How the best keep their mental game sharp—no matter what.
Just 18 months ago, Angela Naeth found herself struggling to get out of bed. A decorated professional triathlete—she has some 19 Ironman 70.3 titles to her name—the 37-year-old was in the throes of a battle with Lyme disease, which wracked her body with extreme joint pain, coupled with insomnia and fatigue. After trial and error with different doses of antibiotics and other medical treatments, Naeth was able to get healthy enough to return to training and eventually pick up enough podium spots throughout 2018 to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, where she placed an impressive eighth. And while these feats were mostly the result of Naeth working her butt off, her champion’s mindset also helped pull her through. For Naeth, that meant trusting her training—and shifting her focus from executing the perfect race to simply appreciating being out there.
“I tell myself, ‘Let’s see what I got.’ Opening up my mindset allowed me to be more present and really just race with less of that typical mind chatter that comes when you place too much pressure on yourself,” Naeth explains.
While the term “champion’s mindset” is often tossed around in sports to describe the razor-sharp edge an athlete needs to succeed, it’s not just about an all-or-nothing attitude. Nor is it something exclusive to pros and age-group podium-finishers, says Angie Fifer, a sports psychologist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and an Association for Applied Sport Psychology e-board member.
“Anyone can tap into the champion’s mindset,” Fifer explains. “It’s the constant pursuit of improvement. It’s focusing on what you can control and being consistent so you can continue to grow in your sport.”
So how to nab that winning way of thinking? Here are four ways to mold your mind into that of a champion’s:
Set Multiple Goals
A perfect race is rare. And when things go wrong, it’s easy to crumble with disappointment—which can sabotage your performance. To avoid that mental meltdown and hold onto a champion’s mindset, Fifer encourages her athletes to approach a race with a tiered system. “Go into it with a gold, silver, bronze, and honorable-mention goal, which range
from everything going perfectly to taking away just one thing you’re happy with,” she explains. “That way, when adversity hits, you can shift mid-race to another goal, which will keep you focused.”
This practice can also apply post-race. After any race or a tough workout, Naeth takes note of three things she did well and one thing she can improve on. “I use the latter as a goal for the next workout or race, and keep building on it,” she says.
See The Good… And the Bad
Copious studies show that visualization, or imagery, is key to athletic performance. And while practicing visualization–say, seeing yourself crush that elusive PR– offers a solid confidence boost, Fifer stresses mentally navigating potential pitfalls as well. “Don’t imagine things are going to go perfectly. Consider rain, wind, blistering heat, a at on the bike,” she says, advising athletes to practice visualization several times a week. “Imagine yourself struggling and overcoming adversity,” Fifer says,
Use Your Words to Build a Champion’s Mindset
Having a personal mantra on repeat during a race or tough workout can help you stay mentally sharp—and keep negative thoughts from creeping in. “We typically respond to instructional language. Repeating something like, ‘long and smooth’ on the bike can keep you pedaling hard even if someone is passing you and you’re feeling the pressure,” Fifer says. “It keeps you from overthinking things.”
Naeth says repeating “be strong” during competition keeps her head in the race, even when things go awry. “If I were to at on the bike, I go directly into the action of xing the at and repeat my mantra to focus my mind rather than worry about what just happened,” she says. “I stay on auto-pilot.”
Live the Champion’s Mindset
A champion’s mindset isn’t something you just shift into on race day. “The best athletes are working on it consistently,” Fifer says. Not only does this encompass a healthy approach to training, nutrition, hydration, and sleep, but it’s also having the tools to eliminate and avoid drama from other areas of life as best you can. “That cumulative stress can really hit you on race day,” Fifer explains. The less stress you’re carrying around come race day, the stronger and sounder your mind will be when the gun goes off.