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Nine Tools For Boosting Mental Toughness

  • By T.J. Murphy
  • Published October 3, 2012
Photo: Delly Carr / ITU

Whether the goal is to finish a first event, break a time goal or win the thing, a race isn’t truly satisfying unless we come face-to-face with the inner weakness that tries to sway us toward giving less than the body is capable of or throwing in the towel altogether. Confronting this voice and trouncing it can be the most satisfying feeling of personal victory that comes in the sport.

The edge comes when the risk is compelling enough to make it all count. You know you’ve taken on a true challenge when halfway through the race, the physical discomfort forces you to ask, “Why am I doing this to myself?” This is the beginning of what can be a gloomy spiral downward.

To help fortify your mental game for these private battles that await—especially in races with exceptional length, heat, humidity, wind, hills or all of the above—we asked two sports psychologists what tools and techniques every triathlete should employ.

K.C. Wilder has a doctorate in sports psychology and was an all-American cyclist while at the University of Virginia. Wilder continues to race on a Cat-1 level in her home state of Pennsylvania. She currently works with athletes in both individual and group sessions with a special emphasis on addressing anxiety and stress issues.

In addition to racing off-road triathlon professionally and being a member of Team LunaChix, Danelle Kabush has a doctorate in sports psychology and works with winter sport athletes in her hometown of Calgary. Kabush draws from lab work that focused on the subject of motivation conducted during her doctoral studies at the University of Ottawa.

Make the commitment. In beginning to work with an athlete, Wilder’s initial consultations involve a meeting where goals are set. “We set short-term goals and long-term goals,” Wilder says. In the discussion, she helps the athlete distinguish between what she calls process goals versus outcome goals—the former concentrating on the weekly training output and the latter on what the athlete hopes to come away with at the end of the program. “For example, the outcome might be that at the finish they improve their PR at a certain race distance by a certain amount.” Wilder has the athlete write this down on an index card, which goes into a safe in her office. “You can do the same at home with a shoe box. The idea is to commit to the goal and put it away; allay any doubts that might creep into the mind and persuade you to alter the goal.” Then, Wilder says, with the decision on the outcome said and done, you will be more apt to simply pour all of your mental energy into training toward your goal and less tempted to alter the plan due to fear.

Build confidence with difficult workouts. According to Kabush, psychological strength gets manufactured with challenging bouts of training. “We need to do some workouts that scare us,” she says. What this means is that key workouts need to be planned and executed—workouts more demanding than the race. Pre-race fear will be replaced with a steely resolve. “These are the confidence builders,” says Kabush. “You’ll be able to commit to finishing at whatever cost.”

Know the purpose of each workout. In addition to these tough key workouts, you’ll boost your confidence by knowing that all training was high-quality. Kabush says that by understanding the specific goal of each workout, an athlete will be less apt to cut corners or squander away a training period. “By understanding what it is you’re out to accomplish at a swim workout, for example, you’ll be less likely to just half-heartedly swim for 30 minutes as opposed to getting in a quality one-hour interval workout.”

Make the race a research project. Wilder counsels her athletes to consider mental resources, suggesting athletes pay special attention to mastering how you get organized in the days and hours before the race start to avoid any waste. “You want your pre-race routines to flow like clockwork,” she explains. “The routines help prevent frittering away energy. To prepare these routines, do as much homework as you can before the big event. Approach this like you would a researcher. Read everything you can about it and interview those who have raced it before. Write this all down.” The objective is to understand as much as you possibly can about the event beforehand so that pre-race stress and anxiety are kept to a minimum and you’ll “conserve the maximum amount of mental resources for the effort of the race.” If the race is at a location you’ve never visited before, these principles become all the more invaluable—know where you’ll shop for food, eat your meals, and when and where you have to be for all the various pre-race briefings and equipment check-ins.

Perform pre-race simulations. In doing your pre-race research, identify aspects of the race that may be particularly distressing and do your best to simulate the situation in training. For example, consider a chaotic mass swim start like at the Hawaii Ironman. “The panic of a mass swim start is hard to prepare for,” Kabush says. This is where a group workout at the pool could be arranged to try to simulate the general rampage of the first minutes of the swim. “In this workout you’d practice getting clobbered and scratched and work on the basics, like continuing to breathe and getting into a rhythm. It’s like studying for a big exam. You want to be so prepared that when the questions come, you’ll respond automatically.”

Focus on what can be controlled. Also in the interest of conserving mental energy, Wilder advises athletes to monitor their thoughts and restrict thinking to those things that can be controlled. “You can’t control the weather,” she says as an example, “so it’s of no value to burn energy worrying about it.” Inherent within this strategy is centering thoughts on the daily tasks of completing workouts and checking off the extras like a good diet, getting proper sleep and managing workout recovery—in effect, controlling what can be controlled.

Don’t race unprepared. In discussing the importance of building confidence and mental toughness over the long haul, Wilder discourages athletes from starting a race if for some reason the training has been insufficient. If injury, illness or the pull of life commitments have left you short of the fitness level demanded by the race, don’t do it. “If you don’t have confidence in your ability, go back and work on it. Go back to preparing the way you should.” To do otherwise, Wilder says, can be a form of self-sabotage.

When racing, think through the tough patches. When the physical stresses of an arduous race begin to sour your mood, be prepared, Wilder says. Deal with whatever nutrition or equipment needs might help you retain a level of comfort, but also be ready with psychological aids. “I teach my athletes to memorize three or four positive affirmations,” she says. When dark thoughts begin to enter the picture, call up the affirmations and work your way through the bad spell with positive images that root you in the moment. “Thinking about the outcome can zap you of your energy. Rather, being in the moment and remembering how much you love having the freedom to be on your bike or to be out there running can help you recapture a good feeling.”

Conduct a thorough post-race analysis. After the goal event, Wilder has her athletes study the experience whether the race was a success or a disappointment. “I want them to look at it from a standpoint of process rather than outcome. Really break down everything that happened. Make it a complete learning experience to take in to your next goal.” Wilder suggests that what might be termed failures can in fact be an important part of developing mental toughness. “Battling back from a disappointment is a critical part of building mental toughness. This is how we build resilience.”

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