Having a life passion is a gift. While triathletes may possess a wide range of natural ability, most share a passion for the interconnected nature of health, well-being and personal excellence. Generally speaking, athletes who are training toward goals are by nature driven and highly motivated individuals.
Triathletes spend many hours putting immense physical energy into training sessions, preparing to meet their goals. Although much of the energy output seems physical, a great deal of mental energy goes into each and every workout and race, whether a triathlete is conscious of it or not. Passion drives this boundless energy, and fortunately, passion has no limits; athletes can gain immense enjoyment and improvement by harnessing and directing this abundance of mental energy. The blending of the physical and mental self is a rewarding pursuit.
Learning to focus one's mental energy in order to enhance sport performance is an area that many athletes neglect. Sport psychology and mental training lets us learn about and identify our mental strengths and weaknesses. Once we learn to recognize and develop those skills, we develop a cognitive inventory, or mental "tool-kit," from which we can more readily access our tools on race day. Without a strong mental game plan for training sessions or races, energy that could be used to help the athlete perform well and get faster often is misdirected into carrying negative thoughts and images and getting side-tracked by events irrelevant to personal performance. Superior mental skills help athletes get the most out of training sessions, which in turn creates a higher level of physical preparedness and valuable mental training practice for race day. What starts in practice becomes habit and these habits, good or bad, are prevalent on race day, when the body is under stress.
Be positive At the most basic level, it starts with positive thinking and a positive outlook. By bringing a positive attitude to training sessions you are setting yourself up to be positive in racing. Your mood at practice is a decision you make before arriving at practice (in fact, probably before you get out of bed in the morning). Of course it would be na´ve to expect a state of euphoria for each of your workout sessions every week. But you can decide to have a range.
The low end of the range is calm or "neutral." The high end of the range is "happy" or "pumped." Strive to always be in this range. Being emotionally consistent and positive in practice allows you to relax and perform more consistently. In the long run this means physical improvement. It also allows you to easily find that same frame of mind on race day.
Imagery If you are running into a headwind, are you thinking, "I'm running into a wall, this air feels thick, I feel heavy!" Or are you imagining, "I'm cutting through the wind like a slick knife, air flowing smoothly around my body, maintaining a good steady rhythm?"
During Ironman week in Kona you can walk around listening to the war stories from past years, athletes painting mental pictures regarding their fears of "The Pit," "Pay and Save Hill," or, as I overheard last October, "the Lab." One competitor loudly prognosticated the slow, painful death he would surely encounter there.
"Man, the heat there is brutal! You can feel it slowly just suck the energy out of you. And the wind... I'm going to die out there for sure!"
Well, it is almost certain that in this instance the athlete is burning this energy-sucking negative imagery into his mind, and come race day he will be running out along the highway approaching the big stone gates of the Natural Energy Lab with trepidation, and sure enough will probably feel that he is sucked dry of whatever remaining energy he has.
A better image would be envisioning oneself as a strong and wise racer, pacing well and keeping hydrated, approaching the Energy Lab section as one of the big challenges of the race, the area where you decide you will have a good race. It will be hard, but you will rise to the challenge. Your image is one of control, awareness of your body's needs and athletic expertise. You will think about your best training sessions, where it was challenging and how you managed to handle that challenge, and decide at the Energy Lab this is how you will feel and how you will handle it on race day. You will be better than most at dealing with this section.
Self-talk Self-talk - the words we say to ourselves, the little conversations we have in our head. A common form of negative self-talk that occurs in triathlon is related to dwelling on the discipline that the athlete feels is his or her weakness: "I'm not a natural swimmer" or "I don't ever really feel like a runner." Self-talk tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Listen to yourself the next time you have a quality session, whether it is swim, bike or run. As the discomfort from exertion rises, are you saying, "This is hard. I wonder if I can hang on to this pace? I'm going to die. That person looks so good, I feel like a slug"? Or are you saying, "I can do this. I'm strong. It's hard for everyone. I'm good at coping with discomfort. I'm doing a good job of pushing as hard as I can"?
It's important to realize that the thoughts in our head are not just hot air blowing around randomly inside our cranium. How we think about and react to any situation, whether positively or negatively, is the result of years of practice. If you have spent the last five years reminding yourself, "My swim sucks," that becomes your level of acceptance, and likely your swim will continue to "suck" for the next five years. If you make a conscious effort to change the conversation in your head to sound like, "My swim leg needs improvement. I'm doing a good job of working on my catch; I expect to have small improvements each week," and "I'm swimming a little slower than last year, but I'm working hard and staying focused - this is one step toward swimming faster this year," you dramatically increase your chances of improving.
What is helpful to understand through these examples is that we all have beliefs about ourselves, about what is going to happen, and the manner in which we handle and react to events is a learned behaviour. It takes practice to be cognisant of patterns of thought, emotion and self-image. The upside of this commitment is that the benefits are immense and they are long lasting.
Triathlon can be a time consuming and energy intensive lifestyle choice, one that has joyful ups and disappointing lows. Sport is a reflection of life, and athletes find that the lessons learned through sport enhance their lives as well. The more we become aware of positive thinking, self-talk and creating positive imagery to use in training sessions and races, the easier it becomes. Eventually it is more naturally just a part of who we are as athletes and as people.