This month’s performances were particularly challenging, and each of those athletes needed to not only call upon their training and fitness to compete, but they had to call on their mental toughness to finish their races. In fact, I was talking about the mental side of training with one client earlier in the month who was concerned about faltering in a race he’s competed in several times, but without achieving his goal of going sub 5:00 for the 70.3 distance triathlon.
Sometimes even though we are at the peak of our fitness, the mind can be a bigger part of why we struggle than the body. We start to think negatively, we doubt our training, and irrational thoughts do creep in. Especially when the workout or race is going poorly.
However, there are three ways we sharpen our mental game and be more prepared to combat those negative thoughts when they surface, achieving a solid performance even when the cards are stacked against us :
1) Rehearse a simple, positive mantra. Find a saying you can use as a positive affirmation when things get dicey. I’ve used ones such as “race your own race”, “ focused, calm, relaxed, strong“, and “you’re strong, your focus, your experienced.” Think of something positive that resonates with you. Rehearse this as you do your workouts - and then often during the race, especially when this get tough. While the race will still be hard, the story you tell yourself matters. Ever heard of the placebo effect? What you believe matters!
2) Be in the present and focus on the process. Sometimes, we focus so much on the end result (qualifying for worlds, a sub five hour finish, etc.) I had it eclipses all the hard work we’ve done. If we focus too much on a hard time goal or in result. If something goes off track on race day is easy to spiral our thoughts out of control and think “I’m not going to finish in my goal time”, “what’s the point”, “I don’t think I can make it up”, and so we don’t stay in the present and focus on the process of recovering from whatever adversity has happened and getting back to the race. Case in point- My chiropractor won the XTerra world championships (off road triathlon) as an amateur when she was riding her mountain bike and someone crashed in front of her and cut an artery she jumped off her bike to help him, and in doing so thought for sure she’d jeopardized her own chances of winning. However, because she was now free from the stress of being hyper focused on her outcome, she just enjoy the process and raced incredibly. And ended up winning in becoming an amateur world champion.
3) Visualize your success. This allows you to create in your mind the perfect race, the trick being not seeing yourself in the third person but experiencing it in the first person mentally. My undergraduate degree was in psychology, and I remember writing a paper on mental imagery and visualization in sport. While doing research, I read about a veteran who was POW for 4 years in Vietnam. Prior to the war, he was a very good (scratch) golfer. To help pass the time in captivity, he would spend several hours a day visualizing playing golf at his favorite golf course every single day. Upon his release and return to the US, his first round of golf he received the exact score he did 4 years prior with zero practice other than his daily visualizations. What this and countless other research shows is that the mind can’t tell the difference between something vividly imagined and something that actually occurs. So, use that mind to vividly imagine your success on race day!
So, as you prepare for your upcoming events, remember to have a positive mantra you can tell yourself. Stay in the present, focusing on the process. And finally, visualize your success. In the same way you execute your physical workouts, dedicated some time to sharpen your mental game.