all says to me is that however we experience life, be it in running or something else, framing our expectations honestly and constructively can be the best way to set ourselves up for success. And, to be honest, there is nothing quite as brutally straightforward as distance running to help us do that, even those of us with weak disappointment muscles.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from the good old Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California. Their Brut IPA is a dry, fruity, and wonderfully drinkable take on this relatively new variety. It’s perfect for a sultry summer day or anytime after a long outing on the trails.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How is the strength of your “disappointment muscle?” Do you think you are able to cope with letdowns when it comes to sports and the rest of life? Do you find you need to exercise it from time to time?
  • What does the idea of managing expectations mean to you and what does that emotional and rational process look like?
Categories: AJW's Taproom
Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (1)

  • Interesting article. In my optinion it is eveything connected with expectations. I think there is more chance to achieve somethinh, if you don't expect it. I mean, havng goals is not good. It can overstress you and once you fail or achieve it, you are empty. and have to find another goal. Let it be in a race, or somewhere else in your personal life. I think we can be successfull without having goals as well. Just, we have live every single second, every single moment and do not think about the past and the future. What is important is right know. Everything what will you achieve in the future is the result of your "doning" during current activity.

    Way better than having goals and strive to them is to find your way. When you accept that your way is clear without any oblsacles because you don't expect nothing, than you are a winner.

    Rok Bratina, skyrunner from Slovenia and member of Scott Running Team.

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