I belong to a generation whose every member has seen the movie Meatballs. Among its most famous scenes is the one where Camp North Star head counselor Tripper Harrison (played by Bill Murray) delivers a fiery motivational speech to his young charges on the eve of North Star’s annual beatdown at the hands of rival Camp Mohawk in a multi-event “Olympiad” sports competition. Harrison’s impassioned soliloquy culminates in the refrain “It just doesn’t matter,” which becomes a chant that the campers take up and repeat as they charge out of the cabin, fired up to compete and not caring if they win or lose.
Echoes of this chant still reverberate in my head at key moments in training and competition. “It just doesn’t matter” has become a personal mantra that I used to lighten up and relax whenever I catch myself feeling anxious about the possibility of failing to achieve a goal. For example, I might be 2 miles into a 10K race and find that I’m just barely on pace to achieve my goal and have no margin to slip, yet I’m already working harder than I feel I should be at such an early point in the competition. My awareness of the situation is likely to trigger a strong feeling of worry—the kind of worry we all experience when facing intense suffering for a lost cause. But if I’m on my mental game, I will not merely experience this emotion but also realize I’m experiencing it, which affords me the freedom to do something about it. And, more often than not, what I will do with this freedom is say to myself, “Who cares? It doesn’t matter! Let’s just be smart and brave, take one step at a time, and see what happens. And if what happens is that I fall short of my goal, it’s not the end of the world.”
Perhaps this all sounds to you like a self-deceiving way of giving up. In fact, it’s the farthest thing from waving a white flag of defeat. When I quote Bill Murray to myself during races and workouts, I’m not trying to convince myself that I don’t care about my goal. Rather, I’m simply getting rid of my anxiety. The thing we tend to forget in such anxious moments is that it is fully possible to try as hard as you can to achieve a goal that is meaningful to you, and to face intense suffering in the process, and to do so knowing that success is unlikely, without feeling anxious about the whole thing. The anxiety part is a choice. But it does not become a choice you can reject unless you do something akin to what I do with my Meatballs-inspired mantra.
Our emotions are largely reflexive. If a dog lunges at you unexpectedly, you will probably experience fear. And if you see a goal sliding out of reach in a race that is far from over, you will probably experience anxiety. Snuffing out this feeling requires an affirmative metacognitive act such as telling yourself, “It just doesn’t matter.”
Anxiety is deeply unpleasant. But this is only one of two reasons you should snuff it out in such situations. The other is that you will perform better. Anxiety is a proven performance inhibitor. Thus, although it may seem counterintuitive at first blush, relaxing your grip on your goal and thereby canceling the anxiety it gives rise to is a skillful means of preserving your chances of achieving the goal. And that’s why it’s the farthest thing from quitting!
In team sports, it is widely acknowledged as a good thing when a team appears “loose” before an important game. Relaxed, upbeat, frisky behavior by players in the leadup to a high-stakes matchup are indications that, while they want to win, they don’t see their lives as depending on winning. They are free of anxiety, and as such they are in a proper state of mind to perform to the very best of their ability, which is all that any athlete can ask.
The bottom line is that fretting over the possibility of failure is harmful to performance and, to a large degree, fixable. My Meatballs mantra—“It just doesn’t matter!”—is one instrument that can be used to fix this particular problem, but there others. Indeed, if you have a trick of your own that you like, I’d be keen to hear about it.