Might you be an obsessive athlete?
It’s the first Saturday in September, on a mercifully cool Texas summer morning. I’m sitting under a gnarled old pecan tree, plump with nuts, watching a remarkable event unfold before my eyes.
A man I know through swimming is celebrating his 10,000th swim in a row with a 10,000 meter swim. No, I didn’t mistakenly add an extra zero or two.
Also, he’s 68-years old. I hope I’m half as fit as he is when I’m 68.
Supportively sitting by the side of the pool, his wife smiles while counting and logging lap times. She holds up fingers every 1000 meters while walking the length of the pool, letting him know how far he’s swum.
The strokes and flip turns of countless fellow swimmers and friends create a rhythmic, comforting churn of the water. From my vantage, I see at least six friends taking photos and video with their phones. News reporters arrive one after another to cover the story.
The swimmer even set up a fundraiser for a favorite cause to celebrate his astonishing and audacious milestone.
Swimming 10,000 days without a break? It’s a remarkable accomplishment by any objective measure.
Who am I to judge and label such a grand achievement? It’s perfectly well suited to him.
I’ve talked with several friends about his triumph. Most have the same reaction: “WHAT????!” followed by questions. “How is that possible? Is he crazy? What did he have to give up to make that happen? Didn’t he get sick? Or injured? What about vacations?”
10,000 days equals 27.5 years with not one day off.
My friend Kyle had the best response. “I’m 29 and I don’t think I have eaten every day.”
My own questions center on the choices and goals we create, how we live our lives, and what’s important to us.
When do our goals morph into obsessions? When do we qualify as an obsessive athlete? Let’s admit most athletes have an obsessive streak, especially injured athletes, who run around in tight circles like high strung border collies, anxious to return to their sport.
Obsessions and obsessive goals. I see it all the time with clients. One set his sights on a fabricated and misguided obsessive end goal–getting off crutches as soon as possible after surgery. Another client decided she was well enough to start training for a mountain climb she had set her sights on immediately post-injury–to hell with considering what her body could handle. Predictably, the quest to achieve these goals led to agonizing setbacks that only lengthened their recovery time.
If you allow them, your goals take on a life of their own, insidiously mutating into burdens and obsessions.
Perhaps you’re telling yourself you must take more steps today than you did yesterday or lift more weight this week than you did last week. If you don’t ride the exercise bike at physical therapy 30 seconds longer each day, you’ve failed. We all have our own recovery goals. When chosen right, such goals help us stay focused and allow us to measure, and feel good about, our accomplishments.
A goal becomes obsessive and burdensome when you start making choices (read: bad decisions) you wouldn’t make were there not a streak to maintain. I’m going to use swimming 10,000 days in a row as an allegory; you need to pick your own obsessive goal, ask analogous questions, and come up with your own answers.
What about getting sick? You’ve got the flu and you feel like a pile of steaming horse poo. You’re probably contagious and you swam yesterday, but you’ve got 9842 days behind you and you know you can hit 10,000 by the end of the year, so you go to the pool anyway. You’ve created a burden on your psyche and a risk to yourself and others.
The streak supersedes taking care of yourself.
This swimmer was in the water swimming laps the day after arthroscopic knee surgery. His doctor told him he would be out of the water for a number of days as the wounds closed. His response: You don’t understand. Find a way to wrap up my knee and make it work.
So, the day after surgery and anesthesia, he was at the pool with his knee wrapped up in a waterproof bandage.
Again, the streak superseded self-care.
If he hadn’t had so many days of consecutive swimming behind him, would he have swum that day? Was he thousands of days in at this point and couldn’t bear the thought of a surgery throwing off his streak, so he hauled himself over to the pool and he swam anyway?
What if it was a shoulder injury? Would he have sidestroked for months?
I don’t know how he would answer these, and doesn’t really matter. We each need to have our own answers.
For most people, there are going to be days where it doesn’t make sense to feed your obsessions, and, if you continue to do so, the burden anvil will continue to bear down.
The nefarious nature of a streak is that it’s consecutive days. There’s no opportunity for relief. In the swimming example, he couldn’t be away from a pool for more than 48 hours. What if he wanted to go to the West Texas desert, or backpack in the Rockies, but there’s this thing looming–the streak? It has gone on for so long and has a life of its own now. He can’t let go of it. So then he can’t go to the desert unless he finds a Holiday Inn with a pool, all the while praying it doesn’t close because of a chlorine imbalance.
He has to keep swimming every day without fail or it’s over. That’s a huge decision that has essentially become a decades-long burden.
Maybe for some people a streak is psychologically helpful, but for most it’s a psychological burden. You don’t want to be responsible for your own psychological burden. You probably have a lot of life burdens that resemble goat rodeos already. Don’t create another one out of whole cloth.
Having an obsessive goal (aka being an obsessive athlete) requires you to make extreme and often questionable choices. When you’re injured, such poor choices result in a cycle of re-injury, setbacks, and more obsession. See what’s happening? The obsessions lead to more obsessions.
Then, our obsessive goals become things unto themselves, beings almost. They become bigger and more important than the actual goal…recovery.
Are you feeding a being that’s getting bloated and more demanding? I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have big goals and make sacrifices to achieve them. That works sometimes, but it doesn’t necessarily work for all people at all times and places, particularly if you examine things you have to miss out on and make questionable decisions to keep it going.
Check in with yourself. Question the sanity of your injury recovery decisions and examine your goals. Are they obsessions? Are they burdens? Have you become an obsessive athlete?
I’ve tried to imagine how the swimmer would answer these questions. He has all the education and professional background for self-reflection. He is, after all, a psychologist.