“Training for a race is like riding a roller coaster — you experience highs and lows, ups and downs, and more peaks and troughs than the New York Stock Exchange”. Chrissie Wellington, 4-time World Ironman Champion.
Most of us rarely utilize our full physical capability so it’s hard to imagine where our real limits reside. I love to hear over and over again about the bumble bee, which, according to experts in the fields of aerodynamics and space engineering, should not be capable of flying. After studying its attributes for many days, the experts concluded that the bee is too fat, too round, too slow, and not strong enough to fly. Fortunately, the bumble bee cannot read these findings and she’s been flying since anyone can remember.
Athletes should not impose limits or barriers on what is possible. We can and will begin to transcend our limits and go beyond the confines of our anatomical structures when we learn how to tune in to the powers of the mind. It is important to understand that the mind can not help you to overcome your real physical, genetically based limitations; it does, however, allow you to go beyond what you think are your limits.
Rather than accept preconceptions about what you can and cannot do, you can dream about being a good athlete and ask yourself why not? With that question as a modus operandi for your training program, you will begin to experience incredible breakthroughs into territories that you once feared.
I am a huge believer that sporting success rests, in part, with having the mental fortitude necessary to overcome our fears, pain and discomfort. But how does one develop that strength? Is it innate, or can it be learned?
I believe it is the latter. We can all train our brains to be as strong as our bodies. The problem resides in that we generally don’t take the time to train our mind. We hire a coach to tell us how to train our body. We ask a nutritionist what to eat to maximize our performance. We spend lots of money in supplements, massages, training clothes, tools, etc. but we fail to train the single element that is always with us and that is responsible for at least 90% of our performance execution: our mind.
It sounds simple, but it’s so easy to forget. The message is this: All the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared. This is part of training for a race — the part that people don’t put in their logbooks, the part that all the monitors, gizmos and gadgets in the world can’t influence.
But how do you train your brain to help you achieve your goals? Since my job as a sport psychologist is to help athletes become the best they can be, and my job as a counselor/life coach is to help people get the most out of their lives, I have come across many techniques that help to train your mind. Since space in this column is limited I will write down some of them and I will keep coming back to these techniques in my upcoming blogs. If you would like to have a private session with me we can always find time for it, just send me an email or give me a call and I will be glad to help you reach your potential and being you who decides where your limits are… but for now, lets talk about a few techniques that help me keep mind over matter and ensure that I can ride the roller coaster of sporting success:
1. Set positive, tangible, goals
If you don’t know where you are going, you will never get there. It is important to know what is it that you want to achieve. When practice gets hard, when you want to quit, when you are hurting, when it seems easier to stop than to keep going, remembering your goal will keep you pushing for more. I generally write my goal down in my water bottle to have it in sight all the time, especially when I start forgetting why I am doing what I am doing.
Remember to set positive goals (i.e. “I want to be relax” instead of “I don’t want to choke”) and to set goals that you can measure. Also, it is important to set performance and process goals along with outcome (result) goals. Performance and process goals are entirely under our control, outcome goals generally depend on things out of our control.
2. Learn to relax
Have you ever pretended you are playing the piano in the air? If your hand is loose it is really easy to do so, but if you tense your hand the movements get hard and it hurts. It is the same with any sport. If your body is tense your performance will suffer. Learning to relax your muscles will be the best investment you can ever do, and it can be as simple as just remembering to breathe deeply or to have a mantra or a special phrase (‘relax”) or song to repeat. Having a mantra (‘yes I can”, “strong and easy”, “relax and powerful”) helps to be focused and to keep your mind full of positive thoughts.
3. Watch your thoughts and keep a bank of positive mental images
I ALWAYS pay attention to what I am thinking. Ideally, during a competition, you are not thinking about anything, you are “in the zone”, just executing. Since this is not always possible, especially in practice or training, I watch my thoughts all the time. If I realize I am having negative thoughts (“I am tired”, “This is too hard”, “What if I can’t?”…) I let them go and talk to myself about something positive; something I can do and that is under my control instead of something I can not do or I perceive as too hard. If you are always having negative thoughts, this is the kind of performer you will become. Your thoughts become your words and your words become your actions… plus, Who likes to be around negative people?
4. Practice visualization beforehand
In training, when traveling, while sleeping or at work, this is the simple act of closing your eyes (although I don’t recommend doing this at a work meeting or while on your bike). Relax your mind and go through each stage of the race one step at a time — mentally imagining yourself performing at your peak but also successfully overcoming potential problems.
Before Michael Phelps has even entered the water, he has already completed the race in his mind. And won.
You can draw on the visual images (the finish line), the feelings you experience (energy surges) or the sounds you hear (roars of the crowd). That way when you race, you have the peace of mind and confidence that you have already conquered the challenges.
5. Break the race up into smaller, more manageable segments
I always think of the marathon as four 10 kilometer races with a little bit more at the end.
You might think only about getting to the next aid station, or lamppost or Porta Potty and, from there, set another landmark goal. Stay in the moment and don’t think too far ahead. I also try to breathe deeply and rhythmically; if you calm your breath, you can help calm your mind.
6. Remember that training is about learning to hurt
Push your physical limits and overcome them in training sessions, so that when you race you know that you have successfully endured pain and discomfort. You will draw confidence and peace of mind from this knowledge.
7. Get people to support you
Some people thrive on the support from their family and friends, while others perceive it as added pressure. Work out what feels right for you, and if necessary, invite friends, family or pets to come and cheer you on. Have them make banners, wear team T-shirts and generally behave in a way that would get them arrested under normal circumstances.
8. Mentally recall inspirational people
I recall people who have all fought against adversity. People that have proved that anything truly is possible.You might want to consider dedicating each mile to a special person in your life. That makes the discomfort easier to bear and will help give you a mental and physical boost.
9. Consider racing for a cause that is bigger than yourself
For me, it is to establish a platform on which to spread important messages and be a patron for charitable causes. To help other people achieve what their want and to believe in themselves. Champions come and go, but to me the real judge of my personal success will be whether I actually do something positive with the opportunities I have been given.
I hope these points help you as they have helped me. And remember to enjoy every moment. Life is too short and we have to make the most out of every moment we are given. We only have here and now, so go ahead and expand your limits, grasp them and start living your dreams.
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