A sports psychologist tells you how to overcome the most common psychological road blocks and unleash your true triathlon potential.
A big misconception about elite triathletes is that they’re mentally tough.
In reality, many of them get just as nervous as you, are equally anxious about not meeting expectations, have low confidence and do absolutely nothing about it. Here’s a rundown of the most common psychological hang-ups that plague us all—from triathlon newbies to seasoned pros.
I don’t cope well with injury.
I’m amazed at the number of triathletes who are so goal-oriented when it comes to their training but suddenly become unfocused and apathetic when dealing with an injury. Refuse to become a passive patient by applying a “training mindset” to rehab. Hustle. Accept that the rollercoaster of emotion is a normal adaptive response that shouldn’t be ignored or ridiculed. Research suggests that many injured athletes experience a “grief response” (see five steps of grief below)—this is normal.
Denial: “It’s not that bad. I can train through it.”
What to do about it: Use third-person thinking. What advice would you give to another athlete in the same situation? Focus on how a small hiatus from your training could keep you from losing your entire season.
Anger: “Why me? I can’t believe this is happening now! I’m so pissed!”
What to do about it: Let yourself get mad. Verbalize your feelings with intensity and gusto. For some, meditation works better. Either way, give yourself permission to embrace the feelings and process them.
Bargaining: You try to cut deals. “If I do 20 percent more than my PT suggested, I’ll be back even quicker. If I can just find another specialist who …”
What to do about it: Recognize when you’ve started to shop around for medical advice that agrees with you. There’s a fine line between hustling and refusing to accept facts.
Depression: You might feel incredibly sad, irritable, pessimistic or unpredictably anxious. The difference between this and clinical depression is that these feelings should go away when the injury has healed. For long-lasting or chronic injuries, athletes are susceptible to lingering in this stage the longest.
What to do about it: Become a scheduling ninja. Get jobs done that you’ve been putting off, focusing specifically on the time when you know you’re going to be vulnerable. Reward yourself with feel-good treats like a massage or spa treatment (avoid using unhealthy food as a reward).
Acceptance: We’re at peace with our injury and we’ve come to terms with what’s wrong and what we need to do about it.
What to do about it: Nothing. You’re home free.
I can’t let go of bad races.
You’ve spent months preparing for a race. You’re fit, healthy and tapered. Expectations are high. And then it happens: You have a crappy race. Race morning is wet and cold. Your goggles get knocked off. You cramp on the run. Perhaps nothing specific happens at all; you’re just bewilderingly slow on the day. Letting go of the past needs to be learned because we’re biologically wired to focus on things that go wrong and gloss over stuff that goes right. This wiring helps our brain adjust future thinking and behavior. If you have trouble letting go, try this strategy:
Verbalize your anger or frustration. Releasing anger through physical aggression is ineffective. However, what does work is verbalizing it because it connects the emotional outlet (verbal) with the thing that caused it (describing the events). So go on, scream and shout about what just happened.
Determine if the cause was within your control. Think through all the elements that contributed to the bad race and categorize each as either “within my control” or “not within my control.” For example, cramping on the run might have been caused by poor nutrition on the bike but was exacerbated by the hot conditions. That’s one cause under each column. Now go through each within-my-control item and devise a strategy to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. For example, to prevent goggles getting knocked off you could wear two caps and secure your goggle strap in between them.
Identify a positive from the race. Force yourself to identify at least one thing that went well. For example, you had a great swim because you found good feet for drafting, controlled your intensity and sighted really well. You might have refused to quit and still finished (even if slow). That takes mental toughness.
I need more self-belief.
The judgments we make about ourselves and our abilities can be crippling. Distinctions between terms like self-confidence, self-esteem and self-belief are important because they reflect different bugs in our operating system that require different solutions. The first step is to understand and isolate the problem, and for that we need a metaphor.
The Me-Tree. Think of your entire self-judgment system as a tree. The roots are akin to your self-worth—deeply held feelings about your value as a person. It’s not about what you do but who you are and what’s important. Self-worth is shaped most strongly by your childhood experiences. When your self-worth is influenced by external factors (i.e., you’re living with exposed roots), it can be very harmful to mental health. If you constantly compare yourself to other athletes and conclude that losing makes you feel worthless as a person, it should be clear why this is damaging.
The trunk represents your self-esteem. Even though your self-esteem is attached to your self-worth, it’s above ground and more influenced by current experience. It reflects the thoughts and beliefs about yourself based on what you’ve accomplished. Triathletes with low self-esteem tend also to notice it affects other aspects of their life.
The tree branches equate to self-confidence—the thoughts about what you think you can actually do. Even though low confidence can affect other parts of your life, it rarely impacts everything if your self-esteem is robust. For example, you might be extremely confident as a marketing manager, but lack confidence as an athlete.
At the end of the branches are the leaves, or what psychologists refer to as self-efficacy, your confidence to complete very specific tasks. For example you might have high self-confidence as a triathlete, but relatively low self-efficacy in the swim, or even more specifically, the swim start.
To help with self-judgment problems, you first need to know how deep on the Me-Tree the problem goes. Low self-worth and self-esteem is best dealt with using strategies to manage the inner critic, or the voice that is constantly reprimanding you for screwing up and not being good enough. Because your inner critic is a lot like a computer operating system, it sometimes needs professional help to re-write to include more self-compassion and self-acceptance. A great first step is to get involved with activities that support your value system, like volunteering and helping others. Conversely, if you just have low self-efficacy, it’s a fairly straightforward fix: Give yourself lots of opportunity to experience success. Constantly training with people faster than you does little to help you feel successful. Another strategy is to watch other athletes of similar ability tackle the challenge you’re worried about. If you’re a generally confident swimmer but lack self-efficacy to join a Masters swim group, try watching a session before joining in, and then jump in a slower lane so you can finish feeling good.
I’m not a natural athlete.
Talent is vastly overrated. Sporting history is littered with tales of the misfit toys who succeeded despite their lack of physical prowess, unorthodox technique or decidedly average lab data. What is often masquerading behind statements about not being a “natural athlete” is a much darker admission: Poor performance is not my fault.
How we explain the reason for things happening is called our attributional style. For the vast majority of us, our brains are biased to take personal credit for success and externalize reasons for failure. Ask a triathlete to explain the reasons for a poor performance and you might notice a pattern: I forgot my nutrition, I dropped my chain, I got beaten up in the swim, the marshal sent me off course, and on it goes. Some people will consistently blame external factors, whereas others will do the exact opposite (I’m not fit enough, good enough, talented enough). A hallmark of the mentally tough is the ability to correctly identify the reasons why things happen—and this takes training.
As a triathlete, it’s important to attribute correctly because it focuses your effort on things you can control. “Control the controllables” remains one of the single most important pieces of advice there is. There will always be something that can derail the perfect plan, but there are two factors that are entirely immune to all outside forces: your effort and your attitude. If you approach every training session and race with effort and attitude in mind, you will always have control over the outcome. For your next training session or race, here’s a new way of framing success:
Did I fully commit to it? Was I brave enough to give it everything I had? (Effort goal)
Was I grateful and positive? Did I take time to appreciate where I was and what I was doing? Could I identify three positive things about my performance that I was responsible for? (Attitude goal)
It takes practice to fully embrace this new philosophy but once you get there, that monkey you’ve been carrying will finally climb off your back. Ask my wife, Lesley Paterson, a three-time off-road triathlon world champion. When she finally cracked this one, she started winning. To remind herself that effort and attitude are king, she scrawls “Be Brave” (her effort cue) and “I am Free” (her attitude cue) on her forearms before every big race.
I mentally quit during races. I need to get more fight!
If you have a tendency to mentally throw in the towel when the going gets tough, there’s a good chance you’re trying to protect something. You might start soft pedaling, stop pushing or you just keep thinking about why you don’t want to be there: It’s cold. The race doesn’t matter. I want to save my legs. Oh, let the fast girls go. You can give a million logical reasons why you’re not fully committing, but unless there’s something that is physically threatening (e.g., injury pain or sickness), these other explanations are usually a smoke screen. Here’s what’s probably going on:
Your ego. Listen, it takes guts to lay it all out there. Why? Because we risk the ultimate judgment if it still isn’t enough. If I give it everything for everyone to see and I still fall short, then what? What does that say about me and my ability? What will others think?
What to do about it: Train yourself to recalibrate how you define success and failure. This doesn’t mean that finish place and podiums are unimportant, just that during the race (or training session) you only focus on things that are always in your control: your effort and your attitude. Notice a pattern here?
You don’t like to hurt. In reality, nobody does. It’s the biochemical and psychological satisfaction that comes after you have “embraced the suck” that’s so powerful. This is how we redraw the boundaries of what’s possible and build confidence. This is not to be confused with pushing through injury pain.
What to do about it: The only way to learn how to cope with the suck is to force yourself to experience it. Two strategies that work in the hurt locker are: (1) Segmenting. Use distance or time markers to carve up the session so your head only has to cope with small periods of pain at a time. If it’s a brutal 5-minute hill repeat, think only about the next 100 yards; and (2) Counting. Like Rain Man. Counting works because your brain finds it easy, there’s an explicit sense of progress (numbers go up or down), and the repetition can help you get into a hypnotic state.
Follow the “Morison rule” (named after Braveheart athlete Elaine Morison)—never let yourself quit on an uphill. Put off decisions about quitting until you get to easy parts of the course. You’ll be amazed by how effective this simple strategy is for staying in the game.
Dr. Simon Marshall is a former Category 1 road cyclist, a current age-group triathlete and an international expert in mental toughness. Marshall has a B.S. in sports science, a master’s degree in kinesiology and a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology. With his wife, three-time XTERRA world champion Lesley Paterson, he runs Braveheart Coaching and Team Braveheart (Braveheartcoach.com).