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The Would, Should, & Could Paradox: How Self-Judgment Sets Us Up for Failure

self-judgment athletic confidence

Endurance athletes are great at setting goals and expectations.  But sometimes, those expectations can be self-defeating.  As coaches, we often see post-workout comments like “I would have gone faster if it had not been so hot”, “this should have felt easier than it did”, and “I could have had a better race, but it just wasn’t my day”. 

When we “would, should, and could” on ourselves in this way, it blocks our progress and sets us up for failure.  It leads to negative self-judgment, impacting our confidence as an athlete.  This also opens the door to social comparison to others competing in our sport – “if they can do that, I should be able to.”

But the truth is, setting unrealistic expectations, or constantly reaching back to what the younger version of ourselves was able to do in the past, are surefire ways to set yourself up for failure and limit progress.  It creates an artificial pressure on us to constantly improve with every workout, field test, and race and causes us to set unrealistic timelines around progress and milestones.  

There is no doubt that extenuating circumstances will sometimes impact us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  But to “would, should, and could” following every workout or race only inflicts wounds on our psyche, well-being, and growth as athletes. 

It impedes our physical and mental progress, and it will only add more stress to our already full plates as age group athletes.  And frankly, it allows us to let ourselves off the hook around the deeper growth of being in the moment and honoring the importance that process plays in our development. 

Overthinking can also lead us down the “would, should, could” path.  Because overthinkers often put pressure on themselves to do everything just right or perfectly, it causes us to step out of the present moment.  When that happens, ideas, thoughts, and beliefs of the past and future begin to cloud our judgment which means we aren’t present and trusting in our process.  And how many times have you heard us as coaches say, “we have to trust the process”.  

So, what do we do?  Well, first things first.  We need to bag it up and take it out with the trash like all negative self-talk!  

We can use other strategies as athletes to drown out the “would, could, should” thoughts. 

  • Be present and in the moment.  Again, once you step outside of being in the moment during a workout or race, you are also stepping away from the process.
  • Avoid chasing the younger version of yourself.  Be where you are now.  Remember, your race times, t-pace, and FTP five years ago is just that – in the past.  They may not mean anything today.  As we age, we must understand that we have different challenges than we had when we were younger.  Staying fast as we get older changes and requires a different approach, and if we are honest, more work. 
  • When you notice a “would, could, should” thought, examine the statement to determine the root of the concern.  For example, if you feel that a workout “shouldn’t” have felt so hard – what is underneath that thought that may be a concern about your fitness, ability, or confidence as an athlete.  Be honest and address the concern.  If the issue relates to fitness, you can recognize that while the workout felt hard, maybe “hard” is a good thing.  Perhaps it should feel hard, or maybe there are other limiting factors such as lack of sleep, stress, fueling, hydration status, etc.  
  • Remember, thoughts aren’t reality, and certainly not fact.  Take into account the full context of the workout, race, or environment.  And always remember, one workout is just that – one workout.  It’s a single point in time and only has meaning in the context of everything else that is going on that day.  
  • We find that one thing can solve almost all endurance sport-related concerns – GRATITUDE!  Well, maybe that’s an overstatement, but grounding yourself in gratitude can soften the mental and physical blows that endurance athletes take on a daily basis.  
  • Reframe the thought or statement once you’ve analyzed the root concern.  So, instead of “This shouldn’t feel so hard,” you can flip it to something like:
    • “I had a great workout and found the edge of my limits for today.  It was hard, and I am grateful for the challenge”. 
    • “This workout has exposed other areas I need to work on – hydration, sleep, fueling, stress management.” 
    • “I am growing as an athlete every day – I will stay in the moment and be well-grounded in the process first, then outcomes.” 

Remember, be kind to yourself.  And we cannot emphasize how important it is to include mental skills into your daily training regimen.  As endurance athletes, we would never dream of just skipping a workout, so put mental skills training in the same category.  

Strong brains allow our bodies to do amazing things!

Maria Simone No Limits Endurance
Maria Simone
Endurance Coach at No Limits Endurance Coaching | Website

Maria Simone is a veteran endurance coach who owns and operates No Limits Endurance, an inclusive triathlon and run coaching platform based in Colorado. Maria coaches athletes across a variety of disciplines, including swimming, cycling, running, and triathlon, including non-traditional ultra-distance events. She's a PhD with coaching credentials covering USAT & USAC Level 2 Coach, US Masters Swimming, USA Cycling, and UESCA Ultrarunning.

Jeff Lukich Triathlon Endurance Coach
Jeff Lukich
Endurance Coach at Drive Multisport | Website

Jeff Lukich is the owner and head coach of Drive Multisport and leads Better Triathlete's coach match program. He is a USA Triathlon (USAT) Level 1, USA Cycling (USAC) Level 2, and USA Track & Field (USATF) certified coach. A 10x Ironman finisher and Boston Marathon Qualifier, Jeff specializes in coaching long-course triathletes, ultra-runners, marathoners, cyclists, and athletes with unique events, such as double Ironman, staged races, and SwimRun events. Learn more about Jeff.