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Find Your Sweet Spot: Mental Prep for Age Group Nationals

By Dr. Mitchell Greene

mental prepIt may seem obvious to some, but many triathletes don’t appreciate just how much their mindset affects their performance and their enjoyment of triathlon. While experiencing too much pressure can hijack attention, induce near-panic states, and alter a triathlete’s race strategy; too little stress can lead to unfocused preparation, an uneven race effort, and disappointing results. With the spotlight on Age Group Nationals, racers need to find their sweet spot – that primed mental state that signals their readiness to test themselves against the best.

While there is no one-size-fits-all mental approach for a major race, the “inner game” for competitive age group triathletes is often a matter of addition by subtraction. Removing mental obstacles allows for an athlete to naturally transfer their training progress into racing success. Those soured by their inability to find their sweet spot should try to shed unnecessary psychological burdens this week instead of creating reasons to make Nationals something to really worry about.

Obviously, if you are experiencing greater than normal race-related tension this week, it is tied to your concerns about your final results – and, more likely, the significance you have attached to them. I like to remind my athletes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that there will be plenty of time to worry about results after the race is over. As race day approaches, it is important to put your attention on the source of these internal distractions that may be disrupting your normal mental and physical preparation.

One tool I employ to help triathletes look inward and find their sweet spot is to teach them about “side games.” A “side game” is something an athlete gives great importance to in addition to their stated goal. Let’s say you declared that your number one goal at nationals is to reach the podium. However, you may have another goal that remains unsaid, yet takes on as much significance (if not more) than your stated agenda. That undeclared goal is what we call our “side game.” Here are some examples of popular side games for triathletes. There’s the “If-I-don’t-reach-the-podium-I-am-a-failure” game, and the ever-popular “I-would-rather-die-than-get-passed-on-the-run” game. Recently I worked with a triathlete who unsuccessfully played the “I-have-to-do-well-because-my-coach-will-be-crushed” side game. And, for many of you, the “My-whole-family-will-be-here-I-better-not-disappoint-them” side game could very well be in play.

As you might be able to see, these “side games” can become high stakes games of self-protection, particularly when a “big” race is on the schedule. In other words, reaching the podium is certainly well and good, but proving your worthiness to yourself and/or others is what really feels at stake and is the source of your tension. In competition, we want to remove as much of our ego-based concerns so that we can race with as much verve and freedom as our training dictates. In and of themselves, “side games” are neither bad nor good, but they are loaded with potential costs and benefits. The dark side of these games is that they can rob you of your satisfaction this week, let alone impact your performance especially if the race is not going as planned.

The good news is that once you notice the games you are playing, you (and only you) get to choose if you want to continue playing or not. Reminding yourself that you have the power to “choose your importances” is one of the best pieces of advice I can give triathletes who are feeling frazzled prior to nationals or any other important race. The triathlete mentioned earlier, who was concerned about her coach’s approval, took the time before her big race to clarify for herself what this race meant to her (versus her coach), who she was racing for and whether what her coach thought would be something within her control. She was surprised at the end of our conversation to feel tears flow down her cheek, yet that physiological release buoyed her and signified that this “side game” was over.

Similarly, you may find that closely examining your “side games,” asking yourself why they have become so important to you, and whether you want to ditch one or some, will provide you with an additional psychological lift this week. This is certainly a time to recognize this tri season’s accomplishments, focus on where you can improve as a triathlete, and savor having found your sweet spot for success. 

Dr. Mitchell Greene is the sport psychology consultant to the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon and the SheRox Triathlon series. Dr. Greene works with a range of competitive triathletes, from professional to recreational. If you have a question concerning the mental aspects of training and racing, visit Dr. Greene's website, or email him. He will use some of your questions in future issues of USA Triathlon's Multisport Zone. He is also available to collaborate with you in developing a personalized mental training plan to maximize your training programs.