Is Mental Training for Me?

The key to finishing a triathlon is putting in more laps at the pool, more hours in the saddle, and more miles on the road, right? Not entirely.

Certainly, athletes have to train hard to perform at their best, and in the case of triathletes, train for not only one but three events: swimming, cycling, and running. However, physical preparedness alone is a significant, yet small part of what makes a successful athlete. The rest is mental.

Many beginning athletes don’t see much value in mental training, viewing it as something reserved for elite or Olympic athletes. They naturally concentrate only on finishing the workouts their coach has assigned. Mental preparation is an afterthought, something to do the night before a triathlon, when pre-race jitters keep them from sleeping. In setting aside mental preparation, beginning athletes miss a great opportunity to not only race their best, but also to make their training more enjoyable.

Athletes, new and experienced, face three challenges: Nervousness, doubt, and limitations. Mental prep addresses all three of these using scientifically proven methods and techniques. The result is that athletes can train and compete in a much more relaxed, fluid, and confident manner ‚ qualities that form the cornerstone of athletic peak performance.

Nervousness is our body’s natural response to the unknown. Part of the flight or fight  response, nervousness (physiologically the result of our body’s release of adrenalin) prepares us for situations that we believe will require excessive strength and energy. Because triathlons are a test of physical endurance, a certain amount of nervousness is appropriate and even necessary. (You wouldn’t want to be so calm during a triathlon that you dozed-off during the bike leg!). But too much nervousness or agitation can destroy our performance. Mental prep provides a way to modulate nervousness by addressing the core cause of the anxiety our beliefs. Mental prep allows us to replace old thoughts with new, to replace scary stories (that triathlon is so hard, people have to crawl across the finish) with new confident stories (I’ve trained so hard that finishing the triathlon will be a breeze). It provides tools like relaxation scripts and tapes, deep breathing exercises, and guided visualizations to help athletes learn to release excess muscle tension that results from feeling nervous. Mental prep allows athletes to make anxiety their ally not their enemy.

Doubt stems from our psyches inability to predict the future. Most people cannot tolerate much uncertainty. We’d rather know what the future holds for us, even if we have to make it up! For many, it is more comfortable to live with a story of future failure, than to live with no story at all!

How we write the story of our future performance has much to do with our general perspective on life. Those that have more optimistic outlooks will generally predict success. Others that have experienced past failures (or been led to believe that they have failed) will often predict more failure. Childhood experiences of learned helplessness, of being constantly criticized, or of not being encouraged or recognized for things done well, can shape our ability to envision success. Mental preparation teaches athletes (and others) to cultivate optimism. Using mental prep tools like Powertalk statements, we can reprogram our minds and create a positive mindset.

Limitations are an outgrowth of doubt and shortsightedness. Instead of seeing ourselves as powerful, capable, and expansive, we see ourselves as weak, unable, and limited. Limitations are often the result of selective memory ‚we remember our failures more than our successes, the things we haven’t mastered more than the things we have, what we believe we can’t do more than the things we know we can. Mental preparation provides us with tools for expanding our thinking. Using guided visualization we can imagine how it what it would look like, sound like, and feel like to be swimming, riding, and running without self-imposed limitations. Through this process of visualization, our body experiences (and remembers) that limitless state. We can then use this visualization to recall those feelings when we compete or when we find ourselves slipping back into limited thinking.

Will mental prep training work for you? Put it to the test. Try recognizing that anxiety is a natural part of preparing for any athletic challenge. Practice channeling anxiety in positive ways; try reframing anxiety as excitement. Experiment with relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga or meditation. Become aware of when you are telling yourself scary stories and replace them with positive affirmations. Explore the origins of any doubts that arise before, during and after workouts and races. Remind yourself that you cannot predict the future. You have no idea what a particular workout will feel like or what a race will feel like until you do them. Remind yourself that regardless of how you feel during the swim leg of a triathlon, you have no certain way of knowing how you are going to feel on the bike or the run. Pay attention to self-limiting thoughts and beliefs. Visualize success.

Try these mental preparation techniques for a month and no doubt you will see your performance improve. Improvement may manifest in many ways: more enthusiasm about training, more enjoyable workouts, and even faster race times.

Or course, mental prep takes time and practice. Don’t give up if you at first find the suggestions I’ve made difficult or frustrating. You mind is like any muscle in your body  it needs to be developed. The more you work it the stronger it gets.

Is mental prep for you? If you’re someone who wants to train (and live) with less anxiety, less doubt, and more optimism and confidence, the answer is yes.

© 2005 Craig Kain, Ph.D
Think. See. Succeed.
Craig Kain, Ph.D. _ 3416 E. Broadway, Suite A, Long Beach, CA 90803
phone 562.987.1766 _ email craig@sportsminded.us