PSYCHOLOGY OF TRAINING AND RACING

By Nenad Rodic
posted 04/05

INTRODUCTION TO SPORT PSYCHOLOGY

We have all heard claims that racing is 90% mental and 10% physical. While I may not agree with this, I would have to admit that getting to the race is 100% mental. Everything we do in our lives, and this includes training, is driven by some impulse, some wish, some thought, but in and of itself, a single thought or a random desire is not enough, of course. To get on a path, to walk a path, and to progress on that same path demands determination, fortitude, and equanimity.

Let us explore together, the unique properties of athletic life and the athlete's mind.

TRAINING AND THE MIND

Training, that which comprises 99% of your athletic life, is where we begin this exploration of the mind’s role in triathlon. There are many issues involving the mind that an athlete needs to address when it comes to training.


DETERMINATION

We begin projects for many different reasons, reasons which are not really a question of whether they are the right reasons or the wrong reasons; they are simply reasons. Athletic endeavors are no exception. Whether you desire to accomplish something you've never done before, you wish to be healthier, or you long to be part of a greater community does not matter. What matters is that the impulse is strong enough to grab your full attention, and quite unlike a job, which is often a means to an end, sport is a lifestyle; it is not the means but the goal itself.

So, once the thought of doing something becomes very strong in your mind, you must decide how to proceed. At this point, the mind must shift from the realm of desire and emotion to that of reason and logic. Trying to live this lifestyle based on temporal moods is neither advisable nor feasible. While your thought, impulse, or wish determines your action or your path, logic and reason are what make your determination a reality. The sport lifestyle requires strong resolve which can only be achieved by ways of rational thinking. For example, it’s important that you be realistic in your assessment of yourself and your abilities to take on huge projects and lifestyle changes, such as that which you may need to make for triathlon training. Once you are sure that sport is what you want, you are at the point where you are determined to go on with this lifestyle. This determination, stemming from your initial impulse or thought, should serve as a fall back point for all your decisions in the future. Remember your thoughts and feelings at the moment when you made your decision. Write them down if you have to. The mind plays tricks on us, and I am sure everyone struggles to keep it disciplined, or truly free, as I like to think of it. So when it strays from the path, remember your decision, what it was that made you make it, and how you felt when you made it. This will reinforce your determination and your strong resolve will keep you going Back to top

FORTITUDE

You will encounter many obstacles in your athletic life, some of which cannot be overcome with the power of a wish or a desire. Some obstacles require fortitude, a rare virtue nowadays, one marked by strength in facing adversity. Need I remind you of Lance Armstrong? Half dead, this man decided to save his lungs by choosing the treatment not initially recommended by his doctor, just to keep his athletic self alive. That's fortitude, and fortitude can be developed. I believe that it resides in the rational and that it is one of the best qualities of our humanity. Things like injury, illness, and failure in racing do not change who an athlete is. Instead these experiences are obstacles that need to be overcome. That's when fortitude comes in handy. . Back to top

LOVE FOR THE SPORT

Sport is always perceived as a joyous, emotional time. You see images of people jumping ten feet up in the air, crying, or doing something else that constitutes an emotional response. But, is this really what sport is about? Is it this sudden burst of emotion that brought great athletes to that emotional moment? Do not get me wrong. It is not wrong to wish to rejoice in the accomplishment, but this is such a small portion of an athlete's life, that living and training every single day just so that you can be happy on a podium for one day is not possible. All great athletes have one thing in common; they love their sport. They love every minute of it. They love their sport when they are winning, when they are losing, when they feel great, when they are in pain, when they're training, and when they're racing. You don't think that Michael Jordan became great because he wanted to make millions of dollars and become a celebrity. Somewhere, sometime, there was a kid who loved to play basketball. Even in the later years of his professional career, love for the game was obvious in the single-pointed mind of a man who thought only about scoring a basket. The game itself and love of the game are the only things that matter from one moment to the next; not the win or a salary or any kind of accomplishment. An athlete's strength and fortitude begin with this love for the sport, and believe me when I tell you that all the great ones are great because of this love. Love of sport can be acquired in time, but without it this process is nearly impossible. Do you love your sport? . Back to top

BELIEVE

Believing in what you're doing is the essential part of happiness regardless of the task. There should never be any doubt that the course of action you are taking is the right one. Whether you believe in causality of all things or providence ultimately does not matter. Things are exactly as they are supposed to be; perfect. You need to believe this and just do it. Doubting the path means certain failure. I am not talking about the final accomplishment, like becoming a world champion or a top finisher at a race. These things do not depend solely on you. I am talking about the present moment and doing your very best at each and every present moment. After all, life is just a series of moments or just one big moment, if you'd like. Doing your best and believing that this is the best will insure your success and happiness.

"Do or do not! There is no try" -Master Yoda

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EQUANIMITY

Here's another forgotten virtue in the modern world. Why is it important to have equanimity, or evenness in both temper and emotion? As I explained earlier, sport is a lifestyle, not just a moment of joy or a two hour inspirational movie. Things do not happen overnight. Time spent from the moment of deciding to the moment of winning is not just a five minute movie sequence in which a guy does a few one-arm push-ups and runs up some stairs accompanied by obnoxious music. It is a daily routine. Yes, it is a routine that requires a steady, pointed mind. If you are struggling with training and motivation, then perhaps this aspect of your lifestyle, specifically your training, is in need of routine. Once you have a routine, you don't need external stimuli to motivate you. In fact, you don't even need to be motivated. You just do things because they are supposed to be done. And, you do them without thinking about anything else; the best and the only way to do things. Back to top


RACING AND THE MIND

Just as the body requires training in sport, so too does the mind, and many of the areas I pointed out for training and the mind apply equally well to racing and the mind. One must have determination, fortitude, love, equanimity, and above all, one must believe. Further, being in the moment is never more important than during a race.

You come to a race physically and mentally prepared. You have visualized the race and all the moments and feelings that you can and will experience during the race. The race is the time to do it.

STAYING FOCUSED

Considering the length of the events, staying focused is a real challenge in our sport. Fatigue, electrolyte imbalance, and poor mind preparation can cause you to loose focus. It is wise to address these issues in training and work on them. For example, choose a very arduous climb and try to concentrate on a single aspect of your cycling (eg., cadence). Try to make it to the top without thinking of anything else. If you can do it, you probably have very good attention.
There are also exercises that can be done to improve attention while resting. My favorite is to count breaths. Do ten sets of breaths starting with only one breath in the first set. The second set has two, the third has three and so on, all the way up to 10. When you reach ten, count back down to 1.

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So the sequence would look like this 1/1,2/1,2,3/.....1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10 and down 1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9/1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8....1.2/1 This exercise takes about twenty minutes and is not as easy as it sounds. If, during this exercise, you lose count, you need to work on your attention. If you can concentrate on every breath, seeing your belly move up and down in your mind, and count every breath without losing track, then perhaps your ability to sustain attention and stay focused is a strength that will undoubtedly serve you well. Back to top

STAYING POSITIVE

Staying positive seems to be a natural extension of staying focused and sticking to your game plan. Likewise, a loss of focus is often followed by a negative thought. Purge it immediately. Remember how blessed you are to be where you are and how great it is to race. Even if things are not going according to your plan, it is not the end of the world. You can still enjoy the day. If you choose to do it (enjoy), you'll still have a great race, even if it is not as fast as you planned. Back to top

VISUALIZATION

You've heard of this technique, but I think for the sport of triathlon, visualization will differ somewhat from other sports. In other words, while a swimmer or a track runner can visualize the whole race stroke by stroke or stride by stride, we cannot. In my opinion and experience, you should instead try to visualize the general biomechanics and the experiences your body will go through during the race. Never visualize the finish line, the podium, or extraneous details. Doing so is habitual and will only take you out of the moment. It is the path that matters, not the end.

"Never anticipate the outcome of the fight, but keep your mind in the present, in the fight" -Bruce Lee

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I hope that these pointers help you prepare better for your every day athletic endeavors. I apologize if the article has the sound of Zen. On the other hand, it is a reasonable school of thought and remember that the greatest triathlete of all time was called "The Zen Master".

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By Nenad Rodic, founder of TriathlonPlace.com