Most of us have had a coach or parent tell us to “get tough” in some critical moment of a game or race. While being mentally tough is often encouraged or preached, it’s not always clear how to actually get there. In fact, mental skills are often neglected in training, which is unfortunate because they can mean the difference between a good athlete and a great one.
Wouldn’t you like to know how to fight off the voices inside that tell you that you’re too tired to continue, or just aren’t good enough? Here are some mental tricks I have learned over two decades of racing.
Focus on What Feels Good
What we focus on tends to become our reality. So, if you’re focused on the pain that you’re experiencing, then you will feel more pain. Conversely, you can actually endure much more pain if you don’t fixate on it.
For me, I’ll often stare straight ahead at the back of the competitor in front of me as if there is a reel pulling me in closer to them. I’ll also make sure my cadence feels good and that my feet are popping quickly off the pavement.
Another idea to keep your mind from being drawn to the pain is to break up the race into segments, especially for long course races. I suggest focusing on segments of a mile or less at a time—some days a mile might just be too much, so to help pull me through the pain I’ll identify really short segments such as the course cone markers or the telephone poles ahead.
What you Believe about Yourself Will Come Out
What is the story you’re telling yourself? That belief is the key to being mentally tough. Have you ever been around someone on a team or in the workplace who regularly speaks negatively about themselves or others? Do you notice that negative things do tend to happen to them on a regular basis?
It’s important to surround yourself with people engaged in more positive self-talk. If you fill your words and thoughts with positive affirmations and mantras, you’ll find them becoming part of your life. Then you will see a whole new level of self-confidence, which will, of course, transfer to your athletic endeavors.
Develop a Mantra
Develop a mantra that you can repeat either out loud or mentally to yourself quickly while you’re racing. When you’re racing at your best effort, the lactate accumulation is building up, and your breathing and heart rate may feel out of control. In this state the brain can easily switch to a negative mindset. A mantra can help you re-focus on the positive.
A simple mantra, such as “I am strong,” or “I got this” is great. Find words that resonate with you and your goals. You can even have this mantra written on your arm or hand to remind yourself.
Keep it Simple
As athletes we often overthink our process—but the best athletes in the world are the ones who can shut their brains off and focus on the present. Everything from pacing and nutrition strategy should be routine, so when your race day comes you already know what to do. Racing is just the party where you get to execute what you have practiced and celebrate all the hard training you have done!
Avoid the Comparison Trap
With all the social sharing platforms today, we often get sucked into comparing ourselves to other athletes in our circle or community. Just remember the best athletes spend the majority of their focus on training.
Consider How You Frame Your Suffering
You should learn to expect to suffer and embrace it when it comes. But you also have to learn to channel the suffering. In long endurance races it’s not always the fastest who wins but the one who can embrace the most suffering. There’s simply no easy way around it but if you use these mental strength training tools mentioned here you can learn to suffer more intensely for longer.
We all know that swimmers who can swim fast in a relaxed way will often come out ahead and preserve energy. The same goes with running and cycling. You have to learn how to run or bike fast while relaxing. Doing strides or spin ups is a great way to start to develop this skill. You have to have a “relaxed speed” that isn’t forced.
Get Outside Yourself
Teenagers and college athletes often put a lot of pressure on themselves to be great, and they end up dealing with high-performance pressure or anxiety as a result. While the ego tends to get more manageable as we get older, it’s still common to feel you fall into one of two boxes: “good” or “not so good,” and if you feel you fall into the latter, it can be incredibly demotivating.
If you find yourself hanging too much of your self-worth on your sport, remember to consider your career, family, and friends. It’s great to maintain a competitive nature, but getting outside yourself can help eliminate that “all-or-nothing” attitude, allowing you to put less pressure on yourself athletically.
Manage Your Stress
Each person has a finite amount of energy. Between career, education, relationships, and families, most athletes are pulled in many directions. We are better off as we learn how to minimize the stress that comes with each of these priorities.
The good news is that you can mitigate stress by making good nutrition choices, getting quality sleep, and improving your time management. For example, most athletes have to either train before or after work. This means planning is critical. You can reduce the stress getting from training to work, or vice-versa by having your meals prepped and clothes already laid out beforehand. This takes great organization and planning but doing so directly affects your ability to muster the mental and physical energy to complete your training sessions successfully.
It may sound counterintuitive, but recovery is the key to suffering—on easy or recovery days, you really do need to go easy and/or recover. Doing so prepares you for the higher intensity training days, which will provide you with opportunities to really suffer and practice managing it.
If you’re not consistent in honoring the purpose of each training session, then come race day you will likely find yourself facing immense suffering without the ability to manage it.
The more suffering you can learn to tolerate, the greater the reward. Cultivate the belief that on the other side of your suffering is immense joy. Once you cross that finish line, reach your goal, or set a PR, all that suffering will just become fuel for an unforgettable celebration!
See you at the finish line!