How the Crash Can Take a Unique Toll on Women
The good news is these conflicting feelings — of pride and insecurity, happiness and listlessness — are normal.
Dr. Caroline Silby, a former competitive figure skater who served as the sports psychologist for the US Figure Skating Team at the Pyeongchang Olympics, knows this firsthand. "You can be so happy about your personal record and feel this sense of loss that now you don't have that experience to look forward to," she said. "But holding those two [feelings] at the same time feels weird."
I also wondered if this struggle might be felt more acutely for women in some ways. Personally, I faced a nagging sense that I was a fraud in my first workouts after the marathon. I was sure that I wasn't as fit or athletic as my strong marathon showing had "tricked" me into thinking I was. That self-defeating voice in my head said that it was a fluke; I got lucky. I had a good day. It couldn't possibly be that I'd worked hard, focused, and determined that positive result for myself. I felt like I had the athletic version of imposter syndrome – the phenomenon we most often hear about women struggling with in the workplace.
Dr. Silby didn't seem surprised to hear about my experience. She said that when athletes connect their training wins and effort with their positive outcomes, they have a better chance at weathering these postevent crashes: "When you start to fundamentally understand kind of how you're creating your own success, it is in the research that happiness levels go up."
Of course, Dr. Silby recognizes that they can be easier said than done — especially for female athletes. Notably, crowing about our achievements isn't exactly something girls are encouraged to do. "When you were a young girl, if you walked into a room of other girls and said, 'Wow. I ran so fast today. I kicked ass!' you would have no friends [laughter]," Silby said. "We don't tend to give voice to our own accomplishments . . . so that connection is often overlooked."
For many women, training for an event, focusing on transforming our health, or otherwise chasing a major fitness goal is one of the few times in our lives when we feel we have permission to be entirely self-focused.
Dr. Colleen Hacker, a sports psychologist who has served on the US Olympic coaching staff six times, agrees that living in a gendered society can make our experiences as women athletes unique. Namely, she says, women are rarely granted carte blanche to chase an individual goal at the expense of other gendered responsibilities like caretaking. For many women, training for an event, focusing on transforming our health, or otherwise chasing a major fitness goal is one of the few times in our lives when we feel we have permission to be entirely self-focused. And once we've met our goal, we're often expected to return to stereotypical, gendered roles we may no longer be willing to fulfill.
"It's both as freeing and illuminating as it is guilt-producing and awkward," Dr. Hacker explained. "Now, all of a sudden, you're supposed to go back to focusing on everyone else, and it's like, 'What about me?'"
I admit that another unexpected upside to my training was having the ability to use it as an excuse to get out of obligations or dodge requests. It's not news that many women struggle with saying no, but when I couldn't meet a colleague for dinner, spend my entire Saturday at a volunteer event, or go to a friend's late-night party, I felt somehow absolved by using the marathon as my reason. Once training ended, I found myself feeling, again, like I didn't have a real right to say no to things that I didn't have time — or, bluntly, didn't want — to do.
There are other factors at play, too. Studies, data, and lived experiences have shown that women's pain is often taken less seriously than men's, which can make dealing with real postachievement feelings of depression and physical challenges even more dispiriting and difficult. (There have been a number of harrowing pieces on the potentially catastrophic outcomes of this gender bias this year.) By being explicit and open about those emotional and physical feelings, we can help erase not just the cultural stigma but also own our personal experiences in a productive way.