This question has been a source of frustration for me and others who work in sport psychology and mental training for years. If everyone in triathlon says that the mind is so important, why does it receive so little attention or the respect it deserves?
To be sure, sport psychology does have a presence in triathlon. I worked with USA Triathlon a number of years ago, have consulted with many triathletes, from juniors to Olympians, over the years, and I’ve given many talks to triathlon clubs around the U.S. In addition, I know colleagues around the world who have taken on similar roles.
Yet, when compared to its physical and technical counterparts, mental training clearly has second-class status. While all serious triathlon programs and teams at every level of competition have full-time technical and conditioning coaches, few have full-time sport psychologists or mental coaches. Moreover, when sport psychology is offered to triathletes, its presence is usually vastly different from the rigorous physical conditioning and sophisticated technical regimens that serious triathletes at every level of our sport routinely benefit from.
Let’s consider what makes physical conditioning and technical development in triathlon effective and then compare it to the use of mental training in our sport today. Five key elements come to mind.
First, physical and technical training programs don’t just touch on a few areas that impact triathlon performance. Rather, they are comprehensive in design, aimed at ensuring that every contributor to triathlon success is addressed and developed maximally. For example, conditioning programs include strength, endurance, and flexibility. Technical progressions include stride development, swim stroke improvement, and cycling form.
Second, when triathletes train, they don’t just do random conditioning exercises in the gym or pool, or on track or road. Instead, they engage in organized workouts based on a structured program that coaches believe will result in optimal physical preparedness for our sport. Similarly, when triathletes go for a swim, run, or bike, they don’t just play around and hope to improve. Rather, they follow a technical progression based on their stage of development. In sum, both the physical and technical components of triathlete development have an organized program comprised of a framework and process that guides triathletes systematically toward their goals.
Third, triathletes wouldn’t get more fit if they worked out every few weeks. And their swim, bike, or run skills wouldn’t improve if they only practiced once a month. What enables triathletes to get stronger and more technically skilled is that they engage in physical and technical training consistently. Day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out, triathletes regularly put time and energy into their conditioning and technical efforts.
Fourth, a quality triathlon training program doesn’t have triathletes doing the same thing all year. Instead, their training is periodized, meaning that focus, volume, and intensity vary depending on the time of the year.
Finally, every triathlete isn’t on the same program. Rather, their programs are personalized to meet each individual triathlete’s level of experience, fitness, and skill, as well as the distance they will be racing, and the goals they have for themselves.
Using these five criteria—comprehensive, structured, consistent, periodized, and personalized—it’s pretty obvious that the mental side of our sport isn’t treated as well as the other aspects of triathlon performance. Yes, all triathletes do what I call “mental stuff,” that is, they use mental strategies periodically when they feel the need (e.g., motivating themselves, staying positive, and taking deep breaths to calm pre-race nerves), but that isn’t the same as doing mental training. Based on my own experience and feedback I have gotten from triathletes and coaches around the world, this “mental stuff” that all triathletes do usually lacks the five criteria that are essential for maximizing its value to triathlon development.
So, why doesn’t mental training get the respect it deserves in triathlon? I have a few theories.
First, though sport psychology has been a field of study for more than 100 years, it has not been a traditional part of athlete development. Old attitudes, habits, and methods die hard and new approaches to improving athletic performance are not easily accepted and adopted. Perhaps it will take a new generation of coaches who have been exposed to sport psychology as competitors, and then in their coaches’ education, for the tide to turn toward wider acceptance and consistent use of mental training with triathletes.
Second, the reality is that the best triathletes in the world have done pretty darned well without formal mental training. They simply developed mental capabilities through their training and competitive experiences. In contrast, I don’t think there has ever been a successful triathlete who didn’t have a rigorous conditioning or technical program. As a result, the need for structured mental training may not seem great. I would suggest, however, that for every successful triathlete who develops mental toughness on their own, there are others who are equally talented and motivated to become successful but need help in developing their mental abilities.
Additionally, more and more triathletes from every corner of the earth are entering our sport and pursuing their highest levels of performance. The competition for the coveted spots at the top of the pyramid (whether an invitation to the ITU World Championships as an age-grouper or a place in Kona) have become far more competitive than in previous generations. Due to this increased competitiveness, training has become more scientific and sophisticated and triathletes are looking for every competitive advantage they can find. Mental training is one powerful way for triathletes to get a leg up on their competitors.
Third, psychology lacks the concreteness of conditioning and technical training. You can readily see the areas in need of improvement physically and technically—for example, the amount of weight lifted in the gym, a50-yard time in the pool, or technical problems revealed on video. The mental side of our sport is not so easily seen, quantified, or measured. As a result, it’s harder to gauge where triathletes are in different aspects of their mental preparation, what areas they need to work on, and any improvement that is made mentally. This lack of clarity makes it more difficult for triathletes to appreciate, commit to, and see the benefits of mental training.
Fourth, sport psychology can suffer from “guilt by association” with the broader field of psychology, which still carries the stigma that only screwed-up people seek professional help. This perception, however inaccurate it is, can prevent triathletes, coaches, and parents from seeing mental preparation for what it is—namely, an essential contributor to triathlon performance that must be developed proactively. This fear can also scare them away from getting sport psychology help when it is needed. That’s why I call what I do “mental training;” triathletes can relate to training.
I predict that it will take some time before our triathlon culture pays the same attention to and fully embraces mental preparation as much it does its physical and technical counterparts. But, as the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher, from the development level to the world stage, triathletes and coaches will look for every opportunity to gain the competitive edge that separates goals achieved from goals thwarted. As the limits of physical conditioning and technique are reached, it will be both natural and necessary to leverage all that mental training has to offer triathletes. Only then will mental training, at long last, stand as equal partners with physical conditioning and technical training as triathletes pursue their competitive goals.
But, if you want to swim, bike, and run harder, faster, and longer, and gain an advantage over your competitors now, you shouldn’t wait until there is a shift in how our sport approaches mental preparation. You should start now to make it simply a part of what you do to strive toward being the best triathlete you can be.
About Dr. Jim Taylor
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., psychology, is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of endurance sports. Jim has been a consultant to USA Triathlon and works with Olympic, professional, and age-group endurance athletes in triathlon, cycling, running, swimming, and Nordic skiing. A former alpine ski racer who competed internationally, Jim is a 2nd-degree black belt in karate, sub-3-hour marathoner, Ironman, and USAT nationally ranked triathlete. Jim is the author of 17 books, including The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training (with Terri Schneider) and Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation for Achieving Your Sports Goals. Jim is also the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast. To learn more, visit drjimtaylor.com.