Pain and “The Second Arrow” in Triathlon

Splitting a Wooden Arrow

I like to use metaphors with athletes to illustrate concepts in mental skills training that are somewhat hard to wrap their heads around. Mindfulness and observing pain but not reacting to it (in sport and life) is one of those concepts. The other day I was listening to a podcast talk by Tara Brach titled “The Dance with Pain.” She reminded me of the metaphor of “the second arrow” that illustrates the concept of mindfully dealing with pain.

“Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”

Let’s take a look at some examples of “the second arrow” in triathlon life…

  • During Ironman taper week you notice your body feels tired, lethargic, niggles everywhere, and off (first arrow). The second arrow comes your mind starts to “predict” aka worry that this is how you will feel on race day, this leads to questioning your training or capabilities. You may start to blame yourself for all the missed or modified workouts or blame your coach (second arrow stuff).
  • During a race you get a flat on the bike (first arrow) when cruising along at your perfect pace and wattage. The second arrow comes when you start to fear having to make up time, worry about how many people are passing you, and how you “should” have checked your tires again the night before after having checked them a zillion times.
  • You finish a hard fought race and see the result and feel disappointed (first arrow). For the next few days you question whether you want to continue to stay in your sport, or if you’re “good enough” to keep racing (second arrow).
  • You miss a workout because you had a super busy day juggling life, work and family (first arrow). You sit down to eat dinner and tell yourself “I haven’t earned my dessert tonight because I missed my workout. I should watch my carbs too.”(Second arrow)
  • A common first arrow example that I witnessed in Kona was athlete’s worrying about the wind on race day. First arrow is likelihood of high winds on race day. Second arrow patterns I witnessed was athlete’s worrying excessively about the wind, talking about those worries, letting those worries question your ability to handle the conditions on race day.
  • You exit the water, look at the race clock or your Garmin, and notice that it is well over your goal time (first arrow because it’s after the fact). Second arrow hits when you start to ruminate and worry about it on the bike and then have thoughts of having to make up time. Which could make you push harder on the bike over your planned pace or wattage. This could lead to a domino effect of fearful reactions where you are racing scared versus confident.
  • You get injured and the doc told you to take four weeks off of training (first arrow, even though the first arrow could have been due to several second arrow reactions). The second arrow comes when you get discouraged, self talk become self defeating and hopeless, self blame or blame of others hits, you feel helpless questioning your purpose and worth OR you don’t take the time off for fear that you won’t be prepared for your next race and continue to train injured.

buddhaWhile these examples seem obvious when initially reading them, many times in life we don’t realize that we are launching the second arrow until we feel really crappy and down about it. There is a well-known quote that says, “pain in life is given but suffering is an option.” In other words, as if the initial pain in life wasn’t bad enough we add the second arrow of judgment, guilt, criticism, self-loathing, comparison, jealousy, self-doubt, self-sabotage etc. on top of it and suffer sometimes far longer after the initial wound happened.

Mindfulness practices help us to recognize the difference between the two arrows in life and sport. When you get very practiced at being a mindful athlete you begin to develop the awareness and self-control to recognize the exact moment that could pull your second arrow into action. True empowerment!

Need some help identifying and working with second arrow reactions? Check out this great Huffington Post article “Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow!”

So athletes, I encourage you to take some time before your next race to reflect on your second arrow patterns, where you tend to add salt to the wound? Can you be upset (angry, sad, disappointed etc.) at the first arrow without being harsh, judgmental, and hard on yourself (second arrow)? Can you be accepting and responsive of the first arrow and then let it go and be done with it? Can you accept that your race (and the time leading up to it) will have some pain and may not go perfect but that doesn’t mean it can’t go well.

Keep shining beautiful people,

Dr. G



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Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli

Dr. Petruzzelli is a clinical sport psychologist, triathlete, and certified mindfulness meditation teacher located in Sacramento, California. She works with elite athletes and sports teams across the country. She is a competitive athlete and enjoys practicing yoga, spending time with her family, and traveling.