photo by Steve Penland

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Avoiding Failure

I read an interesting blog post yesterday.  It was written by a fellow named Jesse Kropelnicki, who is a triathlon coach.  (He  also developed the nutrition program that I received instruction in a couple months ago. The Core Diet has proven to be very helpful for me in losing weight while still working out hard and recovering well—although, admittedly, I take a few more liberties with my food selection than I should!.)  Anyway, although triathlon is the last thing I’d attempt, athletically, (I have a weird phobia about exhaling when my face is in water, which makes swimming interesting, and road biking frankly frightens me), Jesse’s articles are thought-provoking and often have wider application to other sports.  (I’ve referenced other information from him here).  Yesterday’s post was about mental conditioning for athletes, a subject near and dear to my heart.  In the article, he discussed two factors that motivate athletes, particularly in races—avoidance of failure, and achievement of success.

Athletes who are motivated by avoidance of failure, Jesse says, tend to perform best in competitions that are very easy (they will win easily), or very difficult (they have no chance of winning).  When competing with athletes of very similar ability, athletes motivated by avoidance of failure struggle. Conversely, athletes motivated by achievement of success tend to do poorly in very easy or very difficult competitions, and to shine when competing head-to-head with someone of very similar ability.  This “motivated by success” perfectly describes many athletes whose blogs I read, who are always describing intense battles they had with closely-matched competitors, and how much fun it was.

Now, of course, “avoidance of failure” and “achievement of success,” as motivators, are end points of a spectrum rather than two separate entities; athletes are rarely motivated by only one or the other, and in fact can move one way or the other on the spectrum during the course of their athletic career, and even from race to race.

I found this a very interesting concept because, while I haven’t thought of it in those terms, I have known for quite some time that I am a very “motivated by avoidance of failure” athlete.  And sometimes it frustrates the heck out of me.

I realized pretty quickly, back in my dirt bike racing days in the ‘90’s, that I hated racing head to head with my main competitors.  If there were other women in the race (which was actually fairly rare), I didn’t want to start on the same “minute” with them (in the racing I did, 4 riders start at a time on a mostly single-track trail through the woods.  Unless you start at the same time as someone, you may never see them in the race). I much preferred to simply ride my race, and then compare scorecards at the end.

When I started speedskating a few years later, I mostly raced pack-style races, both on ice and inline.  In pack-style races, you line up with your competition, someone says “go,” and the first one across the line wins.  At first, I was OK with this.  Nervous about being  in races where I toed the line with 10 or more just-fast-enough-to-be-dangerous guys on inlines, but mostly OK with it.  The more I skated, though, the more I began to be frustrated by, and then increasingly freaked out by, going head to head with my competition.

The frustrated part is logical for a data queen like me.  I want to know how fast I can skate—I don’t want anyone to get in my way and slow me down, and I don’t want anyone to give me a draft and speed me up.  I want no part of team tactics, cat-and-mouse strategies, or “I’ll just wheelsuck and then blow by them at the finish line.”  I have one main person I want to beat—and that is me.  I just want everyone else to get out of my way and let me skate against myself.

Still, the freaked out part…that goes beyond just wanting to skate my own race unimpeded. I get to do that in metric races (where each skater has their own lane and there is no drafting), and yet I still always hope that I won’t be paired with anyone close to my speed.  Once again, I want to skate my own race and then compare times afterwards rather than skating the whole race neck-and-neck with someone.  Mentally, I just have a very hard time with that.  (And a complicating factor is that in metric racing skaters switch lanes on the backstretch every lap, so each skater has the same number of inner lane and outer lane turns.  When skaters enter the lane-change zone at the same time, bad things can happen.  I’ve been DQ’ed at least once for screwing up the lane change.  So there’s that to worry about, too.) 

Anyway, I was forcibly reminded of this whole “freaked out and frustrated” thing Wednesday night, because I did the Summer Inline Series races again.

I used to do SIS races every week all summer long.  I liked the races best, of course, when I was either by far the best woman, or by far the worst. The years where I had close competition, though, became increasingly torturous for me.  TieGuy had the misfortune to be my coach for most of these years; he spent a lot of time, on Wednesday evenings, telling me to relax, it was just another tempo workout, worry about the lap times he was giving me and not about where the other women were.  Still, every Wednesday I would get butterflies in my stomach starting at about lunch time, and nothing I could say to myself would make them go away.  And they weren’t good “get you psyched for the race” butterflies; they were “I can’t stand this I feel like I’m gonna puke” butterflies.  I would get more nervous for an SIS race--that I was just using for pre-season training--than I would for my most important long track race of the winter, all because of the head-to-head aspect of the racing.

The first time I raced SIS this year, my friend Melissa was the only other woman there.  Since Mel can kick my butt with one leg tied behind her back, it was a very relaxed night of racing for me.  I still didn’t like the pack aspect (we were grouped with a men’s category, so there were about 6 skaters on the track and thus the drafting/getting boxed in issues were present), but I survived without freakout.

Last night, though, there was another woman there besides me and Mel; one who, in past years when I’ve been at the top of my game, I’ve typically beaten--but she’s gotten faster and I’ve gotten slower.  Big time freakout.

The first race was just a two-lapper, and despite my pre-race nerves it actually went pretty well, mostly because everyone else beat me and so I got to skate my own race, no draft or anything (and I skated a 38 second lap, the first of the summer!  Hellooo, snap—is that you returning?)  Still, the freaking out accelerated before the second race, a 6 lapper.  I tend to do better at longer races, and 6 laps is very close to my 3K distance. I really wanted a “clean” race, no drafting or being blocked or boxed in, so I could further assess how my “snap” was progressing. No matter how hard I try, I never skate as hard in “tempo” workouts as I do in real races, so I really wanted to get some race data.

Or at least, that’s what I told myself: that there was a nice, logical reason that I wanted to find a way out of going head-to-head with the other woman.  It certainly had nothing to do with my inability to push myself in close competitions; with my tendency to mentally “fold” when faced with going stride for stride with someone; with my intense, almost phobic dislike of the whole scenario.  Oh, no...those things weren't a factor at all...

So I made a plan: I was going to wait at the line until the other skaters took off, then start by myself and time all my laps. And, as soon as I made the decision, I felt relieved…and also disgusted with myself.

It’s dumb.  Nobody cares how I do.  Well, Hubster and TieGuy have somewhat of an interest, but in terms of the folks at the track….Nobody.  Really. Cares.  whether I  beat someone or not.  And honestly, I don’t either…I’d rather skate a fast time for me and get beaten than skate poorly and beat someone.  So why the panic?  “Avoidance of failure,” yes, but that’s too logical.  This is irrational, ever-growing—and very hard to fight.  And it's changing the kind of racing I'll do.

Over the years, I’ve modified my racing more and more based on my “avoidance of failure.”  I don’t skate any pack-style long track ice races anymore.  I rarely skate inline marathons or half-marathons anymore.  And I certainly don’t enjoy SIS races the way I used to.  I’m lucky that my chosen sport allows (most of the time) for my favorite form of competition: skate my own race, then compare scores afterwards.  Actually, I think it goes well beyond luck, and probably is one of the aspects of speedskating that makes it my chosen sport.

Still, I feel like there’s something wrong with “taking the easy way out;” with not going head to head with someone.  But why? I know myself, I know what I like, I have a sport that I love that almost always allows me to not do that which freaks me out.  So why do I feel like I need to try to make myself be more “success” motivated?  Actually, although I see where Jesse is coming from with those terms, I don’t really like them.  I’m not sure “failure” is what I’m avoiding and “success” is what others are seeking; I have no problem losing to someone when we compare scores, I just don’t want to be aware of our positions when I’m racing.  And really, is that something I should strive to change?  Can I even change it? (there’s an implicit “at my age” here).

The jury is still out, but for last night I decided to go with my wimpy self and do my “start after everyone else” plan.  And it went well; the lap times were pretty good, and I got to skate my own race. 

And I got a lot to think about, too...

On a lighter note, here are some pics of the racing.  And the best part of the night was that Mel won the series for the women, and got inline skates for the prize. Mel has been kicking butt in her old school boots, which are held together with duct tape and  have 5x80 wheels (5, 80 millimeter wheels—most people skate on 4 100’s or even 110’s)—which is much like winning a Nascar race in your Yugo.  The skates couldn’t  have gone to a more deserving person!

The pre-race scene.

Me and my mountain of gear.

Some of the Juniors heading for the finish.

The start of one of the Elite men's races.

My start of the 6 lap race.  Notice that no one else is in sight.

Just crusin' along, all by myself...

The 2011 Summer Inline Series season winners, in their yellow jerseys.


  1. that "freaked out" pukey nervous feeling...sounds like me before a bike race! part of the reason i wasn't up at the track much this year, actually...i had no idea you had that problem!
    thanks for the shout out, btw...and thanks for racing last night too! it's pretty cool when you show up... :)

  2. Yeah, it's a big issue with me...that's why I never do long track pack anymore. I wouldn't have guessed that you felt that way, though, what with all the velodrome stuff! It was a good summer of inlining...great to have someone to skate with! We'll see what those "TieGuy" workouts have done for you when you get on the ice!