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Mindset is incredibly influential on athletic performance and one of the most fascinating things about sport. Pay close attention next time you’re spectating or viewing almost any sporting event and you’ll easily be able to pinpoint the exact moment an individual athlete or team succeeds or implodes as a direct result of their mental fortitude.
Any coach or elite athlete will tell you that while physical strength and conditioning are important, the mind is critical and an athlete’s ability to dig deep and transcend pain and fatigue when the going gets tough comes not from a superior body, but from a superior mind. It’s surprising then, that many athletes fail to invest time and effort into training the mind. While some athletes may consider mental training to be an “optional extra” (akin to proper nutrition, sleep, stretching and running drills … I didn’t just say that last one, Coach Rich!) there is a mountain of evidence available to suggest that it can lead to tremendous improvements in performance.
Whether you are an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, being in complete control of your mind and your emotions will help you to transcend self-imposed limitations and perceived barriers to unlock your true potential.
When we think about training, there are only three things we can train:
In endurance sport, tough times, rough patches and “lows” are inevitable during training and racing. If your mental state is weak and your self-talk through these difficult periods is negative (e.g. “I feel awful”, “this is too painful”, “I can’t push through this”), your performance will suffer. Conversely, if you are able to practice mindfulness, control your emotions and use positive self-talk, your performance can soar.
While a date with a sports psychologist may not be on the radar (or in the training budget) for most of us, practising your mental skills alongside and during training sessions is something every athlete can do. It’s important to remember that training the mind is an ongoing process requiring patience, consistency and practice. You shouldn’t expect to turn up on race day and figure it out. It should be something you are practising and refining every single day. Indeed, come race day, it may mean the difference between triumphantly crossing the finish line or being allocated a dreaded DNF.
Here are some suggestions to incorporate mental training into your every day. Begin training your mind just like you would train your body. Start by training in calm environments for short periods of time. Once you’re ready, push yourself into more stressful environments for longer periods of time. Remember too, these can be (and arguably, should be) applied across all facets of your life, not just in your endurance training.
1. Practise gratitude
Practice gratitude and appreciation for what physical activity you can do, as opposed to focussing on what you can’t. This is particularly important for athletes going through periods of injury or sickness or building their base fitness back after a period of time away from the sport. Experiencing a little discomfort while doing something you love? Be grateful to endure. By emphasising your gratitude for what you can do physically, you are encouraging positive emotions. It is true that you will notice the joy in something more when you focus on your gratitude for it.
2. Use positive self-talk
se positive self-talk and positive cognitive appraisal. During training, focus your awareness on the messages going through your head. Positive self-talk such as starting your internal dialogue with the words “I can…” helps to train your body to tolerate discomfort more easily as well as lead to performance gains.
Training confidence is extremely mechanical. Confidence comes not from your past successes or level of preparation but only from what you say to yourself. Your ability to adapt to various situations in training and racing and maintain a strong mental focus is greatly influenced by what you say to yourself, so self-talk warrants your consideration and attention.
3. Set your intentions
Set an intention for health and well-being before you train and try and stay connected to and focussed on this throughout the session. Focussing on a specific intention will also help to concentrate your attention on your session and cut out superfluous “noise” that could be going through your head, distracting you from the task at hand.
4. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people
Surround yourself with people who are supportive, encouraging and positive. Like it or not, FOPO (Fear of Other People’s Opinion) is another newly-coined acronym here to stay. And that’s because it’s a real concern for many people; one of the silent traps that robs us of success and holds us back. Surrounding yourself with people who genuinely want you to succeed and who are willing to lend their support and encouragement to help you achieve your goal will make your journey a lot more enjoyable, and a lot less stressful too.
5. Control negative emotions
Control negative emotions such as anxiety by using relaxation techniques (e.g. listening to music, breathing exercises), helping to eliminate negative trains of thought.
Emotions – both positive and negative - are incredibly powerful and undoubtedly affect cognitive function, energy levels and overall physical performance. How we perceive what we’re doing, the words we use to talk about it, how we assign meaning to what we’re doing, and the intention behind it all matter. As soon as you realise you are in control of how you react to things and you take ownership of these emotional reactions, many of your perceived barriers are removed.
During training, think about your body and make sure you are moving the way you visualise yourself moving. When you’re not training, take some time to think about your sport and visualise yourself moving fluidly e.g. running with good mechanics or swimming with a smooth stroke.
In a broader sense, you should also visualise yourself executing your goal race and achieving your goal. Picture everything from race day morning through transition and beyond – to the finishing chute. Think about how this makes you feel and then when you take part in your event, try and replicate it. Remember however, you must also visualise how you will respond to less-than-ideal situations that may arise and how you will calmly and methodically work through this discomfort – this will prepare you to deal with challenges that will inevitably present themselves come race day.
7. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation are extremely effective measures to calm the stress-response in your body and are massive accelerants to mastering your internal domain. Paying close attention to your thoughts and what’s going through your mind and recording these in a training log will help you to notice patterns and themes that may be recurring such as self-doubts, self-criticisms and excessive worry – these are all restrictive. Becoming aware of and sensitive to these thoughts and thought patterns will help you to focus on specific areas of your mental fitness and enable you to correct and build a more optimal mental state. First comes awareness, which is then followed by action.
Mindset plays an incredibly significant role in endurance sport; more than it is often credited for. While a weak mental state can lead to an athlete’s downfall, a strong one can be the “x-factor” that sets an athlete apart and takes them to the next level to reach their true potential.
Incorporating some mental training into your regular regime may just provide the competitive edge you are looking for, with the added benefits of positively impacting your body and your overall health. In training situations, mental strength and conditioning will help you control your focus and enjoy the process more (even the hardest, most taxing training sessions) which will lead to huge performance gains and faster recovery times. On race day, having a strong mind will help you to control muscular tension (enabling you to relax and your control heart rate before and during events), rise to the big occasion and feel excited as opposed to nervous, and control your emotions to cope with unforeseen events that will inevitably occur during the race. Ultimately, all things being equal, the athlete who is in control of their mind and their emotions will outlast their competition to stand atop the podium every single time.
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