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One Bad Workout Doesn’t Have to Bring You Down

rbs1_22“One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.”

Rita Mae Brown 

If the following sounds familiar, keep reading.

Training has been progressing well for a long stretch of time and you are really feeling good about it.  You feel like fitness is solid and building steadily. One after another, workouts are getting better and better.  Then one morning you finish a session well below expectation and below the performances you’ve been putting out for weeks.  Later in the day you have another training session and by comparison you nail it, but still later that evening your morning session haunts you.

Later in the week you’re still thinking about that session even as things seem to get back on track. Your brain seems to be in a tailspin:  “What does that mean?  Where did the rest of the week go wrong?  How can I prevent that?”  A lot of energy ends up going into obsessing about that bad workout, discussing it with your coach, describing it to your friends and beating yourself up about it.  Forgotten are the good workouts that preceded it.

As it turns out, this is an actual phenomenon studied by psychologists known as “negativity bias.”  This is when we give more weight and thought to negative experiences than positive experiences.  Our brains are actually evolved this way from when normal everyday threats could be a matter of life or death.  In this way, negative stimulus cannot be ignored and thus keep us from harm’s way.

The brain actually has a stronger response to negative feedback than it does to positive feedback.  When we think back to training, the top of mind awareness will come to the bad sessions first.  Therefore, athletes must manually reshuffle the deck to place the positive sessions and experiences first.  In this way, the positive, confidence- affirming sessions will be remembered and reflected upon, rather than obsessing about the negative sessions.

The mind is a tool that must be controlled.  Focusing on the bigger picture is a better strategy for weathering the storm of difficult days.  Until a real problem with performance is evident from a string of poor performances, there is no need to panic.  Manually refocusing the mind on positive feedback is an important part in keeping positive throughout the process of training.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to counter this inherent negativity bias by going on a spree of positive reinforcement.  Instead of having that negative day at the top of mind, go through and collect a variety of workouts that indicate things are going well.  Add to the pile a number of positive experiences that have resulted from going through the process of training.  This will reinforce the benefit of pursuing your goals.  With this in your pocket you can stay motivated and push the negative feedback out of the spotlight.

In the end, it’s best to keep a wider lens focus on your training.  The best athletes let bad days go quickly and hang onto the confidence gained on good training days for a long time. But it’s true that sometimes a short memory can be helpful as well.

“Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”

-Marianne Williamson