What to Do When it All Goes Wrong…


“One of the hardest things to do is to get out of a rut. When things are going poorly, and you know you can do better. It’s easy to spiral towards doubt and negativity. And all of a sudden you see yourself going backward. And you’re helpless.” The athlete I was talking to was referencing running a race that started to turn south, but his words could apply to nearly any aspect of life.

When everything is clicking it’s easy to wake up in the morning, feeling motivated, and with a sense that we’ll be able to push through whatever adversity life throws our way. But what about when it all goes wrong? When we start to slow in a race, or the words cease to flow in our writing?  Negative feelings increase, doubts surface, our self-talk turns towards despair. We tend to spiral.

Andy Stover is a social worker who specializes in helping people deal with trauma and make sense of their own narratives. He also happens to be a former college teammate, and probably the person I’ve run the most miles with in my life. When I posed the question of what to do, he responded,

“Disrupt the pattern.”

Andy’s advice was simple, and when I pressed him on what he meant, he went on to explain that when things start to go south, the mind and body are taking the path of least resistance. As the likelihood of achieving a goal slips away, quitting or defaulting to the negative becomes the easiest solution. It’s familiar. The difficult option is to press onward or get through whatever adversity you’re facing.

The standard coping strategies, like positive self-talk, reframing, etc., work really well when you are teetering on the edge between striving and giving in, but once you’ve taken the step over the cliff, a new strategy needs to be implemented. You don’t need to cope, you need to be snapped out of it. 

Disrupting the pattern sometimes means merely changing something. What does that mean in practicality? Andy gave the example of doing the opposite of what you usually would do in that situation. If thoughts of quitting are spiraling in your mind, give yourself permission to quit. Not now, but in one hour, or after another mile in the race.

As Andy talked, one particular experience came to mind. It was January in northern Virginia, and we’d just experienced the worst blizzard in 100 years. Instead of being bundled up, I was at the track with Haitian Olympian Moises Joseph. It was freezing out, especially for two guys who spent most of their lives training in Texas and Florida. Lane one had been shoveled and cleared of snow, but the rest of the track was covered. As we began our workout of running 400m repeat after 400m repeat, our motivation was slipping away. When we were about to throw in the towel, one of us suggested that we shed a layer of clothes after each rep. We’d been bundled up to deal with the freezing temperatures, and this crazy idea seemed like a recipe for frostbite. Maybe it was the cold weather or the reduced oxygen getting to our brain, thanks to the hard workout, but we decided it would be a good idea. Fast forward to the last repeat, and we were shirtless with tights on– and finishing off one of our best workouts of that season. The solution to freezing induced doubt and despair – in that situation – was to do the opposite of what our natural inclination was.

Disrupt the pattern.


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