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How to Build Self-Trust As an Athlete (and Why It’s Important)

I coach a runner who wants to break 1:30:00 in the half marathon. We’d been working together for about two and a half months when she took her first crack at it. I was 95 percent confident that Jody (not her real name) was fit enough to run under 1:31:00, but only 10 percent confident she was ready to break 1:30:00 this time out. So, I gave her a pacing plan that was conservative enough to ensure she didn’t hit the wall yet aggressive enough to give her a shot at sneaking under 90 minutes if she got to 8 miles feeling great and was able to squeeze down from there.

Instructed to run the first kilometer in 4:20, Jody instead blitzed it in 3:50. That’s 1:20:52 pace! Either a miracle was unfolding or she was self-sabotaging in a big way. Miracles do happen, but not often, and Jody fell apart spectacularly after 10K, limping across the finish line in 1:32:41 after grinding out the final 5K in 23:21 (4:41/km).

Having learned her lesson—or so we thought—Jody ran another half marathon two weeks later. Determined to stick to the plan this time, she did just that—until she saw an official race pacer carrying a 1:30 sign and surrounded by runners who shared her goal. What luck, she thought. I can just follow that guy and run the right pace without even thinking about it.

Problem was, the pacer himself was running too aggressively. He led the group through 5K in 20:55, which would have been just about perfect had the sign he carried read 1:28. As any experienced runner knows, small overshoots in pace can lead to be big catastrophes in the later miles of a longer race. Jody took small comfort in having plenty of company when she fell apart for the second time in three weeks. Although her finish time of 1:31:38 was an improvement, it felt like a step backward, even more disappointing than her previous self-inflicted underperformance.

“I’m so mad at myself,” she told me in our next phone consultation. “I should have ignored everyone else, trusted my watch, and stuck to the pace you gave me no matter what. Right?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. Although I do not doubt that things would have turned out better for Jody had she done as she said, whether they did or not, she would be making the same mistake she made in scrapping her race plan entirely in her first half marathon and in blindly following the pacer in her second, which was failing to exercise self-trust.

I define “self-trust” as justified confidence in one’s ability to make good decisions. The athletes who have the fewest bad races are those who most consistently make good decisions, and the athletes who most consistently make good decisions in races are those who have the highest degree of self-trust.

Hold on a second. Didn’t Jody exercise self-trust by spontaneously scrapping her race plan and sprinting the early kilometers of her first half marathon? The answer is no. True self-trust is metacognitive in nature, meaning it involves two layers of awareness: conscious thought and conscious monitoring of thought. To say that Jody exercised self-trust in sprinting the early kilometers of her first half marathon is akin to saying a dog exercises self-trust in chasing squirrels. Dogs are not capable of making decisions through the metacognitive process of first having a thought, then evaluating it, and finally choosing whether to go with it or override it. Dogs just do. And in her first half marathon, Jody just did.

In her next race, Jody did think, making a conscious decision based on good intentions that happened to be the wrong decision. As I put it to her in our post-race phone consult, if she made a rookie mistake in her first half marathon, she made a more advanced mistake in her second. The reason it was a mistake, though, was that she put too much trust in an external entity (specifically, the pacer) and thereby gave up control of her race.

The thing that I tried to impress on Jody in that call was that, when it comes time to run her next half marathon, putting blind faith in her watch and sticking to a predetermined pace no matter what will also constitute a failure of self-trust. Competing with self-trust means not putting blind faith in anything (including oneself, but we’ll come back to that).

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To demonstrate why Jody’s proposed solution of chaining herself to her watch was no solution at all, I will briefly tell you about two half marathons from my own running career. The more recent of the two was the 2015 San Jose Half Marathon, where my goal was to break 1:17:00. Knowing that the required pace was 5:51 per mile, I keyed off my watch and ran the first few miles at precisely this pace. But that pace felt harder than it should have, and instinct told me I needed to back off a bit to avoid a later implosion. Instead, I kept running 5:51’s until I couldn’t, which happened around mile 8. By mile 11 I was walking. Needless to say, I did not meet my goal.

The other example is the 2001 Palm Springs Half Marathon. I came into that race with the same goal—to break 1:17:00—which at that time I had never done before. But on this occasion, the required pace felt easier than expected rather than harder. Instinct told me I could go faster, and I went with it, running not just faster but a lot faster. I stopped the clock at 1:13:31, a personal best by more than four minutes, having averaged 5:36 per mile.

The lesson of these examples is not, “Always trust your instincts.” Self-trust isn’t a matter of going with your gut every time. It’s about putting your faith not in any single input into your decisions but in the very process by which you make decisions—a process that entails taking a mental step back from your feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and circumstances, evaluating your options, and choosing the option that seems best, accepting that you could be wrong.

So, how does an athlete who lacks self-trust develop it? By going through the learning journey Jody is going through. You make mistakes resulting from lack of self-trust, reflect on them, draw lessons, and apply what you’ve learned in the next opportunity. It’s not a one-step process, as Jody’s example demonstrates. But it is doable, and she will do it. You can too.