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  • Jill Helmer

Climbing Out of the Trough

I spend two hours each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon volunteering in a girls running program at an elementary school in my area. We are halfway through our season. As my northeast friends know, this has been a rough “spring” and we haven’t been able to buy a nice day to run. This means that we are running the hallways or circling the small gym of a worn elementary school as our training. While it is hard to keep the girls motivated through these dreary days, it is even harder to get them to show up. We are struggling with attendance for the first time since I began coaching. Where we held girls accountable in previous seasons to miss less than three practices, this season missing three practices is almost a high water mark for participation. All of it has me, the coach and the leader, in a “trough.”


What I know about “troughs” is what I learned earlier this year by reading the book “When” by Daniel Pink. Pink talks about the troughs of our daily rhythm, our sporting seasons, our financial quarters in business, and our lives. His contention is that every one of these cycles has a beginning, a middle and an end, and our engagement in them depends on where we are at in the cycle. We start out days, seasons, financial quarters and chapters of our lives with great enthusiasm. There is nothing we can’t do or accomplish in the time period in front of us. But as we reach the middle point of any of these rhythms, we often sink into a trough. For the majority of us, our circadian rhythm dictates that the trough of our day occurs at 2:54 in the afternoon...our lowest energy point of the day. And as you have heard about forever, many of us sink into the trough of our lives in our mid to late 40s. So it makes sense that precisely halfway through this season in a winter that will never end, we are down. The question is...are we out?


I was down and contemplating out as of Tuesday evening. Contemplating whether the investment that I am making is worth it. Contemplating whether I am the right person for this group of girls. I was down because that is by definition what a trough is...a long, low place on the ground. If you look at a line chart, it is the dip in the middle that often hangs for a bit and levels out before it goes up. So the real question is...with my new found knowledge of the normalcy of troughs...how do I respond in this long, low place that will carry on before the curve begins to rise?


The book gives some solid advice about the necessity of breaking the cycle. It suggests do-overs, restarts, and the sheer acknowledgment that we are not where we want to be. My two co-coaches and I are trying all of that at the moment. But the thing that the book doesn’t cover is the fact that it is up to ME, as the leader, to get myself out of the trough. I can blame our descent into the trough on a dozen items, and they are legitimate. I am sometimes tempted to hang out there..to stay in the trough and share with others how I got here and why my current location is not all of my doing. Can you relate? Sure you can...you can tell me why your boss passed you over for the last promotion; why your team members keep turning over; why you have to work the crazy hours that you do; why your sales team didn't make its numbers last quarter; why you don’t switch jobs; why, why, why. There will be much of what you say that is more than truthful, but it is important to acknowledge the other truth...only YOU can find your way out. Only YOU can make the decision that this is the time to begin the crawl out of the trough. Isn't that the "kicker" of it all? A series of circumstances can lead us to our rut, our low point, our trough, but if we sit around and wait for luck to change our circumstances and help us dig our way out, we will find ourselves rolling in the mud instead.


I looked at the 12 faces assembled in that school gym last week and I thought...8 girls missing from practice...maybe it is too late for this season. If it isn’t catching fire by this point, it isn’t going to happen. In essence, I was telling myself to get comfortable in the trough and ride out the season. But that isn’t me. I don’t want to “mail it in” for the rest of the season. That’s not why I signed up to do this, and that is not what these girls deserve. Guess what? That isn’t you either. You don’t want to “mail it in” and you don’t want to stay in the trough. I don’t want to live the rest of the season like it’s 2:54 pm, and I can’t keep my eyes open. You don’t want to spend the rest of this quarter, this performance year or your career this way either. So what do you do?


I had a major pep talk with myself prior to our last session and I walked into the gym with a better attitude. I told the girls that we were going to do better today and no matter what happened in our time together, we were going to end on a high note. Starting this week we are implementing a half season perfect attendance award as a motivator. Because once you decide that it is time to start the climb, it takes motivation to get people to follow you out of the trough. I should also mention that I bribed them with rice krispies treats because sugar coated motivation goes hand in hand with a girls running program. Or maybe it doesn’t? You know what they say about desperate times...


I'm looking forward to seeing how successful we are with our re-start and our attendance motivators. What I need to focus on now is my role in helping to lead us out. I am the leader. It is my job to set the tone and start the climb with a positive attitude and lots of rice krispies treats in my backpack. How about you? Are you ready to start the climb? How are you going to motivate others to follow you? Do you have your rice krispies treats packed? I wish you luck on your journey!

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