“Whether you believe you can or not, you’re right.”
— Henry Ford
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
— William Shakespeare
What causes an endurance athlete to slow down or stop during a race or training session?
Historically, this question has been answered by either focusing on the accumulation of fatigue in the muscles themselves (peripheral fatigue) or via the role played by the central nervous system in regulating activity (central governor model). The central governor model, proposed by physiologist Tim Noakes in the late 1990s, proposed that the brain regulates intensity during exercise to maintain homeostasis and prevent the body from reaching catastrophic failure. Yet both of these historical approaches have been criticized for overlooking and failing to explain the influence of psychological variables in shaping an athlete’s performance.
Athletic Performance as an Interplay of Body and Mind
The current understanding of the limits of endurance performance is known as the psychobiological model. As the word root psycho indicates, the model places increased focus on psychological factors such as cognitive perception, motivation, and willingness. This is in addition to, as the word root bio indicates, biological or physiological factors. The interplay of psychology and physiology is what limits performance — or, conversely, allows an athlete to extend those limits.
According to the psychobiological model, an athlete doesn’t necessarily stop when they reach their physiological limits, but only when the activity requires more effort than they are willing to exert. If the athlete perceives that the effort required by the activity exceeds the greatest amount they are willing to put forth, then they will slow down or stop. If the athlete perceives that they have already put forth all the effort they can muster, then continuing will be viewed as impossible and they will slow down or stop. So motivation and perception of effort guide the athlete’s decision-making. As long as the athlete continues to view their goal for the activity as attainable, then they will keep at it with the same intensity.
The greatest limiter to performance, therefore, can often be our beliefs, appraisals, and self-talk.
Belief in Our Capacity to Act
Self-efficacy is our belief in our capacity to act in a way that allows us to reach our goals. Originally developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy influences how we approach challenges and make choices. It’s what we think we can do, what we think we can’t do, and what we think our limits are.
We learn and develop our self-efficacy beliefs through both personal experiences and social interaction. Our own life histories are filled with lessons on how we handled challenges and adversity in the past. On a day-to-day basis, we continue to observe and draw lessons from our training, learning what drives us to push beyond our limits or slow down. Social facilitation also plays a role in how we develop our belief systems. Watching others push the boundaries and post incredible times can provide positive models that influence our beliefs in what we can do. Feedback from others on our own performances also plays a role.
Cognitive appraisals are the subjective interpretations we make about what we perceive to be happening around us. In the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, a threat appraisal involves judging a task as important to us while also perceiving that we lack the ability or resources to meet the demands of the task. Threat appraisals can lead to anxiety and stress. This can occur, for example, when heading into a race where we start to doubt our readiness. Countering threat appraisals involves reframing them as challenge appraisals to shift the perception to one where we have sufficient (or nearly sufficient) ability and resources to meet the demands of the task.
We also make appraisals, or judgments in everyday training as we look at the numbers on our devices to judge pacing, heart rate, and other metrics. If the watch is telling us we’re running at a certain pace but we have the perception that we should be going faster given the effort level, then this could lead to a negative appraisal of the situation. Metrics are useful in training, but they can also lead to negative judgments that impact our self-efficacy beliefs. Recognizing these potential pitfalls is important to avoid falling into them.
Self-talk refers to our internal dialogue, the verbalizations and statements we address to ourselves. Our minds tend to be quite chatty and filled with spontaneous thoughts and narratives that come and go. This natural flow of dialogue in our mind is organic self-talk. Sometimes we hold onto certain narratives and repeat them on loop. Sometimes random ideas pop into our head and disappear just as quickly.
Becoming more aware of that chatter allows us to better shape our internal dialogue in a way that serves us rather than hinders us. Is your organic self-talk generally positive, negative, self-critical, etc.?
Since we can’t change what we’re not aware of, the first step to harnessing self-talk is to become aware of it. Gaining awareness is a crucial step to developing your mental skills as an athlete.