Emotional Honesty

The concept of emotional honesty was introduced to me in a running context by Dave Scott-Thomas. I mention this because, in contrast to most coaching ideas, which are rarely new, and mostly just out there, no one else has ever really brought it up that way to me before. It’s not that the idea is unfamiliar, but perhaps it is not prioritized or considered directly by many. So I thought it was important to give credit.

To explain how I interpret emotional honesty, I think it is best to give examples. Runners have a tendency to undersell our achievements to ourselves, but oversell the achievements of our friends. What I mean is, when many runners finish a race, we immediately find the negative: “I could have gone faster. My time was not what I wanted. This girl beat me.” To counter act this, our friends and teammates often respond with overly positive reinforcement: “No, you did great! That was awesome! Way to go!” Neither of these responses, though understandable, is emotionally honest.

While there is definitely room for unconditional support (our value as human beings is not related proportionally to our race results), coaches, and especially runners who are knowledgeable in the sport, who know the individual case of each of their teammates, should call a spade a spade. If you ran sub-optimally, a coach should be able to tell you, “You didn’t have the best day” and not have you freak out. Because you should also know if you didn’t have the best day. It doesn’t mean you should wallow. It means take note, figure out why, and get on with fixing it for next time.

To flip the coin, if you ran well, you should be able to admit it to yourself: it’s ok to be happy and satisfied with a performance that has just finished. Such satisfaction of doing your best on the day does not preclude further improvements. You need not fear getting complacent if you acknowledge that what’s done is done, and if it was done well.

As a runner, I know as soon as I cross the line, or sometimes sooner, if I’ve had a good race or not, before I see the clock, or my placing. I know whether I gave my best effort in those dark moments of the distance race when we must choose between being a hero or a chump. I always know which one I’ve chosen. So perhaps that is why it strikes me as emotionally dishonest for someone to praise me as a hero when I know I’ve been a chump. Or somewhere in between.

This practice of emotional honesty is healthy and helpful because you always know where you stand, as a runner. That’s important. You have to set reasonable (but challenging) goals, make a plan to go after them, and then go after them as best you can. If you are getting feedback that might suggest you are moving towards your goals, but you are not, you lose out. If you are constantly beating yourself up for not being where you want to be three months from now, or for not being where someone else is, your motivation can suffer and you might not get to that goal in 3 months’ time, or ever, even if you were right on track.

Another example has to do with pride. When I was in high school, our team was one of the best in Ontario. In fact, the program continues to win its cross country conference every year, just as it has since 1974…before I was born. So when I arrived there in the early 90s, the tradition was well-established. And it was made clear to us that because we wore the double blue M, people would automatically assume we were fast. Not all of us were fast, however. But it was important to train and carry ourselves as such, with a certain seriousness, but not taking ourselves too seriously–an important distinction.

This positive attitude can go a long way towards helping runners achieve their goals. The boys from Laval are a great example of this. They are serious athletes: some have run internationally, and their team finished 2nd among Canadian university teams last year. Yet they don’t take themselves too seriously: they are fun-loving, they love the sport, and they respect and love their competition, too. The counter example is the guy who only talks to you if he beats you in a race. It’s not going to a big-name school, or being part of an important club that makes you good: it’s how you represent the club or school that gives it its name.

Knowing one’s place is a concept that gets a lot of negative play, and with good reason. We shouldn’t place limits on ourselves or on others, specifically not in running, where much can be done with some time and hard work. But being aware of where we fit in the running jungle can go a long way towards a successful time there. For example, knowing how good a 16min 5k actually is (faster than most people, faster than most runners, but still slower than a lot of runners, young and old, male and female) can give a runners some important perspective: know that it’s fast enough that a lot of people are going to look up to you, or be impressed by you, but also that you’ll probably get beat if you enter in a fairly competitive race. Learn from the people who finish behind you, because no matter their time, they may work just as hard or harder than you for it. Learn from the people who finish in front of you, because they are probably doing something right.

Know yourself, know your team, know your sport. And remember, no matter who you are, there’s almost always someone faster, and you never know what’s going to happen at the end of the race: