Thomas Jefferson offered this observation and it’s as relevant to mental preparation for a race as it is to any endeavor in life. The key is planning.
No matter how well you plan, prepare for a race or physically train, without being entirely convinced that you are as ready as you can possibly be for whatever comes up on race day, your motivation, confidence, focus and physical abilities to handle the psychological demands of the race will let you down. Properly engaged mental focus will give you the added fuel of positive emotion, which is the fuel to get out there and compete…and complete.
Here are the top 4 mental barriers that I’ve found derail performance on competition day—even if that competition is simply against the track you are running on:
(1) Motivation is only external
What’s the real reason you are running? Is it to satisfy yourself, to elevate your status, to increase your fame or wealth? Are you running because you love the sport and its challenges? Are your parents, spouse, friends, co-workers pushing in helpful or destructive ways? Have you set smart goals for yourself or are you borrowing someone else’s? If all your motivation comes from external (rather than internal) sources, you won’t develop and adhere to your physical and mental preparation plans.
(2) Talking yourself into anxiety
Are you convincing yourself that you “can’t win…finish…do well”? Perhaps you need more positive self-talk. In addition to realizing your actual progress during training and healthy support from others, you must avoid “all or nothing” self-talk and thinking, as well as avoid confusing your past performances with expectations for future performances. Anxiety is simply predicting the future with gloom and doom, so focus on relaxation, deep breathing, music, and avoid dire predictions of “horrible” results—you really can’t predict the future anyway. Common phrases in your self-talk along the way are often very motivating: “Good job…it’s not that much further…almost on the downhill side…not long before the stadium filled with my friends pops up.”
Ever try to NOT think about the “Pink Elephant”? The reason you can’t is because first you have to think about it in order to NOT think about it. Distractions come almost entirely from irrational, ungrounded worry. You compare yourself to your competitors, focus on irrelevant details concerning you, anticipate conditions that may not be present on race day, and erroneously believe that if you think about them then you can control them. Here’s where visualization, mental imagery and posted reminders in your gym bag, can all help. Mentally go through an entire race from waking up on race day and see what you will eat, how you warm up, all the way to the finish line. Go through the event in a positive way and rehearse every step: swim, T1, bike, T2, run and finish. Break the big picture into little pieces to keep focused on your goals, instead of irrelevant distractions.
(4) Deficient training
The wrong coach, an undisciplined or unstructured training program, preparing for the wrong conditions and improper nutritive planning, all lead to being poorly prepared. A lack of mental preparation includes not detailing out and planning your desired goals. What mindset do you visualize for yourself throughout the race? In an Ironman for example, it’s common for the human mind to give in to despair somewhere between 60-90 miles of the biking portion of the race. Preparing in advance for how you will re-think and deal with it (these thoughts normally pass at about 100 miles, so hang in!), will turn this seeming crisis into an expected challenge you are prepared to handle. Detailed goal setting, positive and rational self-talk, mental imagery, familiarity with the course, relaxation methods, concentration, focus skills to avoid distractions, are all are a part of complete mental preparation.
What’s The Fix? OMP
These three letters are Optimal Mental Performance. The optimal mindset is central to your success performance. It builds self-confidence, helps you control your mental energy throughout the race course, provides focus on the essential elements of your competition, and creates a sense of familiarity as you move through, in reality, what you’ve rehearsed so many times, in imagery.
Begin with the end in mind as you prepare yourself for a big event. How will you need to think and feel to do your best? That’s the key—striving to do your best. What is the right “mindset” to achieve this goal? How do you see yourself feeling and thinking at the start line? What are you focusing on that jettisons you towards doing your best? You might want to compare your previous best and worst performances to see how the answers to these questions change. What does your optimal mindset look, sound and feel like? What cue words do you hear in your optimal mental self-talk? What do you need to do to be mentally and physically ready along the race from warm-up to finish? As you rehearse, listen to yourself positively comment on your progress as you pass landmarks you’ve “seen” in your mental imagery. These strategy rehearsal tips will help you with energy management, and the mental and physical challenges during the race and in post-race recovery.
Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. has served as an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and as the Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise. He is a behavioral sciences coach and consultant, an Advisor to many fitness and health organizations, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Council on Active Aging, the Chief Consultant for Behavior Sciences for the Premier Fitness Camp at Omni La Costa, a presenter for Rancho La Puerta, a best-selling author and an international fitness-health speaker. In 2013, Greatist.com named Dr. Mantell as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”