My First Triathlon: What Playing on Your Weaknesses Can Teach You

Margarita Mayo Triathlon

Physical activity has simply never been my strength.  Developing a career in the academic world, had me studying, speaking and writing – these were my strengths and I capitalized on them.  To me, the white page of a new word-document is the perfect springboard to express my inner feelings and organize my thoughts, and I still feel most comfortable amongst ideas rather than the physical. It should come as no surprise that my preferred work environment is a coffee shop, with my laptop.

So, when I found myself at 7:30 a.m. in the Casa de Campo (the Central Park of Madrid), I wondered how I managed to get so far out of my comfort zone.  Being at the park at such an early was no coincidence, however.  After become a sports person at the age of 40, I’ve been trying my hand at various physical activities.  Most recently, I’ve been training for my first triathlon, and race day had finally arrived.

Because it is nice to see how the more experienced triathletes get through the race, I arrived early. Being most nervous about the swim, I explored the lake where I would submerge myself in the afternoon. Yet, the vicarious learning did not work as I had thought it would, because the lake is foggy in the early hours and thus it is difficult to see the swimmers from far away. My fears about the water rose.

Luckily, the sun soon began to shine and I had also brought my computer to make the wait less stressful. So, I decided to look on the positive side: There is the excitement of doing something new, the satisfaction of learning new skills, the personal challenge of overcoming new barriers, and the enthusiasm of sharing this enjoyment with significant others.

Ok, I am a finisher. After writing the above, I went to the boxes and met with other people from the triathlon team. They have done well in the Olympic distance and were more than able to cheer me up and to the starting line and then onward.

As I look back on the race, here are the four lessons I learned from my first triathlon:

  1. Overconfidence kills advice. Of all three disciplines, swimming was (and still is) my weakest. I have only been swimming for a few months now and, although I practice regularly and have a great coach, my swimming ability was not up to the triathlon challenge. Because of this, my coach suggested that I wait until the other racers had jumped and then follow my own tempo. However, I jumped with everyone and swam a bit. It wasn’t so bad! This very early and small win made me overconfident, however, not to mention the contagious energy of my fellow competitors and the music being played for us (Pirates of Caribbean) and I forgot all the wise words of my coach. I learned my lesson the hard way: I am no expert swimmer. You have to spend about many hours of practice to become an expert on anything, which I am still quite short on.
  2. Have a Plan B (and C) because you will need it. When doing something for the first time, it’s important to have a plan B. A new sport or a new job means dealing with uncertainty. No matter how much you prepare, there will be things that are outside of your control. During my swimming lessons, I prepared for all kinds of possible adversities, and they actually happened! I got overly anxious and could not breath. So, I went back to my old routine; I swam breaststroke until I relaxed. When others swam over me or hit me unintentionally, I moved to the right  and let swim on by. My coach and I had planned for these occurrences, and when they popped up, I knew what to do.

  1. You will recovery from failure. When the swim was over, I had a big feeling of failure. This is something, of course, that is very likely to happen when you play on your weaknesses – and it requires mental toughness to recover from adversity and move forward. After the swim, when I was getting the bike, I was so tired that I said aloud to myself “this is the first triathlon and the last one.” One of the organizers overheard me and began to laugh. She´s heard it many times but we always come back. The bike route is one that I’ve been riding every Sunday morning. It felt so easy compared with the frustrating lake experience and it soon helped me recover from the swim and enjoy myself.
  2. Uncertainty Can Strengthen Empathy.   Overall, I enjoyed the competition, but the most rewarding part occurred over the previous months in training. In starting from zero, I have learned to appreciate the challenges and barriers that newcomers experience in any area of life and work. We can feel very confident when playing in our own playgrounds, where we can rely on our strengths and know the rules. When playing on our weaknesses – like getting into a new sport, or friends group, moving to a new country or starting a new job — takes us into uncertain territory.  And yet people do it all the time! Getting outside of your comfort zone, getting away from your strengths, injects a dose of humility through asking questions to others, seeking feedback, listening and putting trust in others – helps us be empathetic towards all beginners.

In sum, I will now acknowledge in my executive coaching and MBA classes that playing on weakness can sometimes (not always) teach valuable lessons of personal and professional development. Thanks to my new team for providing me with the opportunity to learn from them and explore an uncharted territory.

Margarita Mayo ( is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IE Business School in Madrid and a Visiting Professor at ESMT – the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin.

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