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Your Most Important Piece of Equipment

By Dr. Mitchell Greene

web labIt seems that practically every week a new-fangled wetsuit, tri bike, sneaker, and nutritional supplement is on the market with the promise to improve our race day performance. When it comes to the mental game, however, there is no new equipment. We only have one brain to work with whether we like it or not!

Mastering the mental game requires a willingness to examine how our minds affect our racing and our ability to enjoy our sporting lives. Understanding the role old patterns of thinking and feeling play as we prepare for our next big race is just as important, if not more important, as gearing up with the latest equipment. Too frequently triathletes are unwilling or too avoidant to explore their racing fears and doubts and thus are bound to repeat their mental mistakes.

Below are some key mental strategies to help you manage the roller coaster of emotions you might experience as you prepare for your next race.

If you think your race day concerns are original, think again. Others, too, fear the darkness of the water, the flare-up of a hip injury, or the indignity of being passed (and passed again) on the run. Fear is an ever-present companion for all of us—novice through professional. By definition, fear always precedes courageous action. In other words, only when you are afraid is there an opportunity to act courageously.

Don’t attempt to fight anxious or negative thoughts by trying too hard to be positive. Who says you have to feel enthusiastic about jumping into a cold river at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning? Why must you convince yourself that you are 100 percent prepared to race a longer distance? In fact, research shows that trying to make yourself feel good (when you feel bad) typically backfires and leaves you feeling worse. The bottom line is that struggling to have only positive thoughts to combat anxiety is like trying to throw yourself a surprise party. It doesn’t work! 

Paradoxically, the best way to deal with doubts and fears is simply to acknowledge them. Just accept that some worried thoughts will be among the many thoughts (both positive and negative) you will have as you prepare for your upcoming race. In other words, don’t try to lessen your worry. A thought such as “I don’t know if I can beat my time from last year’s race” isn’t what gets in your way. It is when you “debate” such a thought that it gains strength and interferes with your focus. Trust me, your uncertainties, once fully acknowledged, have no choice but to fade into the background, letting you move on to more important race related matters.

Focus on what you can control, such as your swimming, biking, and running form. For example, notice where your hand lands when entering and exiting the water, observe whether you are “scraping paint off the bottom of your shoe” while biking, and check whether your face and shoulders are relaxed while running. These are race-related actions that can improve your efficiency.

For those perfectionists out there, consider the 90 percent law: When athletes overly focus on feeling and giving 100 percent, they push for perfection. This can paradoxically lead to increased tension and, in turn, poorer performance. Abiding by the 90 percent law when you are planning your race can allow you (and your muscles) to relax a bit more, preventing injury and reducing frustration.     

Keep in mind that you are in charge—always. You decide how fast to swim, what strokes to use, what goals to set—even whether or not to finish. It is your race. It belongs to you. Remind yourself, there are no “musts” about it. Any pressure that exists is only there because you say so.

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.