-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Mental Games — No Risk, No Reward

running-advice-bugThere have been a number of runners over the course of my career that I have wanted to call cowards. I’ve only actually done it once and it didn’t have the result that I’d hoped. It ended up with the runner crying hysterical tears and that isn’t a good thing. But there are times that I hear runners saying, “I can’t do that coach” or “I don’t know if I can” that I want to get in their faces and tell them that they are just being a wus. “Get in the game or go the fuck home,” as my dad used to tell me.

Why do we want to push people? Because in training, as in life, you will only get to new places by taking risks. There is an expression that I hate, which I know that you’ve heard: “no pain, no gain.” There is a bit of truth in that phrase. Trying new things is indeed painful. But the important phrase to unpack here is “no risk, no reward.”

Typically when I have a runner that is getting close to the coward zone, they are thinking about something that a) I know they can do and 2) they think that they can’t. It’s in those moments that we want to explain that unless we take chances, we don’t know how far we can go. We will never know the future. We don’t know what things are going to feel like until we do them. But unless we try, then we will never know. We are, in fact, safe when we don’t take risks. Because we can hide behind the safety of our self-imposed walls. Nothing can hurt you when you hunker down behind those walls. But you won’t get anywhere either.

The ugly side of risk is two-fold. First, there is the fear of the future that is inherent in risk. We don’t KNOW what is going to happen. The fear is that we anticipate the negative, the bad, or the harm that may come to us. What will it feel like when you fail? It will feel icky. But what if you succeed? The risk is in taking the chance that we will succeed or fail. We can’t know which one will happen ahead of time, so that’s where the fear comes in. As someone very important to me once wrote on a piece of paper that is now stuck to my computer, we can write F.E.A.R as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real.

The other ugly underside of risk is that doing things for the first time may in fact be quite painful. When we haven’t experienced things before, we don’t necessarily know how to do them. This may lead us to do them incorrectly for the first time. Life is a series of experiments, they say, and they don’t all go as planned. But once we have tried, then we know how to do things the next time around and that is what leads us to grow.

Let’s think about Christopher Columbus for a moment. When he set off to sail across the Ocean everyone in his day believed that the world was flat. This was false evidence, but it appeared real. Columbus took a huge risk in sailing west across the ocean, because no one had ever done that before. He could have died doing it. And in fact, he and his men ran out of provisions and water before they made it. It was uncomfortable and scary and unpleasant as they made their way across. But then they made it. And from then on, they and other people too, were able to make it across. The false evidence had been replaced by a new knowledge, or a new normal, and then it became a matter of trying new ways to achieve the result that weren’t so painful.

The bigger the risk, the greater the reward
We don’t grow in life unless we take risks. We can, in fact, go through life doing the same things over and over again. It isn’t until we try new things and go through some serious pains that we learn our limits, the places that we excel and get to experience the moments of joy that come from success in life. Yes, we have to stumble through some pain along the way. Some of it will hurt like Hell. But we grow from the pain. And thus, that brings us back to that tried and true statement: no pain, no gain.

The next time you feeling like you can’t, ask yourself if you know you can’t or if you are simply afraid to fail. Ask yourself if you know that you aren’t able to do it or if you just don’t want to risk the pain to find out. And when coach says, “give it a try,” look inside yourself and think about the risk. Take the risk for the sake of growing and for finding out what you really can, or can’t, do. Perhaps it will hurt. Perhaps you will fail. But perhaps you will succeed and grow to new an imagined heights. Are you in? I am.

Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


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  1. 1. The Five: Tuesday, July 2 | This Running Life July 2nd, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    […] I’m trying to take more risks in training, be unafraid of failure in […]

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