You’ve put in months of training for your biggest racing event of the season. You’ve been consistent and committed to a progression, have taken some lessons to improve your skills and feel ready to step to the line and put those months of training to the test!
Race morning arrives and your alarm sounds at an hour when most of the world is still in the REM mode of sleep. You turn on the light, swing your legs over edge of your bed and the first thought comes into your head is, “Why am I doing this?” The thought lingers as you force yourself to take in some pre-race calories, log in at least 4000 steps going back and forth to the bathroom and begin to put on your race attire. When you arrive at the venue, doubtful thoughts begin to amplify such as, “I don’t belong here,” “I don’t think I can do this,” “What if I don’t finish? “Why do everyone else’s biceps look better than mine?” Gradually, throughout the morning you set up your mental hurdles in a row – one by one. Progressively, you begin practicing the exact mental skills necessary to sabotage what should otherwise be an exciting day.
If you’ve experienced all or any of the scenario noted above, you are not alone and should never consider it a failure. On the contrary, it’s a healthy opportunity for you to look at what part of your training program was not addressed. Specifically, the training of your mental skills. Like physical training, the mental aspect takes time – often years. We evolve at our own rate and only evolve if we practice the skills. Over the past 22 years that I have been coaching, I have noted five key aspects of mental preparation that should be considered and practiced.
This refers to your perspective leading up to the event and the attitude that you choose to take. Think of it as your mental runway. A positive perspective, for example, can mean that you are nervously excited and look forward to seeing what you can do out there on the course against yourself. You understand that the race serves as an opportunity for growth.
Awareness simply means being mindful and conscious that you are part of a collective experience. You realize that you and the other participants are “in it together” and are all experiencing excitement and nerves. You have all been on your own personal journey in preparing for the event and you all have your own personal stories. You are not alone.
Acknowledging what you are grateful for can provoke positive and even calming feelings. In a way, it slaps the face of that negative self-talk and snaps us back into realizing what is important in our lives. For example, taking a moment before the start of your event and express gratitude for your body’s ability to provide you the gift of movement and health. Notice the sunrise and be grateful that you are standing right there, experiencing it with others. Express gratitude to those who have loved and supported you throughout your journey to the starting line.
Acceptance is a coming to terms with the complete package of what you signed up for. You will experience a broad spectrum of emotions and challenges from the minute you get out of bed to the hour or two after you cross the finish line. For example, you may feel nerves, excitement, fatigue, disappointment or euphoria. You might drop your bike chain, trip, help another athlete, run your fastest time, run your worst time, talk yourself through difficult segments or feel as if you everything is in sync. You have signed up for the experience and to take on the challenges of the day.
RE-DIRECT AND REFOCUS
Re-directing and refocusing means reigning in thoughts and emotions when they start to spiral or drift down a negative path. Refocusing to something specific and controllable can bring your thoughts back to the present and break the spiraling cycle. For example, if you are feeling panicky during the swim of a triathlon, redirect your focus to something technique oriented. You can focus on making a clean entry with your hand (specific and directed) or relaxing your arm during recovery. Refocusing can also mean redirecting your self-talk. For example, “I am prepared for this, versus “I am incapable of this” or “this is so hard” versus, “everyone is experiencing a challenge.”
One of my favorite Buddhist quotes is, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.” Just as it takes time to learn a new physical skill, it takes time to learn how to train your mental perspective. And, just as learning a new physical skill requires breaking it down into smaller parts, the same applies to mental training. Start by choosing one of the five perspectives noted above and begin to put it into practice in training, racing and everyday life. Gradually, you will start to feel a positive shift!