“There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Given that optimal performance relies as much on psychology as physiology, the best physical preparation in the world can only take an athlete so far. As anyone who has ever engaged in a performance activity knows, the situation can induce a significant level of mental stress in addition to the physical stress placed on the body. So how can we minimize that mental stress to best support performance?
The key is to first recognize that our thinking guides how we feel and what we do. It’s a simple aphorism, but it often gets lost amidst the chaos of race morning. When we approach a performance activity, such as an A-level race, the beliefs we have as we approach the event substantially impact how we will respond once the racing gets underway.
Thoughts can sabotage performance or thoughts can enhance performance. Obviously, thoughts that hinder performance are to be avoided while those that facilitate performance should be developed. With this in mind, I have broken down the cognitive techniques needed to support optimal performance into two corresponding phases for mental skills training.
Mental Training Phase 1: Developing Self-Awareness
Zen masters have long pointed out that our minds are filled with busy chatter. For the athlete, the first step in mental training is to recognize the thoughts that comprise that chatter. What thoughts typically go through your mind while running those track intervals? …when you pack your transition bag the day before a race? …when you wake up on the morning of race day? …when you step to the starting line? Pay attention to your thoughts on a daily basis with particular attention to the moments before, during and after your physical training.
Once you’ve developed greater awareness of the thoughts that occupy your mind, learn to identify irrational thoughts. Irrational thoughts stem from beliefs such as perfectionism, which holds that one must always perform well, or the belief that conditions in life should be arranged so that we get what we want quickly, easily and comfortably. Such beliefs lead to anxiety and mental stress. They also form the basis of irrational thoughts, which commonly occur in forms that focus on (i) the awful, terrible or horrible (e.g. It’s so awful that my chain broke; How horrible that I dropped my water bottle), (ii) the unbearable (e.g. I can’t stand the heat; Waiting in this line is unbearable), (iii) worthlessness (e.g. I’m a lousy runner; I swim like a rock), or (iv) overgeneralizations and exaggerations (e.g. I always; I never).
In addition to negative thoughts that are self-deprecating or self-punishing, other thoughts that work against an athlete’s ability to perform optimally consist of irrelevant, disrupting or distracting thoughts. If you are in the middle of an interval session and your mind is focused on composing your shopping list, it will be difficult to properly attend to the training task at hand.
In contrast, we want to develop cognitive habits that inculcate positive thoughts that enhance self-worth, confidence, and energy levels, along with positive directives that facilitate performance by focusing attention on task-relevant actions. This takes us to the second phase of mental training.
Mental Training Phase 2: Developing Positive Cognitive Habits
Once we have learned to recognize irrational and negative thoughts, we can then take proactive steps to overcome them. Counter irrational thoughts with rational thinking; and learn to stop negative thoughts by replacing them with positive ones. This can be achieved through the use of mental jujutsu whereby the mind identifies a negative thought and then turns it on its head so that its positive correlate becomes the focus of attention instead. In this way, negative thoughts that focus on, say, deficits can be turned into positive thoughts that focus on skills and abilities.
For example, maybe you’re worried about how you will perform in the swim portion of a race due to a shoulder injury that shortened your early season swim training. If you find yourself worrying about this deficit on race day, turn your attention instead to the increased running fitness you now have because you invested your usual pool time at the track. Instead of worrying about the swim, think: I’m a strong runner. I have more running fitness than usual for this point in the season. I want to make use of my running fitness.
If the mind attaches itself to a past event and begins to worry about it, turn your concentration to the present. Likewise, if the mind drifts to a future event or hypothetical consequence, focus on the present. It is impossible to act in the past (which has already happened) or in the future (which has yet to come), so the only actions we can fully control are the ones we are engaged in at the present moment. Use this simple directive as a mantra to focus your mind’s attention on the immediate task at hand: Do what I can do right now.
On May 1, 2010, Chris Solinsky became the first American to break 27 minutes in the 10,000-meter run. If you watch his performance, especially over the last several laps, he looks like a gazelle floating effortlessly around the track at remarkable speed. Yet a lap before the halfway point of the race, he developed a potentially race-ending side stitch that lasted another six or seven laps. Fortunately, he was as prepared mentally as he was physically for the race. In his mind, he repeated the instructions that his coach, Jerry Schumacher, had told him prior to the race: “If anything comes up, just take it one lap at a time.” And that’s exactly what he did. He ran one lap at a time, keeping himself in the race until the stitch went away and he opened up a spectacular kick to finish in record time.
The bottom line is that cognition can be trained. Just as your body responds when you stimulate it with physical training, so does your mind when you stimulate it with positive thinking. A proactive approach to mental training will allow you to take control over your cognitive habits. A key component of this training consists of constructing and implementing positive self-statements. Positive self-statements are best when they’re brief (e.g. I’m a strong runner), use positive terminology (e.g. I am; I can; I will; I want to) while avoiding obligation words (e.g. I must; I have to; I should), focus on strengths (e.g. I handle fatigue well; I get stronger as the race progresses), focus on possibilities (e.g. I will extend myself over the last mile; I will perform well), and direct you (e.g. I am focusing on form; I run with a quick cadence).
Just like physical training, mental skills training benefits from consistent practice. Once you’ve constructed your own self-statements, incorporate them into your physical training as you would any other aspect of your program. Use them in a variety of situations and environments, including routine workouts, low stress situations, race simulations, and full blown competitions. This will train your mind to take control of the thoughts that arise and positively shape them. When you encounter adverse situations in training or racing—and they will occur—then you will have a set of positive self-statements to fall back on, and you will have the ability to construct new ones for the current situation.