5 Mental Skills for Handling a Triathlete’s New Reality

A mental performance consultant shares cues that will help athletes stay focused and calm through these uncertain times.

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No matter where in the world you’re reading this, it’s likely your training schedule, social interactions, and daily life have changed drastically thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. From pools closing to races being canceled, everyone is facing uncertainty and anxiety as it relates to training and racing. While making physical changes to training is a great place to start, it’s important not to neglect the mental toll this situation is taking. Dr. Jamie Shapiro, CMPC, of Sport & Performance Excellence Consultants in Denver, Colorado, offers up some mental skills for triathletes. Practice these during this dynamic time to maintain a sense of focus, calm, and connectedness.

Watch Your Words

First, Shapiro suggests rethinking the term “social distancing.”

“We are shifting the language from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing,’” says Shapiro. “We can still maintain social connections even while physically distancing.”

With that new phrasing in mind, try to reframe the current situation as one that encourages creativity—not stifles it.

Get Creative and in Control

“Finding virtual ways to connect are creative ways for people to check in on each other and hold each other accountable [for their workouts],” notes Shapiro.

Shapiro suggests using apps like MapMyRun and Strava to bolster connectedness and creativity and create group camaraderie, even if you aren’t physically riding or running together. Part of being open-minded and creative during this time is managing expectations —things are not the same as they were before the pandemic.

“Focusing on the controllables is going to be a huge mantra for athletes,” comments Shapiro.

By “controllables” Shapiro means a few things: workout effort, training volume, the time of day you train, the media you listen to while riding and running, etc. There are a lot of things in an athlete’s control right now, as long as they open their mind and think outside the box.

Get in a Growth Mindset

Raise your hand if you’ve had a race canceled this year. Yep—most triathletes have. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of negativity, but one of the keys to finding calm is to establish what Dr. Shapiro calls a “growth mindset.”

“We’re focusing on what we’re missing out on right now…that’s valid, but we can also think: how can we grow and learn from this? What opportunities are here that we haven’t explored before?” Shapiro notes.

One way to do this is to “flip the script.” Pool closed? Great chance to learn how to use stretch cords. Miss your training buddies? Do a Zwift meetup together. No dumbbells? Put those canned goods to use in place of weights!

Another aspect of the growth mindset is learning to practice acceptance—the idea that there can be learning opportunities and positivity when we accept a situation for what it is. For example, Shapiro notes that many athletes are likely struggling with having a new, less regimented schedule, and that’s okay.

“Be kind to yourself if you’re not hitting your schedule exactly as written,” says Shapiro. “Try writing out a schedule or visualizing the tasks you need to complete.”

No matter how your training session went, Shapiro suggests following it up with a gratitude exercise. Jot down 1-3 things you’re grateful for post-workout—even if things didn’t go as planned. Meditating on gratitude statements is shown to improve mood and outlook in trying times. Sharing this practice with loved ones is another innovative way to bridge the physical gap between family and friends.

What’s Your Why?

Triathletes are often asked what their “why” is—Why do they do this crazy sport? Extra downtime at home is a fantastic time to reconnect to the “why.”

“Use this time to figure out your personal values—why you train, why you do triathlons,” says Shapiro. “Connect to the emotions of that why; how does it feel when you talk about your why?”

Shapiro says that connecting to the values and feelings of health, accomplishment, and community are all excellent ways to stay motivated when training and racing go awry.

In conjunction with digging up those “why” emotions, delve into using imagery (using all five senses to “experience” a situation with just the imagination) as a way to boost training performance. When done with full attention, imagery has been shown to keep neuromuscular connections firing. Imagine yourself cruising down a pool lane: How does the water feel? What color is the pool tile? Are you breathing hard or easy? Answering these sensory questions will help the mind and body stay connected, which will pay dividends in training and racing.

Become a Clear Communicator

Whether with a coach or with a friend, it’s likely you’re talking to someone about how the coronavirus has impacted races and training. While venting about a canceled event might feel cathartic, it’s not always the best way to communicate feelings or a desire for support. A tried-and-true way to elevate your communication game is to use “I” statements.

“Using ‘I’ statements, you own your feelings,” explains Shapiro. “List out specific actions and behaviors for yourself and the person you’re speaking to.”

The next time the itch is there to tell your coach, “Your session was hard,” see if a rephrase like, “I felt pushed to my limits with this session,” gets more mileage and responsiveness.

Secondly, spend some time defining what critical emotions like stress, anxiety, and fatigue mean to you in this dynamic period. Shapiro notes that the word “stress,” for example, means something different to everyone. Taking stock of how emotions and feelings manifest for you will open up the floor for better conversations with a coach, friend, or family member.

Lastly, this is an era where we can all use a little extra empathy. Remember that everyone is trying their best to simply “figure it out” at the moment. Before asking for more support, more time, more answers, pause and reflect. It might be just as beneficial to sleep on that email and revise it in the morning with a touch more empathy.

Triathletes are a resilient bunch. Between creative workouts and innovative mental skills, the second half of 2020 is going to see some epic race-day performances!

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