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The Power of One Mind: Mental Rehearsal

By Tim Barrett

Take your performance to the next level by training “from the neck up.” Successful athletes have learned to imagine specific aspects of their performance in great detail before they perform, leading to better performance in training and competition. Practice these six strategies of mental rehearsal to maximize your potential.

swimImagery practice sessions to improve a skill
Before your next skill session, play a video in your mind of you performing the skill perfectly as you train. For instance, each night, visualize yourself executing the perfect form of your swim stroke or run technique. “Watch” the video of yourself, in your mind, with flawless execution of each critical element of the skill. Research shows that playing a mental movie of correct execution of a skill can enhance the learning and actual performance of that skill. 

Imagery to energize before practices
The commitment of hours spent swimming, biking, and running is demanding and it is reasonable for athletes to sometimes feel sluggish or unmotivated before a training session. Successful athletes use imagery to get energized or “fired-up” before sessions. For example, visualizing crossing the finish line of your ‘A’ race with family and friends there cheering you on and thinking about the feeling of accomplishment might be just what you need to get the juices flowing. 

Instant mental replays
Athletes can learn the feelings of correctly performed skills to help with the muscle memory of a skill. For instance, after swimming a lap focusing on the proper catch, the athlete would rest at the wall, taking a few seconds to mentally rehearse the feeling of the proper catch, trying to feel everything exactly like it felt when the skill was performed.

Imagery at practices with previous learned skills
Like the instant mental replays, an athlete mentally rehearses the skill before executing it, in order to experience the proper feeling. For example, focusing on the feeling of pedaling “perfect circles” and what the force on the pedals feels like, to increase the likelihood of correctly performing perfect circles throughout the ride.

Visualization that simulates the competitive environment
Visualizing transitions is a critical success component for athletes, such as rehearsing “swim-in,” which bike rack to run to and knowing where “bike-in/out” and “run out” are located. But visualization can also help with execution of performance in the swim/bike/run. By visualizing the competitive environment, from what landmarks to sight in the swim, to each climb on the bike (and which gearing to use), and every mile of the run will increase the chance the athlete will successfully execute these visualizations during the competition. 

Imagery for mental toughness
Many top professional athletes have shared their killer training sessions, such as a seven-hour time trial at Ironman race pace, or a 2.5-3 hour run at a similar intensity, reflecting the “cry in training, smile on race day” mentality. But when mental toughness is discussed and these “outcome-based” strategies are given, little light is shed on the process (i.e., how) these athletes can get through these mentally daunting tasks.

Research says mental toughness is a long, multi-faceted process, and key variables include: motivational climate, key people, challenging experiences, and a hunger to succeed. But when it gets really dark, really tough, what allows an athlete to keep going?

One mental strategy is to create your “Power of One.” Reflect back on what got you started training and racing. Was it just the thrill of the sport, or is there something deeper motivating all the hard work you put into training? Is it a health-related focus, weight-loss or maintenance that keeps you going? With a little reflection, you can find core reasons why you do what you do.

Deeply embedded in our own personal histories is a fiery core that has evolved through life and experience. At any moment during a grueling training session or race, voices will give me 999 reasons to stop or slow down. But there’s always my one reason to keep going. Find that one thing for you, to push through the dark moments. Then, repetition and association is critical. That is, during training, tap into the significance of your one thing, over and over, associating it with successful training sessions. And on race morning, shortly before the start, reflect on your one thing again, and how proud you are of yourself for putting in the work and now have the health to accomplish what is in front of you. Find your one thing, and the power within you will be unleashed.

Tim Barrett, Ph.D., is the owner/coach of The Power of One Coaching and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. Tim holds a Master’s in Coaching Effectiveness and Sport Studies and a Doctorate in Teacher Education/Physical Education and Sport Psychology. Tim works one-on-one with his athletes in a relentless pursuit to help them achieve their goals. For more information about The Power of One Coaching, you can reach Tim at