Adaptability: Key to Performing Your BEST!

As a coach, I discuss the mental side of sports on a daily basis.  In particular, how to plan and execute workouts and races best.  As part of those mental readiness conversations with athletes, I often find myself curious about what they perceive to be important mental abilities when it comes to peak performance.

Most often, I’ll hear athletes discuss truly important mental abilities like:

·        Task focus (ability to maintain focus on what you are doing now)

·        Short memory (not lingering on what just happened – good or bad)

·        Confidence (belief in yourself regarding the challenge at hand)

·        Fearlessness/courage (ability to accept challenges positively)

·        Positivity (finding the good possibilities in situations)

·        Resilience (ability to repeatedly handle setbacks that may occur)

·        Calmness (ability to maintain a sensible arousal level)

·        Egolessness (ability to not place your self worth on your athletic performance)

Each of those mental factors is vital to performing your best.  But, what really strikes me, is that it’s hugely rare to have an athlete that I coach, am consulting with or speaking to at a seminar bring up adaptability!  I could probably count the athletes who have brought up adaptability over the last 20 years of my career on 2 hands.  That’s amazing, because if a mental lapse in a race or workout causes a performance failure, the majority of the time, adaptability is a primary cause of the breakdown that the athlete experienced.

Look, if you take part in sports for any period of time, one thing becomes clear – things you don’t expect, will happen, and despite the best of planning, things will change.  Nothing in sport is static.  Everything is highly dynamic with uncountable inputs.  Because of this, the process of training and racing is really about preparing well for the most likely to be encountered challenges while tasting surprises that allow you to be ready when the inevitable happens, and things go haywire!

Here’s an example.  A strong woman I coached for years had very bad vision.  In her words: “I’m as blind as a bat without glasses or contacts in.”  Well, during the rough swim of a half ironman distance tri she was racing in (as a build up to Ironman Canada), she was hit in the face – hard.  After getting her composure, and realizing her goggles were on top of her head, she discovered that it was not just water causing her vision to be blurry, but rather, that her contacts were gone!  She didn’t have any with her during the swim, but did in transition.  She stayed calm, managed to get help so she could find the swim finish, and get to her transition area.  She found her contacts and finished the race.  We discussed this, and knowing Ironman swims are brutal, we came up with the plan of duct taping contacts to her wet suit – just in case.  Amazingly, it happened again during Ironman!  But, her adaptability which had helped her make it through the half Ironman I just described, and which lead to her taping contacts to her suit, also helped her stay calm, manage to get the new contacts in during the swim, and go on to finish strongly in about 11:30.  Her adaptability saved her race!

 Contacts being knocked off, no problem!

Contacts being knocked off, no problem!

A personal example was a January mountain bike ride I once showed up for with a bunch of friends.  We planned a 4-5 hour ride, and we had carpooled about an hour to get to our riding venue.  Looking through my gear bag, I realized all I had for shoes were my clogs – I’d forgotten my riding shoes.  I could have bailed and just sat in the car… but instead, I borrowed a friends sneakers and did the ride (wearing running sneakers on clipless pedals – ooph J).  I bumbled a bit, and it wasn’t perfect… but that adaptability really helped – and I ended up with a fun memory and really enjoyable ride.  The irony, is that adaptability saved that day, but has often been a challenge for me and is a skill I have to work at all the time!

On the other hand, I have seen athletes completely lose their ability to race due to challenges on the course.  For example, a transition area in a triathlon is not set up as some one expects or the weather is not what they had hoped for at a bike race and rather than seeing that as a new opportunity, it becomes a blockade.

And that’s the challenge of low levels of adaptability, it creates fragile mental states rather than a resilient and strong mental state.

Adaptable athletes constantly seek why they can.  Everything is an opportunity.  A flat tire is just an unexpected chance to rest a bit.  A lost fuel bottle is a reason to improve pacing execution.  A missed workout is a chance to be fresher and better tomorrow.  That doesn’t mean those events cause no frustration, just that they are not given the chance to become performance blockers!

It seems, that low adaptability on the other hand, acts like a system failure key.  If adaptability is “OFF” during a race, an athlete experiencing the things above sees an excuse to have a bad day.  They see a chance to apply blame if things don’t go well.  They see a route of escape, so they (athlete) don’t have to perform their best.

Ok, that sounds harsh, and I ABSOLUTELY don’t mean it to.  The issue, is that being adaptable is a gatekeeper to your best.  And that’s what training is about. That’s what racing is about (seeking your best through the help of your peers), And that’s what I hope this post is about.  I WANT you to feel and do your best on any given day – and being adaptable is vital regarding that goal. 

So what can you do to improve your adaptability?  The simplest way to do it is to build adaptability practice into your life and your workouts.  Be self-aware.  If you miss an exit driving down the high way, and you feel your anger start to rise – adjust.  How can this situation be good?  “Ok, that stinks, but, I can learn a new route to the grocery store now, maybe that will help next week.”  If you look at your training plan and know you can’t do the 5 mile run today, but you could do 3, do 3 and know you will be fresher for the next session.  Literally anything you do, becomes a chance to practice adaptability!

So there’s the challenge to you as you head into the new year.  Be adaptable.  When things don’t go your way, why is that potentially good?  What can you do with this new situation?  Does this new situation create a new possibility for you?  Seek it out. 

With this practice building to habit, and developing your ability to adapt… Your ability to handle challenges on the race course will improve.  That doesn’t mean you are going to win every race you do next year or that you are going to PR every race next year.  It does mean, that you are most likely to get the best out of yourself at each race you do next year.

And quite frankly, that’s an amazing gift, that’s worth chasing! 

Happy Training!

Will