Fitness is not just about the body, it’s about the mind too
Emotions and Psychology in Athletics/Fitness (and Injuries)
Two weeks ago I sprained my ankle doing parkour, which was very painful, and set me back in my practice of it. It has been a rough experience mentally over these past 2 weeks since doing my parkour workouts has really been a large part of my lifestyle, and my personal identity. I has really made me realize just how much being an athlete is mental as well as physical, which is one of the reasons I chose parkour as my new sport in the first place. But I had not realized just how much emotion played into these things, as sometimes your mind and sense of self esteem is really put to the test in athletics, when facing failure and injury.
Spraining my ankle hurt a lot but it was also very emotionally trying these past couple weeks to have to take time off of working out knowing that going without it was setting me back on all the hard work I had done to accomplish the skills I had. And on top of that, as if the universe knew I would try to work out anyways it also gave me a cold. I kept on thinking that tomorrow would be the day my ankle would be better and every morning I would step on my foot to find the pain having barely improved and my heart would sink knowing that I would have to spend another day latent with the skill set I had been developing waning.
Then today the pain on my ankle felt nearly gone. Like I could finally run on it and not have the pain hinder me. So I ate a high carb high protein brunch, packed a large water bottle and some supplements and a couple bananas for after my workout and set off to get my son. While we were walking to the park my ankle started acting up. And the wind was blowing really hard and making it really cold, and my nose started running and I started coughing. My heart sank as I thought to myself I wasn’t going to be able to practice parkour again today. I had eaten that big meal this morning and packed everything I needed and gotten ready and gotten my hopes up just to have them crushed again. I guess I’ll just go home and sit around watching movies like a fucking couch potato I thought, feeling fat and lazy and unhealthy. The worst feelings imaginable to me.
But after a gust of wind stopped I thought, maybe when I get down there among all those concrete steps and walls the wind wont be so bad. Maybe I can make it quick and take it easy…I could at least go and practice until I’m not comfortable anymore…SO I did. Me and my son found a nice place to do our stretches and then I went to it with the warm up to get my body temperature up so I’d be comfortable in the cold, and my cute little independent 7 year old son ran off to do his own courses as he always does.
Getting into my warm up jumps without hesitation made me uneasy, worried that as soon as I started jumping onto my ankle that I’d sprain it again. I didn’t want to be reckless like I had when I sprained it, but I also knew I couldn’t let my fear and insecurity cause me to loose my focus and hinder my movements because that too would get me hurt again…for a moment it seemed like either attitude was going to just get me hurt…should I focus on not thinking about the prospect of getting hurt, which is what got me hurt in the first place…or should I be cautious and allow the fear to be in my mind, which makes me shaky and can also get me hurt…
Maybe I should just try to have fun doing parkour like I always have and do things that I find most fun and don’t require a lot of jumping. So I did.
Getting back into it and not being able to do the things I was able to do easily last time…and struggling so hard just to fail at many of them and not even get half way was difficult for my self esteem. I found myself falling and trying not to put too much weight on my ankle and yelling at the ground like an animal.
I was sticking to what I knew best, what I had been doing for months. It was measurably harder. Climbing up walls and hanging off of them was slower and more labored. Sometimes when I do my first exercises of the day they feel harder than usual but after that it gets easy again once my muscles get activated. This time the opposite happened with many of my exercises and they got harder every time I did them. I was failing at things that I had been proud of myself for being able to do. My self esteem was caused into question, and my identity as an athlete. Am I not an athlete anymore? Am I a failure? Is this who I am now? A person who can’t do these things anymore? All that fucking work all those months for it to come to this?
But no, I thought as I paced around in that cursed cold wind. A couple instances of failure do not define me as an athlete, and doesn’t make me not one anymore. I was breathing heavily and the cold wind made the cardio so much worse. The cold wind turned my sweat soaked hoodie icy against my burning hot skin. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. But I couldn’t leave yet. I had been putting off attempting my latest most proudest achievement. Getting over a very tall wall with no place to step on it except the vertical side. Most of the other walls have railings on them that I can propel myself upward from which makes it easier to get over them. This one I had trained myself for months to be able to run up the side and grab the top and then pull myself up and over. The first time I ever got up over it I pulled my neck muscle in the process which was incredibly painful. The second time I almost tore out my nipple ring which was also incredibly painful. For months anytime I would get over that wall I would draw blood out of the side of my arm and now have several scars from it. But recently getting up and over it had become easy and pain/blood free.
And yet I was putting off trying today because I knew I wasnt going to be able to fucking do it. But I guess I might as well quit ruminating about it and give it a try. Maybe if I don’t put too much pressure on it it wont be so bad and I’ll even make it. Just think about how easy it was last time…just do it Brian…
I ran towards the wall at a comfortable pace, I didn’t want to go in too fast and then hurt my foot when I jumped onto the wall…I had always used my right foot to plant on it, that was my good foot…that was the one that had gotten sprained…I tried to keep my mind clear while I ran at the wall…I jumped and planted my foot on it…no pain…I propelled myself upwards and grabbed at the top…I pulled myself up with all my strength…my body felt heavy, so much heavier than before…my head got up past the top…but before I could get my elbow up my arms started shaking…my muscles failed and I dropped back down. A pain shot through my ankle and up my leg as I landed. I screamed at the ground like a deer being ravaged by a predator. I cant do it. I thought to myself. I cant fucking do it. I fucking knew it. I cant do it. I’d have wanted to cry if i wasn’t pissed. Pissed at who? Myself. Even though this hindrance wasn’t my fault. I was let down by my own body. I just wanted to be able to do what i used to.
I walked around the side of the wall to a set of large steps I usually like to jump up and down where my son was sitting eating an apple I had packed for him. He had been unfazed by my screaming, he is used to me behaving like an animal from time to time. But he is not used to hearing the words that came out of my mouth next.
“I cant do it.” I said emotionally with my hands extended outwards in defeat. “I cant do it.” And then I sighed and turned around ready to leave.
“No. Don’t say that.” He demanded like an angry coach. I turned back to look at him, he was staring at me intensely. “Don’t say that, that’s not going to help anything.” A more simplified version of the same coaching I had give him before. Guess it was time for me to take my own advice.
The neuro-linguistic programmer in me came to the surface and I said “Fine, your right. I couldn’t do it that time. But I’m going to try again.” He may have said something but I was busy caught up in the raging sea of emotions in my head as I walked back around the wall and the many paces away from it that I have to get before I can run back at it. I did so without hesitating this time…
And this time I knew it was going to be different. This time, I planted my foot, grabbed the top, pulled….
And couldn’t even get my head up to the top before I fell back down.
This time I didn’t scream at the ground. This time I wanted to cry…but felt so defeated that I almost felt vacant inside. But instead of indulging in these feelings and abandoning myself to resignation I decided to take a different approach. Maybe I just need a rest? I’ve been going more quickly from exercise to exercise than normal. Why don’t I take a little break and then try again before my body temperature goes down. So thats what I did.
And then when I was ready to try again I thought to myself, maybe I wont make it, but it wont be a big deal. As long as I dont get myself hurt I can try again another time. But all I have to do is pull myself up and get my elbow up over that thing and I’ll be able to get the rest of me over it.
So I ran at it again, planted my foot propelled myself up, got my hands up around the edge…felt the weight of my body pulling me down…started to fall…
And then pulled as hard as I could…but it wasn’t enough…my body struggled upwards but just couldn’t go all the way. However this time I did not let myself drop back down. I adjusted my feet to a better footing where a little jagged piece of concrete could be used for me to gain a little leverage with my leg, and I hoisted myself up enough to get my elbow over the top, and then all I had to do was push myself forward and upward with my shaky arms, feeling like an overweight under-exercised kid at fat kid camp…but I made it.
I cheered for my victory at the top and my son applauded for me and then tried to follow in my footsteps like the cute little tyke he is but I suggested a smaller wall and said “comon lets go work on our wall hangs over there.”
And as I jogged over with him I thought to myself how lucky I was that I had never torn a ligament like one of the guys who had taught my parkour, or had any tremendous injuries like the inspiring olympic athlete Dan Millman who has taught me so much in his books of spiritual wisdom. I wrapped my head around the idea of just how possible those things are if I am not careful and wondered how I would ever deal with the fear of pain now that I knew what it felt like and what it was capable of. And how I would ever deal with future setbacks which could be much bigger than this one. Maybe its better not to think about them…maybe its important to consider those possibilities…I don’t know. All I know is that being an athlete is a warriors journey. And fitness as much about the mind as it is about the body.