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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

The Second Arrow

There's a Buddhist discourse called the Sallatha Sutta, also known as "The Arrow." It likens an external event that causes us pain to the world shooting an arrow through us.

In a cross country context, envision falling in the middle of the race, getting spiked, or losing a shoe. Perhaps stomach distress, or the expected discomfort of fully exerting your body over a long distance creeps in. These are all examples of the arrow.

It's natural to feel this pain, and acknowledge it. But oftentimes, we go a step further. Our emotions take over, and we ruminate, embellish, dramatize, and let the pain command our focus. This is the second arrow. While the world may have shot the first one, we have shot the second.

A passage from "The Arrow" reads:

"Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental."

In my experience, athletes face plenty of first arrows in a race. But subpar performances are more often caused when the athlete shoots a second arrow.

Of course, refraining from shooting a second arrow is easier said than done. But as coaches, I think we can help by focusing on what was within an athlete's control as opposed to solely paying attention to the end result. If we only reward PR's and "perfect" races, an athlete is more likely to panic at the first sign of adversity (and thus, shoot the second arrow).

Conversely, I think we also have to avoid assuming something was wrong with the athlete's performance if they don't set a PR, win, etc. An athlete's best races usually include elements of good fortune (weather, pacing, and the like) that contribute to the result. Again, I think we have to be better about evaluating what was within the athlete's control, rather than simply looking at what the scoreboard says.

When we coach our athletes to expect first arrows, we place an emphasis on having the best response to those arrows rather than trying to avoid them altogether.

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