Mental Fitness Part I: The Key Items
By Jesse Kropelnicki
As triathletes, we often think that if we pay proper attention to our training, nutrition, recovery and race fueling/pacing that we’ll just naturally meet our potential. At QT2 Systems, we call these our four cornerstones of success. It’s often the case, however, that we fail to race to our potential, despite tremendous fitness. When this occurs, we must analyze all aspects of our preparations and execution, and perhaps something deeper still. This adds a layer of complexity to the performance package, as our foundation of cornerstones becomes pentagonal. This fifth element — mental fitness — is the least tangible of the cornerstones, and therefore the most difficult to wrap our minds around. Whereas the original four cornerstones all have their basis in the hard sciences, mental fitness brings a level of abstraction because it deals with the human mind.
Despite our incomplete understanding of the human mind, enough research has been done in the area of athletic performance to find appropriate strategies for overcoming mental limitations. Let’s consider just a few.
Race Details: The First Line of Defense
When an athlete does not perform up to their expectations, the first place to inspect is the race fueling and execution/pacing. These executables are, invariably, the most common areas where underperforming athletes struggle. These, combined with more than adequate preparation (training and nutrition/restoration), form our four cornerstones of successful performances. Any missing piece can lead to a poor a race, and the longer the race, the greater negative effect that any single missing component will have. It’s when all four of these pieces are firmly in place, and we still miss our expectations, that we are left scratching our heads.
In comes mental health — our fifth cornerstone. As we all know, without physical health, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to create the fitness that results in speed. The same holds true on the mental side: good mental health is required for an athlete to develop or maintain strong mental fitness, and thus speed.
What Is Mental Fitness, and Why Is It So Hard To Come By?
Competition in and of itself can be daunting. You avail yourself to comparisons with others in a confined set of rules. Your abilities, be they strong or weak, are put forth for judgment. This can be a tremendous undertaking for the human ego. How an athlete perceives the environment of the competition, and how it makes them feel is fundamental to mental fitness. Those with strong mental fitness can adapt to any setting and either take full advantage of it or, at the very least, be completely unaffected.
Take for example this year’s Ironman Lake Placid. Race morning it was announced that the swim would be a non-wetsuit swim for those competing for a Kona slot. Those with strong mental fitness were able to recognize that this was the hand that they had been dealt, and though it might result in a slower swim time, would leave their race largely unaffected. Others panicked. In essence, the key components of mental fitness in competition really boil down to the following:
- Failure — Very little fear of it.
- Goals — Not thinking about performance outcomes.
- Focus — Being “in the moment” and focused on the activity at hand.
- Experience — Having your body complete the task almost involuntarily.
- Control — Sticking to your executables, and staying within your targets creating great sense of personal control.
Markers of Mental Fitness
Intrinsic motivation is one of the most important attributes of mental fitness, and is best described as a desire to train and compete on a daily basis. An athlete’s “love of the game” will typically fuel the desire to be competent in their respective sport. This tends to be second nature to most triathletes, otherwise why would we sign up for races a year in advance and get up at ungodly hours of the morning? When this intrinsic motivation begins to wane, there is very often a bigger-picture issue related to either physical or mental health, such as overtraining and depression, respectively. As a result, it’s quite possible to be both intrinsically motivated and lacking in mental fitness. Their mutual exclusivity is the reason for this discussion, and what constantly bewilders coaches and athletes alike.
Task relevance considers an athlete’s mindset while training and/or racing. Those who are able to focus their full attention on task-relevant items are constantly reminding themselves: “I will stay focused on the bike, and peddle at 90rpm,” or “I will run this hill strong, keeping my eyes on my target.” These are signs of a mentally fit athlete because despite any outside distractions, they are able to concentrate only on the task at hand.
Conversely, the mentally unfit athlete tends to get distracted by outside stimuli, thus focusing on task- irrelevant items. Thoughts that fall along the lines of “If I don’t perform well, I am going to disappoint my family and friends,” and “If I don’t place in the top-10, my sponsors are going to drop me.” The difference in mindsets is quite clear, and it’s not too difficult to see the impacts of each. While a focus on task-relevant items will not necessary lead to physical success, it will certainly put the athlete in a position to fully capitalize on their fitness. By the same token, the toll of focusing on task-irrelevant items can take the wind right out of an athlete’s fitness sails with too much mental energy spent on why something can’t be done rather than why it can.
For those of you snickering like a 15-year old boy, “arousal” is actually a common term used to describe the level of excitement an athlete is able to bring to an event or workout. Athletes should work to identify their optimal arousal level, so that they’re neither a jittery mess nor a wet mop at the starting line. Athletes want to make sure that they are aroused enough to push themselves to their physical limits on race day, but not so much so that they begin making mistakes and focusing on task-irrelevant items. Finding thoughts to reduce arousal level in some athletes, and thoughts to increase it in others is an important component to mental fitness.
Stay tuned for more on motivation and goal setting in parts II and III of this series.
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC, a leading provider of personal triathlon coaching; TheCoreDiet.com, a leading provider of sports nutrition; and Your 26.2 a marathon training company. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Ethan Brown, Jacqui Gordon, and Pedro Gomes, among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.