Want to be Mentally Tough? Start Here.

Want to be Mentally Tough? Start Here.

We know mental training is a key part of athletic performance. Here’s where three experts suggest we start.

We often hear that in endurance sports, mental toughness counts more than physical prowess. And the longer the event, the more critical psychological skills become. Long-distance runners, Ironman triathletes, and ultra-event participants all are seen as masters of sports psychology. So how do we train our minds, what techniques can give us the best results? And how can we use our time in quarantine to hone mental skills?

We asked three sports psychologists and mind trainers for their takes.

Classic Sports Psychology

“When I ask people what percentage of their performance comes down to the mental side versus the physical, often people put quite a high percentage to the mental skills,” says Hannah Winter, sports psychologist consultant. “However, when I ask people what percentage of time they dedicate to the mental side, often there is a big discrepancy, with very little time spent on training the mind.”

Athletes have to juggle training on top of a busy and stressful life. With work, social and family commitments to consider, training the mind usually is not at the top of the priority list. Yet the mind is like any other muscle in the body, and it needs time and practice to become stronger.

“It’s no good just thinking about your psychological skills the night before a race. I always encourage athletes to start working on those skills long before an important event,” says Winter. “Therefore, with more time at home and races postponed or canceled, now could be a great time to develop those psychological skills and become clear about all the areas that contribute to a great performance, beyond just physical training.”

Thinking effectively

What Winter asks her athletes is, first, to pay attention to their thoughts. “By listening to that inner voice, you can start to understand: What am I saying about me? What am I saying about my upcoming performance? What am I thinking about my current situation? And how am I saying it to myself? The way we think about our sport and performance is often not true. It can cause unhelpful emotions and prevent us in achieving our goals,” says Winter.

If the focus is on uncertainties, worries, downsides, and frustration, this can lead people into a ‘threat state’ — where unwanted emotions, as well as questions and answers that we can’t know, heighten.

“One way to tackle it is to view the situation as a ‘challenge’,” she says. “Athletes who practice challenge-state thinking typically have more success and more enjoyment. This is characterized by focusing on your resources available (your training plan, support from coaches, friends and family, access to YouTube videos and books), what you can do, and realizing what’s in your control.”

To shift your self-talk into a positive state of mind, it’s useful to write down unhelpful thoughts and replace them with positive ones. And make a list of all of the resources too. Instead of feeling upset because there will be no races this year, for example, your new statement could be: ‘I am using this as momentum to go into next year.’

“By learning to think effectively, you can control your emotional reactions to situations when you want to perform at your best,” says Winter.

Grounding

The uncertainty of this period also can cause worries and apprehensions. That’s why focusing on the present moment is an important skill to develop, taking each day as it comes. Grounding techniques can bring attention to the here and now, and allow people to feel more in control of the present and the future.

“The 5,4,3,2,1 technique uses all five senses, says Winter. “Start by taking a few deep breaths. Then notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.”

Being committed, not motivated.

A lot has been said and written about how to stay focused and motivated on training during the pandemic. But that can be the wrong approach and a limited one, as it’s unrealistic to stay motivated continuously (and not only during a pandemic).

“Shift the word ‘motivated’ to ‘committed’,” says Winter. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I be committed to my sport progression right now?’ Some days the answer might be something other than exercise. For example, reading a triathlete’s autobiography, analyzing previous race performances, talking to your coach or friends about triathlon, focusing on stretching or nutrition, or practicing psychological skills.”

Three good things

We often tend to put our focus on the things that did not go well — or on those that are not right for us. “The power of three” is a task that helps to build confidence in the right things.


“For this task, write down three good things that have happened in your day, each day. For example, focus on the skills you have developed, the training you got done, conversations you had with coaches, friends or family, social support you received, or the effort you put in,” says Winter.

“Doubt is a natural part of a performance, but having a bank of evidence to look back on can help remind you of all the reasons why you are progressing.”

A Mindfulness Approach

Mindfulness is a psychological practice that brings your attention to the present moment without judgment. The methodology is rooted in several Buddhist traditions, Zen practices, Vipassanà, and Tibetan meditation techniques.

Mindfulness coach Mario Reiser brings a mindfulness approach to performance. “Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. The past is gone, and it doesn’t exist any longer. Equally, the future is not yet here, so it’s not real either. The only real thing is the present… and only in the present moment can you live and perform.”

Even if athletes come up with a race plan they want to execute, or have a tactic they want to use, the actual performance happens one moment at the time. There is always just one moment, and that moment is now.

Separate Object and Subject

The act of paying attention non-judgmentally is crucial in mindfulness. For many people, it’s only a way of finding relaxation and peace. “In mindfulness, acceptance is essential,” says Reiser.

“You have to realize that within you, there is always an observer [the subject], and something you observe [the object],” says Reiser. The object of the observation can be a thought (including a negative one like ‘I can’t do it anymore’, or ‘This workout is too hard’), or an emotion. The subject of the observation, on the other hand, is you, your self-consciousness.”

“For athletes, the pain cannot exist without the subject, without the observer,” says Reiser. “When you realize that, you can acknowledge that you do not identify yourself with the thoughts and mindsets like you’re not good at penalty kicking or swimming.”

Only then will you realize that the objects of your consciousness (your negative thoughts, for example) are no more and no less than thoughts. You can start the process of de-identification. In everyday life, your thoughts, emotions, anxieties, and sorrows, may be the main motives behind your behavior. But when you realize that you can still be and act without letting them guiding your activities, you can turn the system around and find that it is just you who guides your life (and your sports performance). 

Mindfulness applied

Techniques for mindfulness applied to sports include breathing exercises, meditation, visualization, positive affirmations, and body scans, among others. They are used both informally (in your living room) and during the sports activity itself. Reiser uses binaural beats, isochronic tones, binomial beats, and a technique called Schumann Resonances to get his athletes to tune into the best brain frequencies for sports (7.83 hertz).

Studies have shown the positive benefits of mindfulness for sports performances. One benefit is the influence of mindfulness in regulating the work of the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter found in the cerebral hemisphere that is involved with experiencing emotions. The response of the amygdala to external dangers or stresses usually is to send a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The information is then processed into a “fight or flight” reaction. 

Deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as ‘peace’ or ‘calm’), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga and tai chi, have all proved useful in counteracting the stress responses from the amygdala and hypothalamus.

Reiser is convinced that mindfulness works for all sports — not just endurance. “From scientific proof and my own experience, we have sports like ski jumping, golf, arching, Formula 1, basketball and American football where mindfulness has been very successful,” he says. Even football player Tom Brady, as well as the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers basketball teams, have used mindfulness techniques to improve their performance when coached by Phil Jackson.

Finding Your Personal Approach

Michele Ufer, a mind trainer who has a Ph.D. in Sports Psychology, ran his first race in 2011: a self-supported, 250km run across the Atacama desert in Chile. He signed up just three and a half months before the event. Until then, he had never run a marathon, nor a half or a 10k race. People discouraged him from doing it. But he took it as a test to see how mental training could help him.

After his result (he finished in the top 10), people started to approach him to ask how to build mental toughness. A few years later, he collected his experiences in the best selling book Mental Toughness for Runners (2016).

“I’m a very practical sports psychologist, and I developed my way to find answers that sometimes I don’t find in current science,” says Ufer. 

In the early days of his practice, he used general guidelines for athletes, but it didn’t take long to find out that the general rules didn’t always apply to individuals.

“You have to make these tools fit other people because what it worked for me doesn’t necessarily work for others,” he says. “It depends on the goals and personality of the athlete. We all have different experiences, different strains, different motivations. To make coaching stick, you have to be very flexible and adapt.”

Clarify your goals

Over the years, Ufer has developed a combined approach that has been revealed to be very useful. When athletes ask for his help now, he sends them an initial questionnaire about their goals, and how they have tried to achieve them in the past. Then they sit down, and the work begins.

“I use solution-focused coaching, where you focus on your goals and how you may achieve them step by step, focusing on little steps,” says Ufer. “We focus on goals, not problems. If they complain about their problems, I listen, but then I guide them to switch their focus on their future and behavior and emotional change.”

Rediscover Inner Motivation

Most of the endurance athletes who worked with Ufer had previously showed a drop in motivation, particularly after a prolonged period of racing. After a long stretch of racing, Ufer noticed that people had forgotten why they started training and racing in the first place — whether for stress relief, to enjoy nature or share sports with other people.

“The initial motivation was mixed, or hidden behind other motivations that came from the surroundings, from the society and not the self-motivation,” says Ufer. “On the other hand, we sometimes realized that the person had a very tough job and pressure. You don’t have endless energy, and training for an Ironman can be tough. Energy and wilpower are not endless.”

To help athletes reconnect with their inner motivation, Ufer uses sport hypnoses and deep relaxation, but also active sessions where he guides his athletes through emotional imagination and visualization processes. These sessions are also performed on the bike and outdoors, through walks and runs.

“We work a lot with visual images from the past, but also constructive imagination towards the future,” he says. “We try to get to the roots of the problems and change the visualization and emotions deriving from those thoughts. With the sessions on the bike ergometer, I can also show them their performance improvements when they think differently and get into a flow state.”

See your opportunities

On whether mental toughness is essential mostly for endurance races, he believes that “it’s not true that the longer the run, the more mentally tough it gets. During the long run, you have much more time to make mistakes, but you also many opportunities to change your mind towards positive thinking. Maybe short-term sports are much more mental because all you have, you have to put it out in 10 seconds, or just one second. In every sports mind is important. It’s never mind over body, but a teamwork of body and mind.”

Nicola Busca

Nicola (Nick) Busca is an Italian triathlon coach based in London. He is a Level 3 High-Performance triathlon coach with British Triathlon and also a Training Peaks Level 2 and an IRONMAN-certified coach. Before setting up his own club in 2018, Core - Ski and Triathlon Academy, he led swimming, cycling and running sessions with the London-based triathlon club Ful-on Tri and coached the swimming squads of Swim For Tri (also based in London). After more than 20 years racing and coaching alpine skiing, he needed a new challenge and started to train and compete in triathlons in 2012. He began with the Turin-based triathlon team Aquatica and received private coaching from former Olympian athlete Vladimir Polikarpenko, who raced in three Olympic games for Ukraine. In 2016 and 2017, he qualified for Team GB for both the ETU European Championships (middle distance) and the ITU World Championships (long-distance). He still races and tries to improve season after season.