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Train Your Mind, Find Perspective

By Dr. Mitchell Greene

goggle adjustmentIf you follow the blogs and tweets of triathlon’s elite performers you realize a couple of things very quickly. First is that triathlon is an around-the-clock job for them, with nutritional requirements, recovery aides, travel plans and sleep cycles requiring as much attention as any particular workout. Second, although their reputations are built on their head-down pedal-to-the-metal racing style, their patience and perspective are the key attributes that keep them from flaming out too soon.

Recently, a seasoned pro triathlete I work with traveled three states over this pre-season only to achieve a much slower-than-expected duathlon time; slower than his time in this same event last year. He finished the 2010 season feeling optimistic about finishing in the top-5 in this year’s “big” races. Disappointed and somewhat shocked, he needed to perform some serious mental gymnastics to keep his entire offseason training program from being sabotaged by one race.

Whether you are new to triathlon or someone who has been putting your sweat in for years, dealing with the all-too-common reality of underperforming is a job hazard that never gets any easier. Most age group triathletes gradually get through these rough patches with the support they receive from their training partners, coach, significant other and/or spot-on motivational quote. However, for some, the weight of what can feel like ever-present performance pressure can lead to significant cracks in the armor.

In my work with age group and elite athletes, I provide a safe place for them to say how they feel. Sometimes when an athlete comes to a sport psychologist’s office, they are tired of feeling "stuck" and are sick of complaining to their coach, spouse or bike shop guru. In some situations, triathletes become so frustrated that they long ago stopped talking to anyone about what is bothering them (mentally or physically), but the significance of the issues and the affects remains.

Consider this situation: Dana was a very successful age-grouper with frequent podium finishes who was considering turning professional. The decision to go pro filled Dana with more questions than answers, including how she would ever handle losing her pro card if she did not produce “winning” results. Dana was complaining to her husband and parents about her concerns, but stopped because they would either tell her to not worry or, if things were that upsetting, to just lower her expectations and stop striving for the potentially unachievable.       

Dana realized she needed someone outside of her family, her long-distance coach and friends to talk to about her feelings of fear and guilt. When we spoke, Dana was relieved to know that her concerns about turning pro were typical, as was her problem getting non-competitive athletes (i.e., her parents) to respond in a way that feels nourishing rather than dismissive. It’s important that each of us has someone who can acknowledge our roller-coaster confidence levels without either over-reacting or minimizing distress.

Like many triathletes—age-groupers and elites alike—who find themselves losing perspective, Dana saw that she had a long-standing pattern of catastrophizing; a term used to describe the psychological process of turning an anxiety-provoking situation into an insurmountable obstacle. Here’s some of what Dana and I worked on and what you can do to help yourself if you feel the stress has taken the fun out of the sport: During a calm moment, remind yourself that just because you have anxious thoughts it doesn’t mean they actually will come true. Dana learned to see the humor in how easily her mind would magnify even a small glitch and turn it into a major life-questioning calamity.

You can become more self-aware of how predictably each time you move outside your comfort zone the signs of catastrophic thinking appear. Instead of fighting the negative self-statements, identify their arrival as part of your nervous system's innate reaction to stress. Separating yourself (and what you say you want) from what your worried thoughts are telling you can give you the perspective you need to get back to your training and to refocus on your short term and long term goals. Sometimes asking yourself what advice you would give a fellow triathlete in a similar situation can help you see how you need to adjust your thinking so that you can get proper perspective over your own set of triathlon-related disappointments or worries.   

On the outside, there are myriad differences between being a pro triathlete and an age-group triathlete. On the inside, however, we are all very much the same. Thus, for any triathlete who feels stuck, seeing a sport psychologist can provide an opportunity to get "out of the big chain ring" and reconnect to what you love about the sport. The goal is to return to enjoying the challenge of training and competitive racing, and not to let yourself be defined externally by any one race result workout session.

Finally, it is important to not think of a psychologist (sport or otherwise) as someone who fixes someone who is “broken.” Sport psychology is more akin to teaching than emotional digging. In that sense, it is more mundane than mysterious. A triathlete’s willingness to build mental conditioning into their fitness program won't magically produce never-before-seen race results but they hopefully will be sure to keep racing happily (and with perspective) for years to come. 

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 questions for Dr. Greene, you can email him at greenepsych@gmail.com. To see sample sport psychology videos aimed at endurance athletes, go to www.greenepsych.com and locate the PlayGr8 button in the upper right hand corner of the screen. You can login using "greenepsych@gmail.com" and "journey" as the password.

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. 


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