Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Managing Mental Fitness

by Gordo Byrn

From the start of my racing career, I was able to perform above my training and beat athletes who appeared fitter than me. The mental side of life has been an area where I’ve done well over the years.

There are four dimensions to athletic performance.

  1. Ability to train - Creating the life situation and habits that promote athletic development
  2. Ability to deliver proven training performance in a race situation
  3. Nutrition - Composed of the troika of health, body composition and fueling
  4. Fitness - Dominates our thinking far more than it limits performance

Athletes, largely, think that they are limited by the physical side of their portfolio but that’s rarely the underlying cause of hitting plateaus.

What are the most common mental traps that athletes fall into?

  • Thinking, “It’s always about me.”
  • Swirling chaos in day-to-day living
  • A blindness to our role in creating our life situation
  • A lack of understanding about how we make other people feel
  • Taking pleasure in triggering pain in others
  • Feeling entitled not to change as a result of what others have done

Encountering any of the above is a sign that I’m fooling myself. Catching myself with more than one trap operating means I need to take immediate action to improve my mental fitness.

As a society, we give a “pass” to citizens with a lot of wealth, beauty, charisma or athletic performance. Elite athletics is filled with examples.

If you’ve had success as a young adult then your peers may have contributed to the creation of your mental traps. While being a headcase might not be your fault, it is your responsibility.

The starting point for better mental fitness is taking an inventory of current thinking patterns. Take stock of your thoughts, particularly the most powerful emotions you experience while exercising.

I like to sort thoughts:

  • Useful / Not Useful
  • Control / Don’t Control

The “not useful - don’t control” thoughts are the most damaging -- in a race situation, you’ll find that anger, fear or envy with regard to “don’t controls” will suck the energy right out of your performance, especially with long course events.

It’s easy for me to write that you should simply “let it go” with regard to mental traps. Breathe through it and it will pass... that’s what people tell me. They are right about the temporary nature of thoughts but powerful emotions haunt us and I’d like to offer you a technique that might send them on their way.

Most of our thought habits have been built over many years. With my own thinking, I’ve been in athletic therapy for 20 years! Just like nutritional changes, I have found that replacing works better than ignoring.

Two strategies for thought replacement:

  1. Stay in the “useful - control” quadrant. Athletics is perfect for this form of mental training. Focus on your technique, your breathing and your workout/race strategy. Keep bringing yourself back to what you need to do.

  2. When you need a mental “rest” from your task, be gracious about having the opportunity to train and race. You’ll find that gratitude is positive emotion to use during mental and physical recovery.

To reduce the common fears of letting people down and not being worthy -- always define your goals and performance targets in terms of doing your best, given what you face.

If you are prone to the mental traps then you must avoid externally-driven goals which will push you into the “not useful-don’t control” quadrant.

The enduring lessons of sport flow from doing our best, not being the best.

Remember to breathe.


Gordo is the founder of Endurance Corner. You can find his personal blog at coachgordo.wordpress.com.

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