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Make the Past a Lens Not a Mirror

By Mark Turner | Feb. 16, 2016, 1:30 p.m. (ET)

runningI have never met anyone who doesn't have at least some regrets about their past: things they wish they had done and things they wish they had not done. Life comes with attendant regrets. Life also comes with many successes — victories large and small. The perception (both internal and external) of failure and achievement can often be equally illusory. With that in mind, I want to encourage you to use your past both in terms of failures and achievements as a lens for the future rather than a mirror. You are only the sum total of all that has come before for now, not necessarily forever. This is true for the whole of your life and perhaps especially true for the athlete training in pursuit of a particular goal.

Triathletes often set very challenging goals. The reality is that some level of disappointment often comes with such aggressive goal setting. That being said, my intent is not to convince you to set more “realistic” goals. What is realistic about a dream? So go ahead and dream big! Reach beyond your perceived boundaries and limits! But do not destroy the dreamer in you at the end of the season when not everything you set out to accomplish has been achieved. Don't focus on every little failure or workout left undone last year. In other words, don't stare into the mirror of last season and let that define this season. Instead lay hold of the past and bring it forward in a healthy way, using it as a lens through which to view and plan for the future and what is to come and what you will accomplish.

Choosing this mindset will yield more positive results than simply dwelling on your failures or setbacks or for that matter on the successes. Own your mistakes and seek to incorporate changes to avoid errors and similar failures in the future. Celebrate your successes, but do not expect past success to ensure future achievements. Instead, understand that your past makes a great lens for future achievement but a terrible mirror, because it can only reflect the past and never create the future. Sure, on the positive side and in the short term, the past as a mirror can aid in helping you frankly assess your past achievements or failures as well as aid in helping you honestly confront the causes of failure and reaffirm your ability to excel. But gazing too long into that mirror is not the key to future success and achievement and in fact is most likely to lead to disappointment. The mirror can lead you to over-emphasize setbacks as your defining characteristic. Both an over emphasis on past achievements and failures can be misleading. Your past cannot assure your future in either direction: for good or bad. On the other hand, your past achievements and setbacks as a lens can lead you to new heights of success.

So what can you do to better lens your past instead of using it as a mirror? First, let's start with changing our vocabulary a bit. Let's set aside achievement versus failure and set achievement as more of a long-term goal. Instead work to think in terms of successes and setbacks. This re-frames how we will approach reviewing the past as a means to mine for future successes and avoid the avoidable setbacks. Which brings up a great point: sometimes setbacks cannot be avoided. Unfortunately many people, athletes included, dwell the most on these!

Too often athletes let setbacks from the past tell them what the future will bring. They don't ask: Was the setback caused by something beyond my control? That makes it impossible to move forward leaving the setback where it belongs: in the past. When setbacks are a result of something we could have avoided or done differently, the athlete needs to focus on the things they will do differently now and in the future to avoid a similar setback.

Remember, only what you do in the now has potential to lead to real gains in the future. So take those past achievements and perceived failures and fasten them before you like a great lens through which you will envision and distill a preferred future, and follow that dream. Do not look into the mirror of your past and suppose that it will carry you in either direction: success or failure. The past only has the power over your future that you give it. So focus on the now and yet to be, lens the past don't mirror it, and focus your best efforts on conquering all that is laid before you in the days ahead.

Coach Mark Turner is a team member and coach with Multisport Performance Institute. He can be reached at Learn more about Coach Turner at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.