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How to Cope with Adversity by Changing Your Attitude

with LESLEY PATERSON, Liv Racing Athlete

As a professional athlete, my body takes quite the beating. When you subject the human body to 35-40 hours per week of vigorous exercise, you soon learn that unless you treat it like a Formula 1 engine, it starts to behave like a ‘68 Pinto.  Sometimes the exposure to physical risk is enough to derail even the best plans and you’re left with the emotional turmoil of the dreaded “I” word – injury!

In 2015, I had to deal with extreme adversity and change my attitude because of an injury. I was in Costa Rica about to compete in an off-road triathlon (1500m ocean swim, 40km mountain bike, 10km trail run). The day before the race, I crashed my mountain bike and fractured my shoulder. I was in total bits and emotionally torn apart. Having spent a ton of dosh to get there, I really needed to earn some race money to at least break even. So with my left arm strapped to my side, I figured I could still do the swim (albeit one-armed), bike and run with great care to avoid further pain and risk of making the injury worse (walking down any technical descends and propping my broken arm on the top of the bars).

I remember standing on the beach with one minute to go and thinking, “You’re in Costa Rica. You’re doing what you love. Nothing else matters. So what if you lose 15 minutes on the swim? Will the earth swallow you up? No. Will fire and brimstone wreak havoc on your family? No. Will you be laughed at? No. Suck it up, buttercup – you’ll get a great workout from a one arm kick set, and then you’ll see monkeys in the forest. Life really is nothing but good.”

I ended up coming out the water 12 minutes down, biked up to second place, and ran through for the win. From the night before being totally distraught and believing the whole trip was a waste of time and money, I’d faced adversity, come up with a solution that could be flexible, and won against all odds. I couldn’t have anticipated any of this but what it taught me was that most situations in life do not go smoothly nor are they reliable, fair or exactly how we had imagined them. However, if you reframe the situation and find a solution to at least try and achieve your goal, that in itself is the win. You might surprise yourself as to what can happen.

Notice how I can’t even lift the banner in this photo!

Just six weeks later, this circumstance in Costa Rica helped me with my next major blow. I was back in great race shape and looking forward to weeks of racing in the US and Europe. I had just won a big race in Montana and things were looking great going into the final round of the US Cup mountain bike series in Colorado. While pre-riding the course in Boulder, I hit a rock, went over the handlebars and broke my right hand and left wrist. The tears weren’t only from stabbing pain, they were from feelings of loss, anger, and “Why me? Not again!” The accident happened on Friday in Colorado and by Monday afternoon I had already had surgery in California.

And along came the next major life lesson: You can make a decision to change your attitude. As my sport psychologist husband keeps reminding me, the one thing that is always in my control is my ATTITUDE. Don’t like feeling crappy? Then make a decision not to feel that way. At first you have to fake it. Smile a lot. Be nice to others. Beam a posture that is upright, confident, and assertive. Say only positive things. Look for silver linings. It’s amazing how your brain soon follows suit when you force your body to play Dr. Jekyll when everything else is screaming evil Mr. Hyde.

After my surgery, we took my bust-up body to Mammoth for altitude training and I sat on a stationary trainer outside looking at the mountains and getting some valuable intensity and volume. I had changed my circumstances and found a benefit to not racing: a great view and massive gains to my fitness. I went on to win a ton of big races in the second half of the season. It was a huge growing experience to take a bad situation and try to find a positive in it.

Here’s my challenge to you: When you find yourself feeling crappy, slow, pissed off, bitter, or sad, flip a switch – even if it’s only for an hour – and turn on a nicer version of yourself for the world to see. That stuff spreads like wildfire. People interact with you differently and you start to move on. Remember to enjoy the good times when they are here and control the things in your life that affect how you feel. We are all dealing with crappy situations in one way or another right now, but you can use this time of adversity to make yourself more resilient for the future – it’s all up to your attitude.