I wrote this article a while back for Australian Triathlete magazine. Reading through it yesterday, I thought it needed to be bought back to the surface because it is easy to lose focus when bogged down in the daily happenings of life. And especially when things aren’t going how we would like them too. We all go through ups and downs. Nobody is immune to that – however the stronger our mind is the better we can get through the tough patches and like other muscles of the body … the mind can be trained.
We have heard it, god knows how many times and maybe the saying has even passed our lips.
‘It’s the six inches between your ears that matters most.’
Talent surely helps but we know the most talented don’t always win. Many of them don’t even make the start and when the physical talent starts to balance out at those higher elite levels, what differentiates them?
The six inches.. that’s what and those six inches are just as important for the age group athlete to develop as they’re for the elite athlete.
A major event could be as much as 30% mental. That is a huge amount of performance to leave on the table if you’re not spending anytime at all developing your mental game. It takes time and a lot of hard work to develop the ability to concentrate, to focus and deal with all the distractions but learning how to handle this mental game becomes critical to your success.
Just like the physical aspects of our sport need consistent training. The mental game does too.
It doesn’t matter if you’re gunning for the win or just doing the best you can. As it’s said in ancient Olympics. You must stand naked in front of the gods.. fully exposed.
As athletes we are performers. Our actions count.
The goal of this article is to give you some information and strategies that will help your overall performance.
The first step in developing your mental game and there are some simple questions you need to ask yourself.
Why Do You Do Triathlon?
Knowing the answer to this gives you meaning. The ‘meaning’ is what fuels the passion and commitment to do what you do. If you don’t know the why, then the inevitable parts of the must do things you dislike can become cancerous. This kills performance and even the enjoyment of our sport.
Without knowing the why, you likely just train through the motions. Training though the motions greatly limits your potential. When you know why and have meaning, it provides the motivation, the direction and purpose to what we’re doing. This is also what help us deal with the adversity that goes hand in hand with performance. No one gets to winning performances without major challenges along the way. No one.
So knowing your why is very important.
Another important question to ask yourself is, what are some of the little things you love about your sport or the process of your sport? Those little things you enjoy.
You know that feeling when your legs are smashed because you have given it your all. You know you’re fit and there’s that satisfying fatigue that comes with a session well done. That little thought that you have just ridden further than most people would even consider driving unless they where going on holiday. I love that.
With this knowledge you can draw on those little things and it helps the process.
Sport is not easy. Your total actions count. They count big time and you have to lay it on the line to get where you want to go.
Dealing with Performance When it’s Not Going Great
You have likely heard about being in the elusive zone. Some of you reading this may have experienced the zone, others won’t have. Being truly in the zone is actually a pretty rare thing. It’s those days when everything just feels EASY. The thing is that you don’t need to be in this so called zone to get great performance. You can even win when not being in the ‘zone’. If you actions are congruent with your goals.. then I’m certain that you aren’t that bad that you need to being your A-game to perform!
The key is to learn how to deal with your performance when it’s not going great. You need something to go to. That something to go to is your reasons why you’re doing this, it’s going to all those other session you have done, where you feel like crap but you have pushed through. You have found that something extra.
Learn to become more comfortable being uncomfortable. Embrace that uncomfortableness. In all aspects of life there are those things that make us feel uncomfortable. If we never leave our self imposed comfort zone then will will maintain our own status quo. Nothing great will be achieved or you could say ‘Nothing ventured, Nothing gained’. But when you make that decision. That one to keep showing up and dealing with the uncomfortableness you can become comfortable being uncomfortable. It will massively change your outcomes.
Imagine what would happen with this simple attitude adjustment. Say you turn up to training or a race but you’re feeling sub par. Lets say at best you’re 60%. What would happen if you made the choice to use 100% of that 60? You’d be positively surprised and thats an attitude worth having.
Famous coach John Woden said “focus on what you can do and not what you can’t”. This has to be practiced in practice and in training. You just cannot switch this on without practice. You have to learn to have those good crappy days. You have to embrace those days because quite frankly there will be more of those days then the days you feel on fire . Simply embrace the daily grind.
Develop your Mental Toughness Through Practice
Next time you aren’t feeling your best and those negative voices are telling you to throw it in and that it doesn’t matter. Change your perspective because it does matter. First choose to embrace it and then work through it. This is a major opportunity in taking your performances to the next level. Sure it’s uncomfortable but working through it will help you develop the mental skill and give you that something to go to when it’s really needed.
Working through it builds confidence. You have to be prepared for adversity and practice dealing with it. Stop fearing the uncomfortableness. Embrace it and develop that winning ability to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Developing this give you something to go to when the crap hits the fan.
Mental coach to many baseball stars Ken Ravissa says you need to ‘take a blow, absorb a blow and give a jab. Not a roundhouse, not a knockout punch, but a jab. Let em know you’re alive.” That is something to go to. It’s a little step in not giving up. Focus on that next stroke or that next stride or breath and then the next. Jab, Jab, Jab and only throw the right hook when the time is right.
Preparing to Prepare
Unfortunately we bring other aspects of our lives into everything we do and it doesn’t serve us. We need to separate these different components. It is tough to do so, but definitely worth working towards. The goal is that when you’re training, train, when your at school, be at school, when your at work, work and when you’re with your family or friends be there. Taking baggage into a session with us greatly impacts our ability to get good work done.
One of the biggest tips to success I can give you for triathlon and life is this. Be present, be totally absorbed in what you’re doing. You’re either all in or not. This is total involvement. You are doing, NOT trying to do. Big difference.
The best way to learn to separate these aspects is by creating little rituals. I’ll use swimming for an example. How often is your mind full of distractions? You know.. oh I need to finish this project off at work, don’t forget to pick the meat up for dinner and myriad of other thoughts. You get the point. This is a distraction that takes you away from developing your swim but also your ability to concentrate.
So develop a ritual that works for you. Do what ever you need to do to draw a line in the sand, for me it’s the ritual of spitting in my goggles and washing them out and as soon as those googles go on. It’s game on, I’m there, I’m present, I am ready. Don’t jump into the pool until you’re ready. Bring the passion, the commitment and the focus.
You have to commit to practicing these things. The development of mental skills are just like the physical skills. They have to be practiced daily, they have to be refined and developed and then they become yours.
All of this will give you more confidence. Being prepared to win the next movement takes mental toughness.. mental toughness comes from pushing through your comfort zones. This prepares you to give the best opportunity for success.
Learn to take responsibility for your performance. Sure a coach can help you with techniques to respond to a pressure situation but you have to take the self responsibility. You have no control on anything or anyone else but you. What you have control on is how your choose to respond to what’s going on about you. Too many athletes focus on the uncontrollables when they should be focusing on the controllables. All you can control is the attitude you bring, your effort and your focus.
When you learn to control yourself you can control your performance. Self control leads to body control leads to skill control which leads to controlling your performance.
Attitude is a decision. Take responsibility for learning how to manage the moment and train/race in the present moment. You have to be present to perform. You have to be present to learn and you damn sure have to be present to win. To be present and take the training or race one moment at a time and take the performance one moment at a time.
Learning to Focus
Make a commitment to focus for a time period. This is what being in the moment is about. You’re not going to be able to go in and go right. I’m going to focus 100% on this 90 minute swim squad. No chance. But you can develop that by starting with the ritual we spoke about before. Then focusing in on the next stroke and the next one after that. Keep it simple. Don’t focus on how you’re going to make the main set. Focus on making the next stroke, the next jab and learn to be here now. This focus will develop the skill of concentration and concentration is key to performance in triathlon.
The time is now and place is here. Manage the moment, focus on the process of what you’re doing and not the outcome.
Learning to Recognise
Learn to recognise what is going on in your body and in your thought process. Have you ever stopped and listened to yourself. The words you speak to yourself with. You know the ones in your head. How often do you belittle yourself or do you build yourself up? Learn to recognise what you’re saying. When you develop this ability to recognise early, you have time to nip it in the bud before it grows out of control .
Learn to own the situation instead of the situation owning you. We need to learn to let go and get control of the moment. A great visualisation in letting something negative go is thinking about a toilet. Flush the negative thought or event down the toilet. See it being flushed. Sure this sounds silly and absurd to be visualising a toilet being flushed but it may make you laugh a little and that helps with the process.
When we start to recognise whats going on inside of use we can learn to deal with it. We have all had that little voice inside of us that says “he we go again”. What does that mean? Simply, you’re now in the past and bringing the past into the future and you completely miss the present. Learn to let go of the past and get yourself HERE. Being HERE in the moment will help deal with what is coming up ahead.
Reconise where you’re at. If you’re not where you need to be, flush it, let go and re group. That will put you in control of you, focusing on one thing at a time.
The Garden of Your Mind
Our minds are truly like a garden. We can grown amazing and beautiful things in the garden of your mind. It takes work to cultivate this garden into something awesome but it doesn’t take much at all to let it run wild with weeds and for it to be choked in its potential. We can develop our minds through visualisation and direct thought. There are two books you should get. The Magic Of Believing by Claude Bristol and Psycho Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz to help develop your mind and the infinite potential that is held within.
You have to practice the mental skills daily day in and day out. Practice getting through the crappy days. In fact practice getting good at the crappy days. Just be a little better. You don’t have to be great all the time just a little better than yesterday. Making performance happen in competition is making performance happen in training. If you don’t do it in practice you don’t have any chance in hell of doing it in competition.
So when your’e not feeling well.. SO WHAT. You now have the methods to deal with it.
Ex pro athlete and now coach Chris Hauth recently tweeted “always feeling good in training? Racing surely doesn’t feel good, so why expect to ‘feel good’ in every session? Embrace the hard days” and I believe Macca says “embrace the suck”.
Doing so sounds overly simple but it can make massive gains in your performances.
“Everyday we get to make a decision to take a step towards our dreams or remain the same or even take a step back” A step forward doesn’t always mean you’re successful. Sometimes you fail along the way but it gives you positive feedback. Those failures can help you succeed. If you get the info from the performance to help yourself get better.”
– Unkown athlete