As endurance athletes, we spend hundreds (if not thousands) of hours preparing physically for a specific event, or series of events. We work tirelessly to improve our speed, endurance, strength, and technique for our respective discipline (or disciplines in the case of triathletes). Many resort to spending thousands of dollars on gear, coaching, recovery tools, performance nutrition, and a host of other expenditures in hopes to improve performance just a little bit. However, there is one glaring gap that many athletes - or even weekend warriors - neglect: the mental side of performance.
Unfortunately for team USA, we’ve seen evidence of this on the world’s biggest stage during the two most recent Olympics when the odds on favorites to win gold in their respective sports not only didn’t win, but didn’t even get on the board. I’m talking about gymnast Simone Biles and skier Mikayla Shiffrin, who both had stunning mental lapses resulting in them failing to complete or pulling out all together from their respective events. As I watched both of these performances play out live along with millions of other team USA supporters, I couldn’t help asking myself the question, “I wonder if they put as much forethought, focus, and training into the mental side of their respective sport as they did the physical?”
Of course, I have no way of knowing the extent of the mental training - and far be it from me to be critical - of these two incredible athletes, who are previous world champions and Olympic Gold medalists. But it makes me think. In fact, I had a conversation this week with one of my young athletes, a very talented HS runner, gearing up for her cross country season, and I’d asked her how she felt her off season work was going- she replied that physically she was doing really well, feeling strong and running fast- but that she was worried about the mental side of her performance. And she’s right to worry. As coaches, mentors, and certainly as athletes, we don’t focus on the mental side nearly as much as we should as it relates to performance. It was a good reminder to me that I need to build a reservoir of mental fitness in my athletes as well as myself, in order to maximize performance and reduce that all-too familiar performance anxiety.
So how do we do that?
I think it’s important to understand that mental toughness or mental strength can be taught and learned- it’s a skill that can be improved. Just like perfecting a running gait, swim stroke, or golf swing, we can hone our mental skill sets just like our physical ones. While there are quite literally thousands of books and articles written about the psychology of performance, the importance of grit, how to acquire mental toughness, and many similar topics. It can be overwhelming to say the least when trying to learn even just the basics of mental toughness.
However, for our purposes, there are two simple keys to remember when we are seeking to gain that mental edge to improve our performance on a ball field, track, pool, or during any aspect of competition. The first is rather simple, the second a bit more complex:
First of all, do the work. This seems to go without saying, but it still needs repeating. Obviously, we put in hours and hours of training to build our physical fitness- our endurance, our strength, our power. We do the workouts designed to make us successful on race day- and that not only brings us into the form we need to perform physically, but mentally as well. There is confidence that comes with having done the specific work that will make us successful. Having that confidence is key to push through those challenging physical (and mental) roadblocks that can arise during a performance. So, that sounds great, but what might this look like?
Take this scenario for instance- an athlete is running a marathon, struggling to stay mentally tough as they move into mile 17,18, and 19. The mental toughness might have started strong, but now the self-doubt might begin to creep in as the pain intensifies and the body begins to tighten up. Instead of beginning to mentally crumble (and then physically degrade), the athlete can lean on his/her training to bolster the mental game. Knowing that “I’ve done the work”, or “I’m prepared for this,” or “I’ve done this intensity in training dozens of times” can help to strengthen the resolve to keep pushing. These simple self reminders (called positive affirmations) can do wonders to push back the doubt or mental fragility that creeps in late in a race.
So, the first step is to do that race-specific work. Embrace the hard training days designed to replicate race day, so that you can pull those training-day victories out of the memory bank when we need them. The confidence you can build doing hard training sessions can be paramount in reducing anxiety and building that mental reserve.
And second, practice! As mentioned previously, we are very good at practicing the physical aspects of our respective sports, but we woefully under train our mental focus. There are countless books, articles, studies, podcasts, and talks about improving the mental side of performance. In fact, it’s overwhelming. So, let’s break it down into two simple elements we can actually practice on a regular basis which help improve that critical mental piece:
1) Practice the ‘intentional acts' of mental toughness. This simply means, purposefully and strategically doing harder workouts than necessary to improve our ability to have our mind dominate our bodies. What might this look like? When I was training to race Ironman Maryland (in which I later qualified for the World Championships in Hawaii), there were a few times in my training block that I rode a 5 mile pancake flat loop in a park for 112 miles, which was taxing physically, however it was much more taxing mentally. The monotony of passing the same scenery every 15 minutes for 5+ hours is oppressive to say the least. But having to push past the point of boredom and continue to be focused on my wattage, my nutrition, my handling of the bike, avoiding cars and pedestrians, holding my form, etc., forced me to stay mentally sharp. At any time, I could have easily just diverted onto another bike path that would take me to a much more scenic and engaging ride, but resisting the temptation to do so was key in building that mental toughness.
Now, let’s be clear, this needs to be done in a very strategic fashion. Many athletes tend to do workouts harder than necessary far too often which can be detrimental to performance. In my training block going into Kona (IM world championships) I would intentionally run in the hottest, most humid times of the day (think 89 degrees and 95% humidity for a 2.5 hr run). This had two purposes; first to help my body acclimate to the conditions in which I’d race, and second to hone my mental toughness. It was HARD. But it made me hard mentally.
However, I was very careful in how I structured those hard runs. I certainly didn’t do this every run- in fact I only did a handful of times. Most of my runs needed to be as high quality as possible, which meant running under as optimal conditions as possible so as to maximize my body’s adaptation process. Going too hard too often is a recipe for injury and poor performance. And this holds true for everyone. When using this strategy, be very strategic (that’s why coaches are useful :))
2) Practice skills that improve mental strength and resilience. There is a laundry list of techniques that we can utilize to improve our mental game, and we need to practice those just like we practice our swim stroke, running stride, or golf swing. Two I find most helpful for highly-driven endurance athletes and casual weekend warriors alike are positive affirmations and visualization (or mental imagery). Positive affirmations are simply short phrases or mantras used to uplift a performer. As previously mentioned, a phrase as simple as, “I’m strong”, or “I’ve done the work” can remind us we are capable of accomplishing our goal. Especially when adversity hits. Many times, athletes start to experience self-doubt, and engage in negative affirmations prior or during a particularly difficult event - ‘I don’t belong here’, 'I'm doing terrible', or something similar. These can be detrimental to performance, as we tend to believe ourselves! Selecting a few positive affirmations in advance, then practicing them during hard workouts can be the perfect practice field for learning how to deploy them on race day. I had an athlete that wrote on her forearm with a sharpie for every race, a mantra for the day- and she always performed well on race day!
A perfect counterpart to positive affirmations is visualization, where we vividly imagine our performance prior to the event. For a runner, this doesn’t mean we just think about crossing the finish line, but we imagine the entire experience with as much detail as possible. In our mind’s eye, we rehearse what we see as we move through the course- the crowds of people, the other runners, the sky, the grass, etc. We hear the sounds - birds chirping, music playing, footsteps hitting the ground, and the labored breathing of ourselves and others around us. We taste the sweat trickling into our mouth late in the race, along with the gels, water, or electrolyte drink we have during or prior. We feel the burning in our legs- yes, that familiar burning, yet we are able to maintain that pace, as our heartbeat pounds in our chest and arms pump in quiet rhythm with our legs. We even smell faint whiff of dead leaves or cut grass or salt air as we run through the course.
By vividly imagining our race experience, over and over again, our mind learns that pattern, and our body can follow. And while we want to visualize success, we should also not forget to ‘visualize failure’, meaning that we mentally prepare for less-than ideal situations that may arise. How does the race change if there is inclement weather? Or a gear malfunction? Or stomach issues? Having a contingency plan and then visualizing the execution of that plan can help reduce performance anxiety by taking the big ‘what if’ question out of the equation. Our stress level goes down because we’ve ‘been there’.
So, the big takeaway here is that we can improve our mental toughness/focus/strength, and reduce our anxiety if we just practice. Just like the thousands of hours we devote to our sport or our passions, if we just spend a bit of time focusing on the mental side, we can improve our performance, whether we’re an elite level triathlete, high school runner, or casual weekend warrior.