Mindset Vs Setting The Mind

Setting the Mind To Boost Athletic Performance

BY Justin Ross

Setting the mind is a specific, effective, and trainable skill that helps shape your overall psychological framework over time.

The word “mindset” has become such a buzzword in the world of performance psychology right now. It makes sense — athletes and coaches of all abilities are understanding the importance of psychology in their overall performance, including how mindset training improves their connection to sport and general sense of well-being.

Those who are performing at an optimal level are not leaving their mental game up to chance. What’s more, those looking to reach their optimal level of performance are adopting specific high-performance mindset training along with their physical training to ensure they are getting the maximum benefit on a daily basis.

Mindset is an idea that gets thrown around often, yet as it relates to developing a specific set of skills, is typically vague, ill-defined, nondescript, and may not hold much value for many athletes. At its core, mindset is a term that reflects our overarching set of thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes about who we think we are as people and as athletes. Mindset reflects our beliefs about what we think we are capable of achieving (or incapable of), as well as the attitude regarding how we show up in different areas of our lives (including training, racing, and recovery). 

Each of these cognitive factors is directly under our control, however, we often don’t utilize a systematic approach to training how we think. Our mindset is often defaulted from our experiences rather than grown through discipline. If you’re not actively working to direct your thoughts, you are not completely in control of your mindset (some might even go so far as to say your thoughts are then directing you). Misguided thoughts, poor cognitive appraisal, and irrational fears (to name but a few) can develop in those not actively working to be in command of their thinking. This is why training the mind is as important as training your aerobic base and cranking through threshold workouts.  

Setting the mind is a specific, effective, and trainable skill that helps shape the overall psychological framework over the course of time. Here’s how this process works.

1. Preloading your workout

When you get ready for your workout you have to first remind yourself what you are about to do. You basically give yourself a mental check-in for the work ahead, regardless of what the workout may be. 

This could be reminding yourself that this effort is to help build your aerobic base, to push your threshold, or to be used as a recovery session. A strength workout holds the same requirement—preload a quick reminder that you are about to train core stability. Whatever the workout may be, preloading with a quick mental check-in of what the work is helps set focus for what’s ahead.  

2. Remember why you are about to do this type of work

Here, you add to the “what” by quickly reminding yourself why this effort matters in the bigger scheme of your training. For example, this ride (or run or swim) is designed for aerobic development, to work on climbing skills, to help build mental toughness, etc.

We often complete workouts without mentally reminding ourselves the reasoning behind the particular session. This can lead to getting stuck in the rut of doing the same types of paces, at the same intensity on a daily basis. The purpose here is to briefly reconnect to the importance of this particular workout in the larger scheme of your training plan, which helps reconnect to values and goals for the season—even though this thought exercise only takes a brief moment. 

3. Establish how you are going to do the work

This one is really important. Here is where we set our mind to commit to how we will approach the work ahead. We are setting intention for attitude and behavior in the miles up the road. 

Setting the intention prior to saddling up needs to be done with clarity and purpose. Doing so will help ensure that you stay committed if (or when) you start to tire, lose focus, or find yourself uncomfortable. Essentially, you are connecting to the specific skill or set of psychological skills that are going to be trained in today’s workout alongside the physical work. 

Examples of setting intention include direct thoughts: “I will stay strong when it gets tough” (training mental toughness); “I will stay focused and disciplined” (training focus and commitment); “I will complete every interval” (training follow-through); or “I will enjoy chatting with the group today” (training social connection and enjoyment). 

The thoughts you generate at the onset need to be genuine to you and what you are developing, as well as align with the overall purpose of the workout. This helps you clarify both how you see yourself as an athlete in the current moment as well as how you’re developing over time. Setting this intention allows you to realize that you can choose how you respond in any moment. By setting the intention from the onset, you’re working to establish the overarching mindset you ideally want to embrace.

4. Put away your workout

Most cyclists have a routine for how we put our bikes away when we get back home, we have a certain place where we store our gear, and we usually have a certain routine for wiping down our rigs. Few of us, though, pay the same amount of attention to putting away our workouts in our minds as we do our gear in our garages.

Putting away our workouts mentally helps us consolidate what we just did, but we often get back home and move into the next phase of our day. After you hit stop on your watch, you need to do a quick mental review on each of the four areas: what work was just completed, what you learned about yourself in the process, how you showed up, and why this workout was important. Doing this mental exercise is like putting change in a jar—initially it may not seem like much, but over time it adds up (and it only takes a minute). This helps us build a stronger overall framework so that subsequent workouts can begin by quickly flipping through the what, how, and intention of what’s to come. 

Setting the mind may seem simple and silly, but ask yourself the last time you preloaded a workout and put your workout away with mental discipline. Engaging in setting the mind as a practical, specific sports psychology skill will ensure you’re getting the most of your performance—both physically and mentally. 

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About Justin Ross

Dr Justin Ross is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in human performance. He is an amateur recreational athlete who enjoys a variety of disciplines and distances, and is a 12-time marathoner (with 6 BQs), multi-time Ironman 70.3 competitor, and Leadville 100 MTB finisher. His professional career has spanned working with athletes ranging from the world-class in disciplines across all professional sports to amateurs working to optimize their performance in their own goal-related pursuits. Check out his first-of-its-kind performance psychology training plan on TrainingPeaks.