“I just didn’t have it today, coach.”
Whenever we had a bad running race on my cross country team, we would have an individual conference with our coach. Usually, this was where we had a litany of excuses — we were overwhelmed with our academics, we didn’t eat enough, there was a stomach bug, and as you can imagine in any interaction between athlete and authority figure, my coach probably heard every excuse in the book.
However, one of my friends told him he just didn’t have it. He didn’t make an excuse. He just said it was a bad day and left it at that. The implication was the next race would be better, but I took something away from that moment:
We’re all human beings and have off days. They are not meant to be obsessive over and over analyzed. I tell this to myself because I internalized bad race performances or poor performance in another domain of my work as a larger reflection of my worth as a human being.
Sometimes, we just don’t have it. And not having it on a given day is not a reflection of our value as people, but rather, more often than not, isolated incidents rather than trends. One example was a couple weeks ago — I am currently in the process of studying for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and a large part of studying for that kind of standardized test is practice tests. My progress on my practice tests has looked almost linearly upwards — until one day.
My best score up to that point was 157, which was below where I wanted to be to get into the evening law school I wanted to get into. However, one day, I completely bombed a practice LSAT. I scored a 150, which was very off where I wanted to be. My brain legitimately wasn’t working that day like it usually does, and questions I would normally have answered with ease started to seem like the most difficult questions in the world.
A younger version of myself would have done one thing: panic. Agonize over everything I did wrong and obsess to the point where I made lifestyle changes so I would never have an off day like that again. I overanalyzed how much I slept — I got eight hours of sleep and it wasn’t perfect, but when is a night of sleep ever perfect? How could I get better sleep? Did I eat a bad breakfast?
And then I brought myself back to my friend’s interaction with my coach. I thought about the times after bad races where I would analyze every single thing that went wrong and torture myself about it.
I realized one essential truth: agonizing was not going to help. Going down the laundry list of excuses and everything that was “wrong with me” on that practice test was not going to help.
I took the rest of the day to attend to other life business, write, spend time with my friends and my girlfriend, and think about anything other than the LSAT. I would hit the ground running studying another day, but that day was not going to be the day. Being a man possessed by ungovernable rage after a personal failure would have been the move of a younger version of myself, but now I realize rest takes precedence above all else.
I stopped looking for a deeper meaning behind the one bad performance. I did the best thing I could do — tell myself I didn’t have it that day, move on, and look forward. I did give into temptation and look at a couple of Reddit threads of people who had similar off days, and posters gave similar advice to my intuition — move on and don’t overthink it.
Two weeks later, I got the best practice test score I’ve gotten so far — a 161. This is in the 80th percentile of the exam and in the range of the school I want to get into — I am trying to improve with some time left before my exam. I did not overthink my off day, but instead just kept going and sticking to the plan.
Above all, I was just glad I didn’t overthink the off day where I just didn’t have it. We all have off days, and according to Dr. Michelle Cleere, a sports performance coach urges us to see an off day as just an off day. We have to not see an off day where we just didn’t have it as a broader reflection on something being wrong with us. Being a human being means not everything is going to go according to plan or go exactly as we want it to all the time.
Of course, if we have a larger string of off days, off weeks, or really long periods of time where we feel like we can barely function, that is a sign of a larger problem where we should seek out help.
Off days can seem like the end of the world at the time, and they happen to me as a runner, writer, student, and more. As a runner, I still have workouts I bomb and don’t do well. But usually, not having it is a sign we need to attend to our needs and rest, not to dig in deeper and work harder. That’s a lesson I wish I learned earlier in my life.
Originally published on May 12, 2021 on Age of Awareness.