Mental Fitness Part II: Types of Athletes
By Jesse Kropelnicki
When it comes to mental fitness there are typically two primary types of athletes. There are those who are motivated by the avoidance of failure, and there are those who are motivated by the achievement of success. Few can be fully classified as either one or the other, so we must apply different tactics to each type. Just as optimal physical fitness is highly personalized, mental fitness is equally so. What’s good for the goose may not be so good for the gander.
Type 1: The Avoidance of Failure
Athletes who are motivated by the avoidance of failure — let’s call them “F” athletes — will typically perform best in events that are perceived to be either very, very easy or very, very hard. These athletes will thrive at local sprint races, where the competition is perceived to be very weak, or in a race like Kona, where they perceive the competition to be heads and shoulders above themselves. But, at a regional championship or satellite Ironman, where the perception of success is 50/50, they will talk themselves right out of a potential Kona slot. As a result, these athletes tend to become over-aroused very easily and begin to focus on task irrelevant items. This is a shortcut to the following thought process:
The environment is perceived to be a threat to self-esteem, which leads to a disconnect between ability and what is required for perceived success, which leads to a fear of consequences from coach, sponsors, or peer group.
And so begins a nasty cycle of mental cat-and-mouse, as these thoughts lead to further and further arousal, for an athlete who doesn’t need it. Successful F athletes will focus their attention on process goals, and their coaches will work to mold the athlete’s perception of an upcoming event as either very easy (compared to their training) or as nearly impossible.
These athletes can be negatively affected by too much detail in their training program. Seemingly benign information, such as tracking nutritional intake, or assigning exact power and pacing numbers for a race can quickly overwhelm the F athlete, because each represents an opportunity for the perception of failure. As a result, a training program that is less focused on detail and metrics can be the best approach for these athletes. Although detail in all aspects of a training/nutrition program is a hallmark of quality coaching, physical progress is of little value to an athlete if it cannot be used on race day. In the end, there is only one true metric of success in competitive racing: how quickly you are able to cross the finish line.
Too much detail can lead F athletes to believe that inconsequential items have a tremendous impact on race day. For example, we typically assign the exact timing and portion size of a race morning breakfast, based upon the race’s distance. F athletes may overreact to missing the timing of their breakfast by 10 or 15 minutes, and think that if they make this mistake they’ll have little to no chance of performing well. The F athlete assigns 20 percent importance to something that is deserving of only 0.5 percent importance. In the end, if both the athlete and coach place too much importance on the little things, despite them being physiologically and nutritionally sound, it may actually be detrimental because of the way the athlete perceives things. If a particular level of detail is going to create the perception of failure, taking it out of the equation can help ensure peak performance.
Because of my focus on detail and metrics, I have made these mistakes and been left scratching my head. When I began considering the importance and effects of what I call “mental fitness,” I started to ask myself why I was focusing on SO much detail if it undermines the athlete on race day? Why not focus on less detail, and take a more qualitative approach to preparation and race-day execution? As the athlete’s mental fitness develops, then more and more detail can be introduced into the fray. Remember, it doesn’t matter what the reality, it’s about how the athlete perceives the situation. I encourage athletes to think about the how they allow their environment to make them feel. This is at the pinnacle of mental fitness.
Type 2: The Achievement of Success
Athletes who are motivated by the achievement of success (“S” athletes) perform very well when they perceive success to be 50/50. They “want the ball” when the game is on the line and are able to rise to the challenge defined by how they perceive their environment. Regardless of the reality, if these athletes perceive a challenge, they embrace it. When faced with a 50/50, the S athlete summons their optimal arousal level, and is left focused and motivated. The S athlete responds very well to detail, and tends not to perceive “failure” as detrimental. Rather, they maintain perspective of the details in relation to their training as a whole, better perceiving the reality of each. The S athlete knows that missing the timing of their race morning breakfast by 10 minutes really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
At times, the S athlete may require a bit of help to concentrate their efforts on the importance of a key workout, or a local sprint race where they know they will win. Where the F athlete can be a bit too much like the Tasmanian Devil on race morning, the S athlete can too closely resemble Deputy Dog and might need some mental stimulation to get through a set of mile repeats.
Coaches typically fall into two categories. There are those who use positive reinforcement to motivate their athletes, and those who use punishment. Ninety-nine percent of the time, positive reinforcement is the most productive approach. Most coaches and family support systems fall somewhere in between these two approaches. Punishment can be extremely detrimental to the F athlete because it causes them to further focus on task irrelevant items and reinforces their fear of failure. This can catalyze the cycle of negativity discussed above. S athletes, on the other hand, can react positively to some punishment in their program, perceiving it as a challenge. It’s very rare that a coach will be successful using either model exclusively. Coaches and support systems should consider the athletes who they are working with and gauge their approach accordingly.
Coaches will take the approach that best suits their personality, but I urge coaches to allow their focus to be more athlete-centered than coach-centered. This may require the coach to wear more than one hat, but will ensure that their athletes are able to maintain an appropriate mental approach to training and racing. Just as a good teacher must consider how best to motivate each individual student, a good coach must do the same. Positive reinforcement is never the wrong answer. But sometimes, when you need to get your message across, punishment can be a very effective tool, specifically for the S athlete. Where the S athlete can typically handle some level of reprimand, the F athlete may feel alienated by it. This can result in a poor athlete-coach relationship, culminating in hostility and/or discouragement. For the F athlete, this can create a loss of motivation with a renewed focus on failure.
Most athletes aren’t 100 percent either type, and where they fall on the spectrum can vary on a yearly, monthly, and even daily basis. Once you are able to understand your state of mental fitness, you can better guide your performance on race day, with the goal being always to display the fitness developed and shown in training.
As coaches and athletes we place the bulk of our attention on the physical aspects of the sport, and for good reason. But, when we find ourselves not performing to physical expectations, we must take a step back and consider this additional sphere of influence. The sport of triathlon is multifaceted, and as a result, we are always presented with any number of potential limiters. Like the physical, limiters in mental fitness can be just as restrictive. Each athlete interprets their environment according to their own perceptions. Just as we would never expect athletes to respond to exactly the same physical stimuli, we cannot expect each athlete to be motivated by the same things. I believe this is one of the reasons why many triathlon squads that take a standard approach to all athletes from a mental perspective can be successful for some, but detrimental to others.
Stay tuned for Part III to learn goal-setting processes useful for all types of athletes, that will help you focus on task-relevant items and develop mental fitness. You can read part I here.
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.