I once lived briefly in Brussels, and trained and raced with a French-speaking running club. I loved learning a different running culture, one that included odd-distance races over wildly-varied terrain, an emphasis on team scoring over individual success, and post-race parties with local vendors selling food and drink from festive tents. One of the things I appreciated and have carried with me since was what my teammates would wish me before a race. “Bon courage,” they’d say, before we’d double-knot our shoes and toe the line.
While a French-English dictionary will translate the phrase to the equivalent “good luck” that we’d wish someone in the same situation, the emphasis of the French wish is different. “Bon courage indicates that the person’s success depends on their own hard work and that you have every confidence that they’ll make it,” explains French instructor Laura Lawless.
The difference between “good luck” and “bon courage” is echoed in how Angela Duckworth understands hope in her book, Grit.
“One kind of hope is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today,” Duckworth writes. “It’s the kind of hope that has us yearning for sunnier weather, or a smoother path ahead. It comes without the burden of responsibility. The onus is on the universe to make things better.” This is the type of hope that says, “good luck,” that wishes for no difficulties or obstacles to mar your race.
Duckworth then describes the type of hope that leads to persistence, what she calls grit: “Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different than I resolve to make tomorrow better.”
When French teammates wished me “bon courage,” I felt empowered to make it a good race rather than just wishing everything fell together right. They were encouraging me to be brave, to overcome the inevitable obstacles and to succeed. Armed with this mindset, when the race inevitably got tough my response was prepped to be strong in the face of it, rather than decide it wasn’t a lucky day.
Hope, Courage and Optimism
Beyond the difficulties of a single race or a single day, hope that inspires courage is important for weathering the large obstacles of life. Hope keeps us from falling into despair despite injury, illness, aging—or a pandemic. By presenting the world as malleable, something that can be acted upon and changed, hope gives us a reason to train toward a distant and better future, and it allows us to believe we can come back when life pushes us down. Hope is a bedrock characteristic of the successful athlete at any age. Successful athletes are optimists.
“Hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often,” Martin Seligman wrote in Learned Optimism. Optimists, in contrast, overcome setbacks, achieve more in every realm, age better, and live longer.
Optimism can imply a foolish denial of reality. Assuming that all racing will come back in a few months because that’s how you’d like it to be would be an example. But optimism needn’t be naïve.
As the title of Seligman’s book implies, he views optimism as a tool rather than a personal trait. It is something you can learn and apply at will. Just as you might with any tool, you can use Pollyannaish optimism in certain circumstances and healthy, skeptical pessimism in others.
Arguing with Beliefs
Learning optimism requires first recognizing the beliefs you hold on to when you encounter adversity and, when necessary, arguing with those beliefs. When you encounter adversity, your beliefs determine the consequences of that adversity. Pessimists tend to apply beliefs that are permanent, pervasive and personal, for example, “The whole world is falling apart, nothing will ever be the same again, and it is my fault.” This view goes immediately to the most dire outcome: Everything is permanently and completely buggered. Optimists, however, believe that most things are temporary and external. The optimistic argument “de-catastrophizes” the situation by considering things like, “So what, is that result so bad? Is everything broken, or only specific parts? Are there alternative outcomes that could be positive?”
Learned optimism can be applied daily. When a run is harder than expected, we can pessimistically decide that we’re getting ill, we’re overtrained (and our season is shot), or, more permanently, we’re too old to run that fast anymore. Or we can look for reasons that it was a temporary anomaly: It was hotter than it has been of late, we ate too soon before running, we hadn’t recovered adequately from Tuesday’s speed session, we didn’t sleep well, etc.
Hopeful optimism can also be applied for longterm adversity. This can look like refusing to accept a permanent diagnosis for an injury (Roger Robinson training with two artificial knees comes to mind), believing you can get better even as you get slower with age, or outlasting a pandemic.
On that latter, the pessimistic view can easily decide that racing is never coming back in the same way, that it isn’t worth training without the chance to use it, and that life is too hard to worry about running now. (I’ve felt all of those in the past week, particularly as spring turns into summer.) Or we can believe that we will work out some sort of creative racing format that we will adapt to and appreciate, that we can embrace alternative ways of challenging ourselves in the meantime, and that the difficulties in motivation and logistics of running now—from losing training groups to wearing masks—are an opportunity to grow.
There are things in the world that are out of our control. That’s been made more clear than ever. Wishing for good luck is a valid hope. But waiting for good luck can be an excuse to not deal with what is thrown at us. Blaming the universe is easy. It takes courage to take responsibility for our actions and our success.
I think we need to be regularly wishing each other bon courage these days. We’re in the middle miles and we haven’t had good luck, but we’re strong enough to endure this, and not only survive but grow and succeed.