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Key Strategies to Develop Mental Fitness

BY Brad Stulberg

Mental toughness is often what separates a good athlete from a great one. Columnist and author Brad Stulberg moderated the Psychology of High Performance Panel at the 2016 Endurance Coaching Summit and offers his key takeaways from the session.

When it comes to unlocking peak performance, more and more evidence is pointing to the power of psychology. Cultivating mental fitness ensures that an athlete’s physical fitness can be fully expressed today, and it also promotes long-term progression and fulfillment tomorrow.

Against that backdrop, the keynote panel at this year’s TrainingPeaks Endurance Coaching Summit focused on the psychology of high performance. As the panel’s moderator, I was honored to share the stage with former triathlon World Champion and current coach of world champions Siri Lindley, mental skills coach Carrie Cheadle, multiple-time US Olympic Committee Coach of the Year Jim Miller, and legally blind elite triathlete and coach Michael Stone. To say the discussion was rich is an understatement. Here is a quick summary of the topics discussed and what I feel are the key insights:

Managing Letdowns

Be it a lackluster performance or an injury before a big event, every athlete is bound to face at least a few major letdowns in his or her career. When this happens, you want to let yourself (or the athlete you coach) feel down for a good 24 to 48 hours. It’s only human to experience disappointment, sadness, and perhaps even anger– these emotions show that you care. But after two days have passed, it’s critical to shift from ruminating on the past to focusing on the future. Select the next goal and begin mapping out a process to get there. Doing this too soon (i.e., without allowing a period of frustration) is counterproductive, but so is waiting too long.

Dealing With Uncertainty

Humans crave security and predictability. But endurance sports are rife with uncertainty. When poorly managed, uncertainty leads to fear and fear almost always leads to subpar performance and dissatisfaction with sport. Follow these three steps to mitigate the negative effects of uncertainty.

  • Prevent it: Do what you can to minimize uncertainty by training like you want to race. Focus on the factors that you can control and ensure you have a plan in place for all of those factors.
  • Manage it: Develop a mantra or automatic actions to fall back when uncertainty strikes. This can be as simple as repeating something along the lines of “focus on what I can control,” or “stick to what I know,” or “race my race.”
  • Grow from it: Being uncomfortable is the key to growth. Rather than view uncertainty as a negative or fear it, view it as an opportunity to grow. With this shift in framing, uncertainty is no longer something to fear but something to welcome on the path to personal growth.

Turning Anxiety into Excitement

Pre-race nerves are common, even amongst professional athletes. When you, or the athletes you coach, experience this kind of tension, try a mindset shift. Instead of telling yourself, “I’m anxious, I need to calm down,” tell yourself, “I am excited, my body is primed to perform.” Research shows that oftentimes, when we try to calm ourselves down, we make the situation worse because we are inherently reminding ourselves that something is wrong. Avoid doing this by reframing nerves as excitement. When we do this, we harness heightened perception to raise ourselves up. In other words, the physiological sensations we feel before a race our neutral. When we call them anxiety and tell ourselves to calm down, they become negative. When we call them excitement, they become positive and performance-enhancing.

Focusing on the Process

The best goal to have is simply to “get better.” As an athlete, and as a person. This is perhaps the most important psychological mindset to nurture. Such an approach ensures that you never get too fixated on specific results. Quit thinking about success (or the success of the athletes you coach) as finishing times, qualifying standards, or placements. Think about success as continual growth and progression over time.

In addition to the above, here are some related resources from my work writing about the performance psychology. These are good reads for athletes and coaches looking to reflect upon and enhance their mental fitness:

And finally, to stay abreast of the evolving science of mental fitness, I’d be honored if you followed me on twitter, where I share all of the latest evidence and my writing, @Bstulberg

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About Brad Stulberg

Brad Stulberg researches and writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist with Outside Magazine, a regular contributor to Runner’s World, and his work has been featured in Forbes, NPR, and The Huffington Post. Brad is also working on a book exploring the principles and practices that underlie mastery across domains. Follow him on twitter, where he shares all of the latest evidence and his writing @Bstulberg.