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Lessons from the Pros on Building Your Mental Game

There are many ways to build mental toughness. Here’s a look at what’s worked for top pros over the years.

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This article was originally published in the March/April 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon.

When three-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington joined Team TBB in the Philippines in early 2007, she was an unknown in the triathlon world. Joining the squad meant she would be under the tutelage of the team’s coach, Brett Sutton, who is one of the most successful—and controversial—coaches in triathlon. When you’re on his team, he is “the boss.” Whatever he tells his athletes to do—whether it is endless 100-meter repeats in the pool, three-hour treadmill runs or 220K punishers on the bike—they better do it, or they are off the squad. He creates an environment that, in a very raw manner, emulates the demands of the toughest sport in the world. His athletes are put through punishing sessions all day long, day in and day out. Together, they constantly push each other until they either make it or break down.

In a 2008 interview with British newspaper The Guardian, Chrissie described how her first six months on the squad were a power struggle with Sutton. This struggle, however, helped shape her mind into that of the accomplished champion she is today. Sutton prescribed his usual days on end of swimming, biking and running that left no time for anything else, and Chrissie would argue and question his methods. Sutton wanted her to understand that to make it as a pro athlete she had to have a clear mind—with a sole purpose—and forget about everything else. At one point, he even had her live with the boys for three months, to “toughen her up.” He asked them to give her a hard time until she earned their respect through training and racing harder than they did.

The environment Sutton created for Wellington and his other athletes made even the most difficult races seem like a breeze. Because of this, he churned out—and continues to churn out—mentally tough athletes, at least the athletes who survive their stints under his guidance.

Coaches across a wide range of sports agree that mental toughness is the most critical element to winning. For example, in 1987 Daniel Gould of University of North Carolina at Greensboro and his colleagues found that 82 percent of wrestling coaches rated mental toughness as the most important psychological attribute of success.

Despite the importance of developing mental toughness in athletes, sport psychologists have had a hard time defining the term. Recently, Graham Jones and his team at the University of Wales attempted to coalesce the competing definitions by interviewing a long list of Olympic medalists, coaches and sport psychologists across a wide range of sports, including triathlon. They came up with the following definition of mental toughness, which was published in 2002 and 2007:

[Mental toughness is] having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.

This definition is still somewhat vague scientifically, but it nevertheless sheds a little light on what it takes, mentally, to become a champion; it also aligns with the pressure and demands Wellington was put under during her early days at Team TBB. In short, you must be able to cope with huge workloads and exacting demands as well as handle high-pressure situations. Much of this ability boils down to self regulation, a psychological term that means regulating your mental state relative to a given situation. For example, when athletes fight for the win or find themselves having to endure a five-hour ride in pouring rain, they need to be able interpret the pain and the pressure in such a way that they are able to maintain, or regain, a positive mental state. This, in turn, helps build their motivation, confidence and focus relative to the task at hand. In short, they need to control what author Tim Gallwey famously called the “inner game”—the game one plays within one’s mind during an athletic event.

Triathlon is designed to test mental toughness. At its core, it is about going the distance and overcoming every conceivable obstacle in your way. Many triathletes master the first part of the definition of mental toughness—being able to cope with huge workloads and exacting demands—and have a good handle on hard training and physical pain. The unique positive energy that flows through every event in our sport is a testament to this. That is, in the face of oncoming pain, athletes are able to reframe their minds and create positive mental energy. However, when the heat of the moment arrives during the actual race, some triathletes fall short in the mental toughness department and perform poorly, largely because they have no conscious control over the decisions they make on pacing, race tactics and nutrition. This is somewhat expected as many triathletes—especially iron-distance triathletes—participate in only a handful of races each year and thus have limited practice in the art of racing.

Photo: N.C. Winters

Macca’s Masterpiece

The greats in our sport all have a mental edge over the competition. Chris “Macca” McCormack’s 2010 Ironman World Championship win is a perfect example of this, as he had to mentally outduel Germany’s Andreas Raelert to achieve the victory. After the race, Macca spoke to several news outlets about his win, and his story was a textbook example of how to remain calm and controlled under fire.

When Macca entered the Energy Lab in the early afternoon of Oct. 9, 2010, he knew Raelert was steadily closing in, but he still had a lead of more than a minute. At this stage of the race, when severe physical fatigue is imminent, most athletes would likely have gone all out, putting in a surge to try to break the stalking Raelert and force the deciding moment. That way, the relentless pressure would go away as quickly as possible. But Macca did not use this strategy. Instead, he decided to wait for the German machine and took his time through the hottest part of the course, ensuring his energy and fluid needs were met. After years and years of painful trial and error in Kona, Macca knew that managing energy balance and responding carefully to the signals his body was sending him were key to successful racing in Kona. When Raelert caught him with three miles to go on the Queen K Highway, Macca was mentally energized and ready. He let Raelert close in on him, but he kept running with his shoulder just a notch ahead of Raelert’s as if to tell him, “You can catch me, but you will not get the lead.”

Raelert had been on the hunt since the start of the marathon and must have spent oceans of mental energy in the process. As he finally caught McCormack he fought for every inch, and he did not have it in him to make a move. He was left with little other choice than to accept his role in Macca’s mental game. He took a break, getting fluids and energy at the aid stations while the master tactician stayed one step ahead of him and chose not to slow down for drinks. Macca has studied the legends of the sport, the myths and the stories for the past 25 years, and he must have found confidence in the 1989 Iron War between Mark Allen and Dave Scott. During this duel, Allen gained the psychological upper hand over Scott in exactly the same way—maintaining drive and momentum in exchange for abstinence.

With two miles to go, Macca turned to Raelert and said, “No matter what happens you are still a champion!” He then reached to shake his hand. Macca’s comment is a psychological work of art. At this stage, both of them are physically at their limits—their bodies are broken down and screaming for them to stop moving, and their subconscious is looking for that little excuse that will make giving up acceptable. Consciously or subconsciously, Macca was toying with Raelert’s mind, displaying his mental strength and giving him a lesson in race tactics. As the finish closed in, Macca made his move down the steep drop of Palani Hill, a point in the race where the muscles are shredded. This is the absolute hardest spot on the course to make a move, but it’s also a place where he would gain a bit of free speed, given Macca’s slightly larger frame.

There was never really any doubt who would win that day.

Developing Mental Toughness

It is one of the strange ironies in this strange life that those who work the hardest, who subject themselves to the strictest discipline, who give up certain pleasurable things in order to achieve a goal are the happiest men. —Brutus Hamilton, 1952

Brutus Hamilton was the track and field coach of the 1952 U.S Olympic team and his words say it all: Hard work is a key element to mental toughness. The simplest and most well-known tool to building mental toughness is killer training sessions. Most of the legendary athletes and coaches in our sport are famed for favoring torturous workouts. When I was a professional iron-distance triathlete, one of my own favorite workouts in preparation for Kona was a seven-hour time trial at close to race pace. This workout made the 112 miles on the Queen K seem like a training ride. Two-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander is known for his 2.5-hour-long runs at faster than Ironman pace in the mountains above Boulder, Colo. And Sutton’s athletes are known for sessions designed to cause the maximal amount of pain over the longest period of time possible. This was the case with Olympian Greg Bennett, who in his years under Sutton a decade or so ago did 35 seconds on and 25 seconds off on a treadmill running at 22 kph (faster than 4:30 pace)—for 2.5 hours straight!

The German armada of the mid-1990s—Thomas Hellriegel, Jurgen Zack, Lothar Leder and others—were all part of the German national team under the leadership of Steffen Grosse, who was trained as a coach in East Germany. He demanded an extreme work ethic with 40-hour weeks for months in a row, and he once demanded a 55-hour week during a cross-country ski camp. What’s more, despite the high volume of their training, they would endure massive intensity, such as 20×1 kilometers on the track, where the accumulated amount of talent and type-A personalities helped create a fierce competitive climate, with many training sessions becoming elimination races. Only the best of the best made it through. The results of the group are legendary, but their careers were, in many cases, cut short, largely due to the extreme mental and physical pressure.

Racing experience is also a big part of developing mental toughness. Guys like Macca raced countless times on the World Cup circuit and in the American non-drafting classics such as Wildflower, Escape From Alcatraz and the Chicago Triathlon before attempting the iron distance. Because of this background, he grew very familiar with head-to-head racing and what was required to mentally vanquish one’s opponent. Back in the days of the great four—Allen, Scott, Scott Molina and Scott Tinley—it was normal to race a lot during the season, and they also got experience racing head-to-head. With former ITU guys such as Rasmus Henning—guys with heaps of races under their belts—now jumping into the Ironman mix, the iron-distance racing mentality seems to be getting more and more fierce.

Illustration of man training with a boulder on his back
Photo: N.C. Winters

Sacrifices are another way to foster mental toughness. For example, many of the now dominant Australians started their careers by traveling to the other side of the globe to race back-to-back weekends in Europe. They had no support whatsoever other than their own desire to succeed. They slept in a different bed every few nights and had to endure the pressure that comes from racing for one’s ability to put food on the plate. Many of them also had to endure constant questioning from their parents, who wondered why they were striving to succeed in a profession with many risks and few rewards. Nevertheless, all of these sacrifices sharpened their mental focus.

The Science

The University of Wales’ Jones and his colleagues published an article in 2008 based on interviews with top coaches and athletes on how mental toughness is developed. First and foremost, everyone mentioned that building mental toughness is a long process that involves many different elements. The four most important of these were motivational climate, key people, challenging experiences and a hunger to succeed.

Motivational Climate

The scientists theorized that the motivational climate within which the athlete works must be centered on the process rather than the end result. There must be a persistent focus on doing the work and mastering the task rather than on the dream of winning. Results can never be controlled—only your effort and level of skill can. If you build your fitness to the highest possible level, pace your race well and make sure you are completely spent at the finish line, feeling certain there is no way you could have run an extra inch—you have reached the limit of your potential that day and whatever results you get, you should be proud of. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden expresses this exact mentality in one of his most famous quotes: “Success is knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

Key People

Jones et al also pointed out that the key people around an athlete are an important part of developing mental toughness. Coaches, parents, team members and fellow athletes play a significant role in developing the values, goals and mental skills that determine success. We see this to some extent with coaches Sutton and Grosse who, in a brutal manner, create environments that are so mentally and physically taxing that only the strongest survive.

Instead of forcing athletes to become mentally tough through extreme demands and exclusion strategies, one can build an athlete’s edge in a different way. By posing structured questions that help athletes gain a higher degree of clarity and insight into their own reaction patterns and motives, one can sharpen mental toughness. Asking athletes how they react to high-pressure situations, helping them determine what they can do to change unwanted behaviors and helping them hone in on what their dreams and goals are will all help them mentally prepare and gain the motivation to do the work, endure the pain and remain levelheaded at all times.

Challenging Experiences

Facing challenging experiences in sport, or life in general, also seems to aid in the development of mental toughness. Lance Armstrong is an obvious example, as he clawed his way back from life-threatening cancer with a ferocious focus never before seen in cycling and won a record seven straight Tour de France victories. Upon his return, he said that the pain he endured during the hard climbs was nothing compared to the pain he underwent during chemotherapy, which is a classic example of how gaining perspective aids in mental toughness. Overcoming harsh childhoods, severe physical illness or trauma, as well as other life crises seems to heighten one’s ability to maintain a successful, albeit sometimes cynical, drive toward the podium. While it is hard to simulate experiences like this in training, the aforementioned extremely demanding training sessions, or sometimes doing things that are out of the ordinary—such as biking into the unknown with only a sleeping bag and a set of matches in your backpack—will help sharpen your ability to put the heat of racing into perspective. If you can say to yourself that you have overcome obstacles that are greater than the pressure of racing and have gained insight into your own reactions to taxing situations, you are well on your way to success in triathlon.

Hunger to Succeed

The final, and in many ways most important, aspect of developing mental toughness is a deep hunger to succeed. Athletes from Third World countries or poor neighborhoods in the U.S. perhaps see sports as their only way out of poverty and are thus deeply committed to success, no matter the costs. Other athletes are driven to gain their very ambitious parents’ recognition. And yet others are driven to satisfy a wild ego or a fascination with where their body and mind can take them. One’s hunger to succeed revolves around very deep mental structures that are often founded in childhood, and it is thus hard to develop. In some cases the hunger is founded in basic survival instincts, such as a triathlon pro racing to put food on the table, and in other cases it is founded in a deep love for the sport, such as an athlete chasing the perfect race. Helping athletes gain insight into the sport, its legends and its history could be a way to forge this deep love for the sport. Need-based strategies to build hunger could include committing publicly to extremely large goals or going all in and chasing the ultimate dream without any hint of a plan B.

The Risk

Surely the nature of sport is a constant struggle to push one’s limits and thus involves a high risk of injuries, burnout and, in some cases, severe psychological problems. Many coaches fall back on the simplest instrument for toughening up deeply committed individuals: creating a cult-like, isolated setting and pushing the athletes harder than they ever thought possible. Those who break get left behind and those who last mentally have a chance of making it if their bodies hold up down the road. While this strategy is simple and in many cases successful, it is also very risky, and it may leave talented athletes behind who would have made it in a different environment. Athletes who are caught up with the hardened culture are risking running their bodies to the ground, cutting their careers short and possibly sacrificing life-long health for a few big races. While there is no way around relentless work in the pursuit of excellence, top coaches need to become more aware of all the other tools in the book they can use to build up their athletes. They must never forget that they need to focus on an athlete’s long-term development. It might be relatively easy to make a winner, but creating a champion—someone who can dominate the sport for years—requires an entirely different skill set.

Good luck in developing yours.

Sindballe is a former professional triathlete and was a frequent contributor to Inside Triathlon.