If there is one thing I have learned in my years as a coach and athlete it is this: A little praise goes a long way.
In coaching, this is readily apparent. You give an athlete a little bit of praise for what they've done well, or improvements they've made, and suddenly they have a whole new attitude. Motivation is higher, confidence is up, and they are also better able to handle critique, and more eager to learn what they can do to improve and work harder to make those improvements. Everyone enjoys receiving recognition for their achievements and efforts, and also deserves that recognition.
But while this is obvious in the case of others, sometimes it is much less obvious in the case of ourselves. We are often quick to praise those around us - our competitors, our training partners, our athletic idols - but sometimes just don't remember the importance of praising ourselves. It may sound silly and a bit cliche, but there truly is so much value to the concept of giving ourselves a "pat on the back" every now and then.
I am definitely guilty of the "under-praising" concept at times. Always wanting to do more, to do better, I am certainly my own biggest critic. I think that is part of the natural mentality of an athlete. We are so focused on striving to go further, and reach greater heights, that sometimes we forget to look around and see just how far we've already come. But making that acknowledgment, and giving ourselves credit for our progress and accomplishments, is crucially important.
Just like the athlete whose face lights up and whose confidence brims on receiving praise from the coach they look up to, we as athletes can also benefit from our own self-praise. I often talk about the importance of staying positive in your mind when facing those tough moments in races and in training. Figuring out how to do this is undoubtedly vital to being a successful athlete. But I've come to realize that praising ourselves for getting through those moments is just as important.
As athletes, we need to recognize what we achieve, the tremendous efforts we put in to do so, and the growth we make along the way. Acknowledge each step taken. Even if they haven't yet led to the destination that was desired, they are all progress. Those steps are all an important part of laying a stronger foundation to continue to climb higher in the future.
So go ahead... feel great about what you have done, even if it seems like something small. Look back at the end of your season and see how far you've come, even if it fell short of your ultimate goal. You can still desire to go further - and should. Even the best athletes in the world continually strive for more. But it is so important to remember how far you have already come, and to be proud of that progress.
Even on the toughest days that seem the most unsuccessful, try to recognize what you've done well, and give yourself credit for it. Remember why you are out there working so hard, what you are really getting out of those tough training sessions, and that you are always growing and progressing as an athlete. Even on the worst days, there is undoubtedly something that you did well. Some small aspect of your performance was an improvement. Maybe it is simply that fact that, despite feeling terrible, you persevered and finished the race or workout anyway. Even if you feel like you've let yourself down, there is always something you can be proud of. Dig deep, find it, and acknowledge it.
Likewise, if you had a really strong session or race, praise yourself for it! Go ahead and get excited about it. Take the time to look back on all you did leading in, and in the crucial moments of the event or training session itself, and be impressed with yourself! Be proud, and revel in your accomplishment. You deserve it! This is what will keep us going forward, and keep us enjoying everyday along our athletic journeys. Just don't forget that you'll need to go back out there tomorrow and try to do it all over again.
- Kara LaPoint is an elite amateur triathlete competing for LUNA bar, and working up to the pro ranks. She has earned numerous overall amateur podium finishes and age-group wins across distances from Olympic to Ironman, and finished the 2011 season ranked as an All-American nationally among her age group (25-29). Read more about her racing and training at www.karalapoint.wordpress.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.