How Triathletes Can Deal With Self-Esteem Issues

by Jim P.

nerves and fear, triathlons

There is a mental and spiritual side to the sport of triathlon that is every bit as important as the physical aspects of training and competing.


There are numerous mental obstacles a triathlete must contend with, and ways the sport influences people on a “spiritual” level, including our self-image, peace and contentment in life, and our most important relationships.

Fear, feelings of failure, stress, obsessive compulsion, disappointment, and burn-out are just a few of the challenges most triathletes will have to deal with at one time or another. My goal in the next few posts is to cover some of the most common mental and spiritual aspects of triathlon.

This particular post is about self-image.


Comparing Yourself To Others

I am an author. It would be easy to attach my worth as a human being to my ranking on Amazon.

If I did that, my sense of self would be a maddening roller coaster ride. My ranking goes up on Amazon, I feel good about myself. It goes down, I feel like a loser.

People often derive their self worth in comparison to others.

The triathlete is susceptible to this in the sport of triathlon. It can also be a maddening roller coaster ride because there will always be people who…

…are thinner than you

…are faster than you

…are stronger than you

…have more stamina than you

…are more confident than you

…perform better in competitions than you

…have the latest and greatest gear that you don’t have

…have more defined abs or glutes than you

….seem to have a more likeable personality than you

…don’t seem to have the same triathlon challenges as you.

Deriving your sense of self from your performance as a triathlete and comparing yourself to others can consume and control you.

This can cause life to become unbalanced and one-dimensional — all your mental, physical, and emotional energy is spent in pursuit of perfection. In can become a detriment to other important aspects of your life, including your most significant relationships.

Signs That You May Be Inflating The Significance Of Triathlon:

  • Missing a training session feels catastrophic
  • Rarely or never taking a day off
  • Allowing other aspects of life and important relationships to deteriorate
  • Pushing your body with extreme training demands to punish yourself for perceived shortcomings
  • Obsessive concern about appearance and weight
  • Continuous anxiety over progress and training workload
  • Common obstacles such as injuries and unmet goals triggers a debilitating dejection or depression

Obviously, there can be many issues and causes beyond one’s triathlon involvement that could play into the above symptoms.


Who Are You?

As it relates to the issue of relying too heaving on your triathlon involvement for your self image, let me throw out a few things to consider. Part of the solution here is realizing that ‘you’ are not the equivalent and sum-total of your involvement in the sport of triathlon. Nor are you the equivalent of what your body looks like or how fast you can train it to swim, bike, and run.


Instead, there is a ‘you’ and the sport of triathlon is simply a part of that ‘you.’ Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs and views may be, I would encourage you to see that your worth and significance as a human being would be the same whether you placed first in the Hawaii Ironman or never did another triathlon for the rest of your life.

For example, you are motivated and compelled in all sorts of ways to express love and compassion along the everyday paths of life. You respond to people in need, appreciate art and beauty, and give of yourself as a spouse, parent, or friend. You likely serve some cause or endeavor that is greater than just self-interest. All of these things are expressions of what makes you, ‘you.’


4 Things You Can Do To Become More Balanced

#1 – Re-define success.

Triathlon is a “multisport” endeavor – swimming, biking, and running, and yet it is only one aspect of life. So re-define your goal to be a successful multihuman. In other words, anyone can pick one aspect of life and push themselves to succeed to the exclusion of everything else. Fewer people are successful as multihumans, living a well-balanced, whole, healthy, and centered life. As a multihuman, giving time and energy to your significant relationships is a victory. Nurturing your spiritual nature whatever that means for you, and fulfilling other interests, desires and dreams are part of your year-round mentality for life. Deriving a sense of joy and accomplishment from serving or helping others is as fulfilling as a productive training session. Allowing yourself to be a multihuman, including giving yourself grace when you feel like you fall short, is crossing the finish line.

#2 – Confide in a friend.

Maybe you are obsessed, and feel like you can’t stop. Perhaps triathlon is consuming and controlling your life in an unhealthy way. A good first step is to simply share this with a trusted friend. Like any addiction, admitting the problem to yourself and getting it out in the open with a trusted friend is a huge first step on the road of getting things back on a healthier track.

#3 – Realize you are not alone.

If I had a quarter for every triathlete who became obsessed and developed an unhealthy or destructive mentality to the sport, I’d be a very wealthy man. It happens, you’re not the only one, and so don’t invest a lot of mental and emotional energy berating yourself about it. No one said being a “multihuman” is easy. For you, perhaps your one-dimensional obsession is triathlon. For others, it could be one of an endless number of other things.

#4 – Appreciate and enjoy the intangibles of triathlon.

As triathletes, we can become so caught up in daily training logs, heart monitors, and split times, that we miss the beauty of the lake as we bike over it, fail to enjoy the autumn colors during our run, or fail to appreciate the people and places we encounter and experience through our involvement in the sport of triathlon. Maybe that old adage is true, “It’s not the destination but the journey.” The joy and fulfillment of triathlon is not simply the feeling you have when you cross the finish line, but the endless number of other gratifying aspects of everything that led to you getting there.