Lieutenant Commander Spock is one of the most iconic nonhuman (well, technically half-human) characters in television history. When I watched Star Trek as a child, my understanding was that Spock’s lack of emotion made him really smart. I’m not sure if this was Gene Roddenberry’s actual intent in creating the character, but regardless, my impressionable young mind’s exposure to him left me with the idea that emotion is the enemy of reason.
As an adult, I learned that the truth—at least for humans—is more complex. It was the work of neuroscientist and author Antonio Damasio in particular that cured me of the fallacy I’d absorbed from Spock. The reality is that a brilliant mathematician would be incapable of solving complex problems if he didn’t feel unsettled while the problem remained unsolved and didn’t experience a burst of euphoria (“Eureka!”) when at last he solved it. People who lose their capacity to emote as the result of brain damage also lose the ability to think logically, because it turns out human beings can’t think logically if they can’t feel sadness, joy, and all the rest.
Be that as it may, in everyday life emotion gets in the way of rational decision-making all the time. I see this particularly with athletes. Consider, for example, a runner in his 40s who refuses to do a certain kind of workout because he can’t hit the times he used to hit when he did it in his 30s. Doing the workout anyway would help him run to the best of his current ability nevertheless, and on some level he knows this, yet still he refuses to do it.
As an athlete myself, I try to be vigilant in my efforts to avoid making similar mistakes, but I don’t always succeed. Here’s a recent example: I was in Rhode Island, visiting my parents, and I had an 18-mile run on my schedule. My brother Josh was also in town and planned to run 10 miles on the same day. So I decided to start ahead of him and run eight miles alone, then finish up with him. At the time I was recovering from a groin injury that was more sensitive to pace than to distance, and during the first part of the run I got a little frisky, running a 7:17 mile that aggravated the injury.
I should have bailed out right there, but I don’t get many opportunities to run with my brother, so I forged ahead, rationalizing my emotional decision by telling myself that it wouldn’t be a problem because Josh runs a lot slower than I do. Trouble was, Josh had gotten a lot fitter since the last time I ran with him, and he was joining me with fresh legs and some excitement of his own about running with me. And so, those last 10 miles were only slightly slower than the first eight and my groin became more and more painful as we went. Six weeks later, I’m still recovering from this boneheaded misstep.
One group of athletes that does a really good job of putting reason ahead of emotion in the decision-making process is the professionals. If you haven’t spent a lot of time around elite endurance athletes, you might assume that the biggest difference between them and the rest of us, psychologically, is that they are more driven, perhaps also tougher. But I have spent a great deal of time with the pros, and based on this experience I believe that the biggest difference is that the pros have better judgment. You might say they are better able to channel their inner Spock.
Just the other day I saw an Instagram post from Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario that speaks to this point. The post shared a bit of the backstory behind NAZ Elite runner Stephanie Bruce’s decision to run the California International Marathon (which doubled as the 2018 U.S. Marathon Championship) just four weeks after racing the New York City Marathon, a gamble that paid off in the form of a second-place finish and a new PR of 2:29:21. Recalling the moment Steph proposed this gamble, Ben wrote, “My initial reaction was that she was thinking emotionally, rather than rationally. She assured me that was not the case, however, and laid out her reasoning in a very calm manner.”
Ben didn’t get into the details of the case Steph made, but I can make some educated guesses. She probably noted that, since the 2018 season was essentially over either way, it didn’t much matter if she thrashed herself a bit in Sacramento, as she had the whole winter to regenerate and build a fresh base. She may also have noted that it didn’t much matter either if she raced poorly in Sacramento, as she’d had a great season and wouldn’t weaken her professional stock by laying an egg in a situation where she would have every excuse for so doing.
After the decision to go forward was made, coach and athlete continued to make smart, rational decisions. “We took a week totally off after NYC,” Ben wrote, “followed by a week of very easy running. Then we did 4 workouts in the 2 weeks leading up to CIM.” In other words, the Ben and Steph did not compound their gamble by taking an aggressive approach to training.
Avoiding irrational, emotion-based decisions as an athlete is easier if, like Stephanie Bruce, you have a coach. If you’re self-coached, making good decisions will require that cultivate your inner Spock—an internal voice of reason that plays the same role that a coach would play on your behalf if you did have one. This works best if, when you step into this role, you regard the athlete-you as a different person, someone whose best interests you have at heart but who has more at stake than you do. When I perform this exercise, I sometimes pretend the athlete-me is a character in a book I’m reading, a protagonist I’m rooting for but with a degree of detachment.
Have you ever been in a bad relationship that everyone close to you knew was bad and yet it took you forever to see the truth for yourself? This happens to almost everyone, because it’s harder to see things as they are and to think and behave rationally with respect to your own life than with respect to other people’s. That’s why cultivating an internal Spock is an effective way to make decisions as an athlete.
It’s a long process, though. Achieving the same level of judgment the pros have will require that you train yourself to take a mental step back from your situation each and every time an impactful decision is to be made, such as “Do I rest this sore foot or go ahead with today’s scheduled run?” or “Do I race that half marathon three weeks before my marathon or bunker down and train instead?” You’ll have to do this again and again and again before it becomes instinctual and you consistently make decisions that subjugate emotion to reason. But you won’t regret the effort.