Some of the biggest sports performance killers have nothing to do with the physical and everything to do with how well equipped you are to deal with psychological challenges. It’s time to realize your true potential by bolstering your mental toughness and embracing your inner badass.
It’s 2012, half an hour before the pro start at Ironman Frankfurt. The crowd is buzzing. The pros are jittery. The pressure’s on; this is one of the last opportunities of the year to earn Kona qualifying points.
“Flying Dutch girl” Yvonne Van Vlerken needs to perform well here to get to Hawaii. She placed fourth in Frankfurt last year. In fact, since she blasted onto the long-course tri scene in 2007 with a record-setting win at Quelle Challenge Roth, she’s been on fire, dominating 70.3 and iron-distance events alike. But with all of those wins comes pressure. The pressure to win again. To be the best. To do even better than last time. All of that pressure bubbles up in her stomach and explodes; it’s minutes before Ironman Frankfurt and Yvonne Van Vlerken is puking.
“I was so sick from being nervous. I couldn’t cope with the pressure,” she recalls. After that rocky start, she DNFed 10K through the run due to injury, her Kona dreams dashed.
Van Vlerken’s then-boyfriend realized she was struggling before races, and introduced her to the man who would turn everything around, and give her back the peace and positive excitement with which she used to compete: Arno Gantner, a sports psychologist. Van Vlerken calls him her mental coach.
“I think the mental part is so much more important than people think,” Van Vlerken says. “I think it’s very underestimated.”
If nutrition is triathlon’s fourth leg, brain training is a close fifth. The U.S. Olympic Committee currently employs five full-time sports psychologists, a clear endorsement of mental preparation.
“It’s nothing spooky,” Van Vlerken says. “Other sports have it, so why shouldn’t a triathlete?”
Even if you’re not plagued by pre-race upchucks, working on your mental game can not only make training and racing more pleasurable, but also make you a faster, stronger athlete. We asked three top sports psychologists—and some seasoned pros—to share tips to get you rolling toward your next PR.
Your Mental Coaches
Dr. Peter Haberl
U.S. Olympic Committee sports psychologist
Dr. Chris Carr
Sport and performance psychologist at St. Vincent
Sports Performance in Indianapolis
Dr. Barbara Walker
Founder and performance psychologist at Cincinnati’s
Center for Human Performance
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