Choose Your Own Adventure

3 Benefits of Narrativizing Your Athletic Journey

On March 26, my latest book, Life Is a Marathon: A Memoir of Love and Endurancewill be published. It explores what running does for the people for whom running does the most—those men and women who are able to say, “Running changed me,” or even, “Running saved my life.” I am one such person, and my book shares the story of my journey as an athlete, which is inseparable from the story of my journey as a human being.

It is, fundamentally, a story of redemption, perhaps a little like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, which is about a young seaman who is serving as first mate on a steamer ship when it begins to sink (except it doesn’t actually sink) and he abandons it, leaving the passengers to drown, an act of cowardice that he spends the rest of his life trying to atone for. In my case, the act of cowardice that caused me to lose respect for myself was failing to show up for the start of a 3200-meter track race in my junior year of high school. Now, you might be thinking, ‘Gosh, Matt, aren’t you being a little hard on yourself? You chicken out of one little race and then spend the rest of your life trying to atone?’

But this act of cowardice did not occur in isolation. It was part of a general unraveling associated with an inordinate fear and loathing of the pain of racing that ultimately led me to quit the sport a year later. And yes, I am being hard on myself. But that’s what men and women of character do. I may have been mentally weak as a young athlete, but at least I wasn’t okay with it. Plenty of mentally weak individuals are okay with it.

Anyway, the point is that when I got back into endurance sports in my late 20s, I had a monkey on my back that I was determined to pry off.  More important to me even than fulfilling the athletic potential that I had left unfulfilled as a teenager was becoming a brave competitor, because, I discovered, there is no separation between the athlete self and the overall self. A coward on the racecourse is a coward off it, and I did not want to see myself as a coward.

I was a few years into this quest and making decent progress when my wife, Nataki, was struck by a severe mental illness, which proved to be a far greater test of mental fortitude, inasmuch as I was affected by it, than I had ever faced in competition. If you want the full story, you’ll have to read the book. But the upshot is that, in an odd sort of way, my use of endurance sports as a vehicle to become the person I want to be prepared me to handle the much bigger challenge of being Nataki’s husband and primary caregiver post-diagnosis. More oddly still, fighting for Nataki strengthened me further, and this new strength transferred right back to the race course. I don’t think I would be quite the fearless racer I am today if my personal life hadn’t taken the turn it did. It all fits together, you see, almost as if the whole thing were scripted. . .

Not every athlete has the opportunity to write down his or her story and share it with the world in book form, but any athlete can consciously view his or her athletic journey as a story. This is known as narrativizing, a natural human propensity to understand our lives as plotted. Some people are more prone than others to see themselves as the authors and/or heroes of an unfolding, three-dimensional tale. Interestingly, top athletes typically are strongly prone to narrativizing. Psychologist Mustafa Sarkar, among others, has noted in particular that these individuals often look at their lives as stories of overcoming.

How does it benefit an athlete to understand his or her pursuit of sport not merely as a series of events but as a story? In three ways. First, when you turn a series of events into a story, you infuse those events with meaning that they would otherwise lack. It’s really a way of making your pursuit of the sport more significant, in both senses of the word. Running or cycling or whatever becomes not just something you do but a part of your identity, and when this happens you invest more of yourself in it and get more out of it.

Narrativizing the athletic journey also boosts motivation. Every story needs a happy ending. With rare exceptions, athletes who do narrativize see their happy ending as lying ahead of them, not behind. There is something they must achieve in order to make the whole tale hang together. This perceived need to write an as-yet-unwritten happy ending to the story of one’s athletic journey is inherently motivating—another way of inspiring greater personal investment and of bringing about the rewards that come therewith.

Finally, narrativizing sport fosters a sense of agency, of being in control of what happens next in your athletic life, in much the same way that a novelist controls the fates of his or her characters. It is difficult to overstate the value of this feeling of free autonomy, of making things happen rather than being merely a puppet of fate, an object to which things happen. For as long as I can remember, I have naturally regarded life is a blank canvas that I can color in any way I please (within certain constraints), and I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t be where I am today, as an athlete and a person, if not for this creative perspective on life.