I’ve made this trip several times, and on nearly each one I’ve run into difficulties. Each time it required problem solving, adjustments, and a willingness to maintain work toward the goal. The trip I’m referring to is the drive from Sacramento, California to Denver, Colorado. Over the years I have driven this track over 10 times. This particular trip is for the purpose of taking our 20 year old car to him to be used for college. Nearly half-way through the journey, the water pump failed. Not a major repair, but one that must be attended to so as to prevent such. And because it happened on a Saturday, meant an extended stay in the Salt Lake suburb of Provo, Utah. And it is here that I sit at a restaurant, looking up at the Wasach Mountains, refelecting on the value such experiences have.

As I noted above, I have made this trek more than a few times. And I have experienced car trouble a few times before. Each time it required a simplified process to finish the trip. The first is admitting that there is a problem. Doing so keeps you grounded in reality. I’m all for optimistic thinking, but sometimes you have to be realistic. Not doing so becomes a “Pollyanna” mindset that doesn’t solve the issue, and can lead to bigger problems.

The second step is to identify the impact on the objective (a.k.a. outcome goal). I could have said “f*ck it!”, and given up. But the goal is important to me, and will benefit someone I really care about. Giving up isn’t an option. So instead, I made a few calculated judgement; what are my options to get a repair now/here, and how much of a delay will this require? My deadline didn’t change, only my conceptualization of the process. Rather than driving on, and continuing to approach the goal relentlessly, I adjusted according to the circumstances. And making the adjustment will increase the likelihood that I reach my long term goal.

Once I got the car to the mechanic (Thank you Jiffy Lube for being open all day on Saturday in Provo!), and confirmed they could repair the car, I took a walk. That’s right, I got some exercise and took in the sites. Instead of sitting in the waiting room and stewing about how bad I had it, I decided to do something that would make me feel better physically and mentally. I find this analogous to “getting your head up” when things are going well. Yeah, the cost and delay aren’t what I planned for, nor are they something I enjoyed, but taking a look around allowed me to see beyond the current issue and gain perspective. I certainly would have preferred to be on the road and get to where I wanted to be soon, but then I would have never seen how cool the mountains look when you stop here.

While on my walk, I also came across a few people who had it a lot tougher than me. Specifically, I came across a homeless couple who were arguing. Though I’m not sure what they were fighting about, I realized that my struggled seemed much less more serious than theirs. This left me grateful that I was in a position to attend to my problem with assurance that it would only be a temporary inconvencience. I’ve worked hard to be successful, and to have the ability to take risks such as this trip, knowing that I have the resources to overcome hardships.

So how does this relate to trying to achieve at high levels in sport? If you are going to be successful, you have to be willing to take risks and meet setbacks head on. Reflect back on the “simple plan” I’ve outlined. 

First, admit when things aren’t going well, or that you have a problem. Several things can be analogous to my mechanical breakdown. Athletes suffer injuries, get sick, and have unexpected negative life-events. Within a game, certain plays result in turn-overs, the official makes a poor call, equipment fails, and so on. Once you just admit the problem, finding the solution becomes part of the process. And being overly optimistic will keep you cycling back to whatever it is you haven’t dealt with.

The next step then requires you calculate your current distance to the goal you are working on. Of course giving up is an option, but maybe there is still another way. And knowing the distance between the current situation and the goal helps you to identify “what’s next”. Like chopping down a big tree, you only get there by taking one accurate hack at a time. So, start chopping wood when things seem bleak.

Third, get your head up and gain some perspective. Sure, setbacks are frustrating, but this situation is likely not permanent. Who is available to help (thanks to my wife for calling and brainstorming things in the moment of crisis!)? What resources/strengths do you have than you can apply right now? Especially as they apply to the “next step”. Doing so can help you earn a small victory in the moment. Put enough of these together, and you build momentum. For example, when a football team is down by three touchdowns in the second quarter, focusing on getting a first down is more helpful than focusing on being down 21 points. Put enough first downs together, and you reach the end zone.

Lastly, find what you can be grateful for. What have you done that has prepared you for difficulty? Why is this an opportunity to learn? What appreciation can you have for what you are doing in the moment? You are an athlete, with a support network and an opportunity to exercise your talents. You have practiced and trained. This is still an opportunity to make something difficult a positive experience.

Being successful isn’t about “staying positive” in absolutes. There is no easy road to success. You are going to face adversity. Setbacks are part of the process. The key is to accept the present circumstance, and to maintain perseverance toward your goal. And just as important, be willing to adjust in your pursuit of what is important to you. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.

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