Mental Skills

Mental skills – what a topic hey. I’ve grappled with this one for over 2 months – the importance of this topic just demanded a lot of thought. It also demands a lot of personal opinion. Something I am not always comfortable with. I dislike the concept of trying to sound like a guru.

In any field we form opinion, and we form it from a variety of sources. Personal experience, other people’s views, study. etc etc. The fact is that there is more information out there than ever before. And it’s all at the tip of our fingers via the internet. 

I want to emphasise that I’m not here to give you more and more of the same. I want to do this podcast to give you my experience as a coach of endurance athletes. I want to share with you my methods of working on the development of mental skills. 

I want you to come away from this podcast with some clear methods for working on your mental skills as an athlete…. and of course this carries over to life itself

I really want to emphasise the importance of a great mental game. As a coach it’s clear that those athletes with the best mental games are going to be able to access their full physical potential. If you aren’t accessing what you believe is your full physical potential then I would look at putting some time into your mental game. That is – how you see yourself, how you make decisions, how you manage your inner world and how your self-talk is on a regular basis.

I would also like to make reference to some people that have had an impact on the way I think about mental skills. Dr. Michael Gervais is a high performance psychologist from the US. He has a podcast called Finding Mastery. If you don’t already listen to it then I highly recommend you do. I want to share with you a piece out of a recent LinkedIn article he wrote. It sums up my feelings on high performance mindsets beautifully 

A high performing mindset is available to everyone. It’s not reserved for the athletically or intellectually gifted. It’s not even about winning, or being “the best,” or getting world class results. It’s about the ability to set your mind (or mind-set) on the most optimized internal-posture for you to be your best. It’s for all of us, without exclusion of experience, age, gender, ethnicity, or social economic status.

High performing thoughts are the components for a high performing mindset. Consistency of those thoughts turn into thought patterns. And over time, patterns of thought influence how you see the world; how you think about yourself and what’s possible in your life; how you approach challenges, let downs, successes; and even the quality of your relationships.

That is the key. A lot of athletes struggle with this concept. That you can be a developing athlete but still have a high performance mindset. 

Another reference I would like to make is to a coach called Bobby McGee. Bobby is a run coach and has taken athletes to Olympic Games for over 20 years. Bobby has some great concepts and thoughts in he mental skills space that I like to use. He likes to emphasise the concept of the only thing you should doubt is doubt itself. A great way of approaching it. If you take the conversation another step past your initial judgment then you can create an opportunity to go to another level. In the heat of battle when we are doubting our own ability, the simple act of doubting that doubt let’s you think freer. 

Bobby also speaks about what question does pain beg? Have a think about that for a minute. What question is pain asking? …………The answer…… “is it worth it?”. If I am speaking to a group on mental skills it’s at that point that I like to reference a woman giving birth to a child, is that pain worth it? A definite and resounding yes. 

Finally, in the anxiety space I love the thoughts of Dr. David Galbraith. I was first introduced to his work via a podcast with Bevan Eyles who I have worked with or the last 4 years. David is a sports psychologist with the all conquering All Blacks rugby union team. I was particularly interested in the fact that as a young psychologist he was dealing with his own debilitating anxiety issues himself. David’s clear message is this …….. walk towards it. It’s telling you something. 

So that gives you some background on how i have developed my thoughts. From experience on the ground with athletes, but with advice that I know works. 

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So, how can we make that work for you? How can we turn your mental skills challenges into strengths? Well I believe it’s having a set strategy that works for you. and I believe that strategy should be based around the decisions making process itself. 

At the very heart of any sport lies the decision making process. Decisions made in endurance sport competition revolve mainly around speeding up or slowing down, and at times, in the training space it can rely on whether or not to actually stop, or indeed start the session. These decisions are made in a less than ideal state. They are made under fatigue and pressure. 

If you read two very important books on this subject … Endure by Alex Hutchinson … and How Bad Do You Want It? By Matt Fitzgerald … the overwhelming concept that controls the outcome of a race is NOT the physiology of the athlete but a mix of physiology and psychology. Even though the early concepts of performance were that of the athlete being a finite subject of the engine only determining the result, the clear leap forward came about when Professor Tim Noakes introduced the idea of a Central Governor Theory managing the output behind the scenes so to speak whereby a sub-conscious decision is being made to slow down as a matter of survival. Professor Noakes suggested that if an athlete didn’t die as they ran across the finish line then they must have been holding back to a degree. Enter the “psychobiological model” developed by Samuele Marcora. 

The mere fact that this stuff is coming automatically / subconsciously so to speak,  is our biggest challenge. 

How can we tap into this and cheat the system. How can we override our constant urge to slow down to save ourselves. 

Well this is where mental skills can step in. If we can tackle the decision making system and somehow remove some of the emotion involved by a system of mental skills development then we just might have our new frontier of sports performance. 

As the authors above describe so well, it’s all about perception of effort. As Matt Fitzgerald puts it 

“exhaustion occurs during real world endurance competition not when the body encounters a hard physical limit such as glycogen depletion but rather when athlete experiences the maximum level of perceived effort he is willing to tolerate. Hard physical limits do exist of course , but no athlete ever reaches them because the purely psychological limit of perceived effort tolerance is always encountered first. The seemingly inexorable slowing that occurs at the approach to exhaustion is not mechanistic, like a car running out of fuel, but voluntary.”

The compelling evidence is clear. That perceived effort is related to brain activity, not muscle activity. 

So – a quick review of the major concepts so far 

  1. A high performance mindset is for everyone. It’s not restricted to the elite or gifted amongst us. 
  2. The only thing you should doubt is doubt itself. 
  3. Anxiety needs to be turned on it’s head from something to be avoided to something to move towards 
  4. The new psychobiological model or central governor theory says that  “exhaustion occurs during real world endurance competition not when the body encounters a hard physical limit such as glycogen depletion but rather when athlete experiences the maximum level of perceived effort he is willing to tolerate” 
  5. Lastly, and perhaps the most confronting of all the points I make is “research has shown that when athletes feel worse than expected during a race, they tend to develop a bad attitude about their discomfort and as a result, they slow down more than they need to”

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Now moving towards real world application. I believe the first step is attentional control. We have to identify quickly whether we are wanting to move towards something or away from it. To be fully aware of the situation 

Are we in physical discomfort and wanting to move away from that ? 

Perhaps we aren’t motivated to do a training session. So we want to move towards a state of “motivated”. 

Next step – emotional control. What we need is the skills to override the emotions involved at that point and make a clear, concise, calm, confident decision. What can take us to our desired state? Either towards or away…. A state where we are willing to put up with the pain at the back end of a race. A state where we are motivated to chase that athlete in front of us down. Or perhaps a state where we are motivated not just to go to training and tick the box, but to get there early, do some pre-session activations, do the main set, then stay back and do some stretching and chat through the training session with the coach. 

So – identify that you have to move there in the first place. Get attentional control. Catch yourself in the moment. Maybe you are settling for 5:05 in the 70.3 race instead of moving towards the mental discomfort of perceiving your exertion in a different manner and allowing it to take you towards a sub 5. Or maybe catch yourself being unmotivated. First step – Notice it first so you can use your skills to change it. 

Then identify and use the standard psychological “processes” that we know will help us achieve emotional control.

  • resilience
  • coping
  • work ethic
  • discipline
  • confidence
  • calm
  • inspiration
  • focus

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Being in the moment. There’s a lot of discussion these days around the terms mindfulness and being in the moment. These terms are used loosely in my opinion as it applies to each situation. For me, these terms should be used as your trigger. The moment you catch yourself settling, being in a comfort zone, being challenged mentally with a lower then expected performance level, THAT is the time to be mindful and in the moment. If you can mindfully move towards being able to make a good decision to take you towards where you wish to go then you will be able to taste greater success. 

Can it be trained. The simple answer to this is yes. The difficulty however is that mental skills  are very hard to measure. They are subjective rather than objective. They take a certain amount of judgement to decide if you are strong in certain areas or not. The way I train mental skills are to first identify what I see as a weakness – or an area we can develop. Once I have that knowledge I can design a training week or a training session to challenge the athlete. 

A simple example of this might be an athlete suffers from performance anxiety prior to races. Their nerves get the better of them. So I place them in safe, supported situations where that is challenged. Time trials are a common way of doing this for me. At any one point in time I could probably tell you what an athlete can do a 5k run in or a 200m swim, but if we put the athlete up against the clock they get an opportunity to feel those nerves and use the situation to practice the skills of identifying their thoughts and then identifying the correct skill to firstly, survive the challenge but then thrive in it. Once they do that enough that builds the confidence in them that they can face these challenges come race day. Once the athlete ca get past the race nerves, then they can fully concentrate on their race plan. Once their race plan is being executed, then success awaits them. 

Mental health issues – I’m not entirely sure whether as a sport, we have a higher or lower level of mental health issues. I can say that yes I do deal with this on a daily basis. It’s an area I have to be be very careful with. I have to manage the prospect of “coach the person before the athlete” with the need to help the athlete improve performance. My method is definitely one of understanding. If I can understand the problem then as they say “a problem seen is a problem solved”. I do try to help the athlete with some basic skills that are known to help, but if the problem clearly runs deeper then I refer out. I suggest the athlete should speak with their GP. 

The key for me in this situation is to not try to change the athlete. I try to work with them and turn it around on it’s head. A situation like this might be an athlete suffered from a challenging childhood. This can have long-lasting issues but I do know that this athlete will also have much better coping and resilience skills than we might expect. There’s a chance that might almost thrive in situations of difficulty and meeting the challenges. 

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How do people separate the “person” from the “athlete”?

The athlete has a job to do. The person is who has to do that job. It’s  imperative to be able to disconnect those at times but let’s not overthink that 

Role of social media- Instagram etc in setting unrealistic expectations for people – especially as it seems to be a triathlete the 5th discipline is refining the art of the hashtag

There’s no specific role for it. My personal role for it is it’s a photo album. A chance to record something for posterity that occurred in my life or the life of the team. I occasionally look back on it and remember those good times. 

Is there even such a thing as “balance”, most athletes are high performers in other aspects of their lives, is it unrealistic to expect everything to sing in harmony 

Certainly and this is the crux of what we are about here. I’m here to produce Ferrari’s and Mercedes. High performing vehicles that are a balance of all that’s great in a motor vehicle.

Can a car be fast, handle well in the wet, be comfortable and look great? They most certainly can – it just takes hard work, focus on excellence, clear vision, focus on what the end product looks like. 

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