Life Trainer: The Excuse Machine
How to shut it down, pull the plug and put it on the curbApril 6, 2011
Photo by Dawn Pink Chick
Ah, excuses. Those words we eloquently string together in an attempt to convince ourselves (and others) that we are infallible, despite the fact that something is not happening as it should be. Cue the ornate hand gestures, dramatic intonation, and facial expressions—all choreographed to garnish these prepared statements—and voila, you’ve activated your excuse machine.
Excuses are everywhere. They come from students who forget their homework, staffers who miss meetings, dieters who eat junk food, and politicians who don’t keep their promises. It’s human nature to get derailed from our best intentions, and excuses help soften the blow and justify our going off course.
The excuse machine loves feelings, because there’s no right and wrong when it comes to emotions.
The real danger comes, however, from relying on excuses to not only right the wrongs of the past, but pre-pay for the wrongs to come. As Benedict Carey explained in a recent article in the New York Times, “some protect the ego by working on their excuses early.” Carey quotes psychologist Edward R. Hirt who references the line “I coulda been a contender,” from the movie On the Waterfront. Hirt goes on to say that “in the long term, that may be easier to live with for some people than to know they did their very best and failed.”
Excuses rob us of the ability to fail, because they cushion the fall. For the athlete, failure should be considered a right of passage. If we don’t tap into our potential because we’re afraid we won’t succeed, we’re going against everything that endurance racing is about. We are the mascots for potential. Just look at the everyday people who sign on to the challenge of a triathlon with equal parts fear and excitement in their eyes. Look at the accomplishments of Dick and Rick Hoyt, a father and his paralyzed son who have completed more than 1000 races together. Look at your own history. Think back to the time when multisport racing seemed crazy to you. Before you tackled triathlon you probably could have come up with 100 excuses to get out of combining a swim, bike and run all on the same day. Now you pay money to do it on purpose!
As a coach, I hear a wide range of excuses from athletes—from the reasons they couldn’t get to a workout, to the breakdown of why a particular training session didn’t go as planned. We’ve all used the excuse machine at some point, but it’s time to pull the plug.
Successful athletes don’t make excuses, they make plans. Here are some tips to help you ditch the cop-outs and own your training program for better or for worse.
Write it Down
When you do need to miss a workout, pretend you need a “doctor’s note,” and write down the reason. Now look at what you wrote. The more explaining you’ve done, the more likely it’s an excuse. Why? An excuse serves as “carte blanche” for the person who is making it, so the person usually feels the need to provide enough information to justify their desire to act as they wish, not as they should. Consider the person who can’t do a workout after a skiing accident. The note would read “broken leg,” as opposed to, “I’m not feeling that great, so I’m going to stay home today.”
Stop Feeling, Start Doing
Excuses nestle in a subjective cocoon of phrases like “I should,” or “I feel like.” The excuse machine loves feelings, because there’s no right and wrong when it comes to emotions. That’s why it’s up to you to just do the workout despite your reasons to skip it. When you’re training, you should treat your goal like a priority—the way you would treat a job or a significant other. Your responsibility is to plan around your needs for this goal. Rather than use your time to earmark reasons you can’t do something, use it to map out the way you will do it. Eliminate the possibility for common excuses such as having “no time” by planning your workouts in advance and coming up with a Plan B to turn to if it “feels” like something could impact your schedule.
If you’re making excuses about something on a regular basis, it’s time to be honest with yourself. Maybe your life has changed in a way that makes it too difficult to train for a certain race. It’s better to admit that and move on to a more obtainable goal than to continue moving from one excuse to the next as your training log collects dust and your goal looms overhead. Hanging on to a goal you’re no longer committed to forces you into a pattern of behavior that will ultimately compromise your self-motivation and eat away at your discipline.
Lisa Barnes is a certified USAT Level 1 coach and an Ironman athlete who lives and trains in upstate New York. In her monthly column Life Trainer, she helps triathletes balance other aspects of life with their passion for multisport.