Pitfalls of Perfection — in Athletics and in Life

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

“Coach, I don’t think I can run today.”

“What’s wrong?”

I took a deep breath, and mustered up all the courage a 19 year old female athlete can, “I don’t feel good, I’m really tired. I can’t run today.”

“Are you injured?”

“Well, no…”

Coach looked me in the eyes, and without hesitation replied, “Then we need you on the team. You’re running, Alicia.”

It was my sophomore year of college, and I was the current number two runner on the cross country team. The day was our Division Championships for the state of Minnesota. If we did well enough here, we would go on to Sectionals just like the year before.

I couldn’t even muster up a lie to explain that my calf was pulled or my hamstring was too tight. All Coach would have done was stretch it out or examine the muscle to determine that I was fine enough to compete.

I was young, after all, when our bodies and ligaments recovered more quickly from strain.

It had taken all of my courage to explain that I wasn’t feeling well that morning when we arrived in St. Paul, that I didn’t know what else to do except what Coach said.

So, I jogged the two mile warmup. I stretched. I stood on the start line. I heard the shot signaling the 6k race had begun. I moved my arms and legs, just as I knew I should.

But my mind was a mess. My stress had reached a tipping point, and my body would not physically respond.

After the first kilometer, a teammate passed me, “Are you okay? Stay with me, let’s go.” She tried to encourage me. I was usually always faster than her, but not today. After trying to jog with me a few meters, and seeing I would not speed up, she ran on ahead of me. Then another teammate passed me, and another, and another.

The 6 kilometers usually lasted just under 25 minutes, but today it dragged for an eternity. My feet wouldn’t move and my legs wouldn’t lift.

I passed my coach at kilometer 3. “What the hell are you doing, Alicia? Pick up the pace. You have a race to run. Go, go go!”

And then I was past him, but I couldn’t move any faster. And even though I registered the anger in his eyes, it wasn’t enough to compel me to race.

I finished in 30 minutes, my worst time yet, near the end of the group, after all the rest of my teammates.

Coach didn’t talk to me the rest of the day.

And two weeks later, on our last day of the season, I approached him again, with another disappointment, “I’m not running Track this year.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just need a break. I won’t be running track.”

“Ok, you can take off winter season and still train for spring.”

“No. I can’t do any of it. I’m not running this year any more.”

And I walked away.

I was spent.

I was exhausted.

I had no more to give.

From the age of 11, I had enjoyed competing in distance running. I looked forward to practices with my friends. I loved the thrill of race day. I had my Sobe green tea, half banana, and granola bar breakfast routine.

I had always been fast, and I loved it. I was a runner.

But not anymore.

The pressures of maintaining my straight A’s in university, plus agreeing to be president of the university gospel choir and financial manager of the on-campus store, and committing to a 3 hour-a-day training routine pushed me past my limits.

I couldn’t identify all the stressors at the time, but what I did know was that cutting those three required hours of practice, weights and meals with the team would free up my mental space to concentrate on passing my classes.

The half credit of track wasn’t worth it.

And even though over the years, as a perfectionist, I had become used to pushing past the pain, this time it was different.

In high school track, for example, when my right foot began throbbing, I would slather on the Icy Hot 10 minutes before the race, lace up my shoes, pound out an 800m run, take off the shoes, put on more Icy Hot, and wait for the next race of 1500m to repeat the damaging cycle.

But, finally, I was exhausted. At 19, I had used up all of my “the pain does not exist” mantras.

Back then I didn’t have the words for it, and neither did my Coach.

I just knew I had to stop.

Today, July 2021, as I watched Simone Biles “World’s Greatest Gymnast” withdraw from Olympic competition in Tokyo, I saw her take a step many of us perfectionists fear taking.

I knew her “quitting” wasn’t because she wasn’t strong enough or didn’t have enough in her to “push past the pain”.

She took a step back.

Because athletic competition requires more than just physical fitness. It also requires mental health.

Admitting when we’re not capable, for whatever reason, can be a sign of true mental toughness.

Sometimes we have to honor ourselves as human beings.

And as I learned back in my sophomore year of university, sometimes quitting is the best thing we can do for ourselves.

Saying “no” to that commitment isn’t so much about letting others down as it is about staying true to ourselves.

Dropping out doesn’t mean we are giving up — but that we are re-grouping so that we can continue another day.

Sometimes stopping is the strongest thing we can do.

So that by taking a step back, we can truly find our way forward.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.