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As the great Paavo Nurmi (a.k.a. The Flying Finn who set 22 then world records in his career in the early 20th century) famously said, “Mind is everything. Muscle, pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.”
Nurmi clearly respected the mental component of his achievements. As athletes, we are always looking for improvement and #gainz. We work hard to dial in the physical aspects of our training, but we often leave the condition of our mind up to chance by not establishing a deliberate practice for engaging and working on high-performance mental skills.
In my career as a sport psychologist, I’ve had the good fortune to work with athletes from all different backgrounds and ability levels. I’ve created programs for large organizations, worked with performers on the world stage, helped many reach PR’s or qualifying standards, and aided in the development of those just getting started. And I can say that regardless of ability level, those who reach their self-determined level of success execute on three key elements of the mental game: First, they are willing to acknowledge that the mind is a powerful vessel that influences outcomes. Second, they are able to identify that mental strength is a skill in and of itself, and like all skills, requires practice and trial-and-error tinkering. Third, they adopt a consistent practice of refining their mental craft.
If you’re looking to take your performance to the next level (because, who’s not?), you may not necessarily need to run more or train harder. You may need to round out your training with ancillary skills that enhance your training.
That’s not to say that you can simply think your way to huge gains or breakthrough performances—arming yourself with a high-performance mindset does not quite work like that. But the real power of using psychology to aid performance is learning what happens in your mind as it relates to your approach and engagement in your training.
This includes your decision making, behavioral choices, and management of the physical experience of what running throws at us. The ultimate task in endurance sports psychology is learning how to better deal with discomfort (or what I like to call Suffering Better). This requires pushing through your own perceived limits without always listening when your mind tells you it’s too difficult or that you should slow down or stop. You can override those messages, but you first need to successfully develop a psychological training platform.
So here’s the good news: You don't need to hire a sports psychologist to learn how to adopt a high performance mindset (how’s that for writing myself out of a job?!). If you are working to better understand how your thoughts, attitudes, and actions influence your performance, you are already on your path to becoming your own sports psychologist. Here’s how to begin.
1. Build Awareness
You cannot change what you are not aware of. That’s one of my favorite sayings. This rings true for both sport and life. Developing a sports psychology platform begins with bringing awareness to your mind as it already functions. A stream of consciousness flows throughout your life, giving you an opportunity to pay attention to your thoughts before, during, and after a workout. You are first trying to better understand how you talk to yourself and what the messages are that are continually floating through the six-inch space between your ears.
Try this: You are likely already recording your workouts through some system (Strava, Map My Run, old school paper and pencil notebook). But how much are you capturing what you are experiencing during your runs? My guess is that most will focus on the metrics of the run: the time, distance, pace, maybe even other factors such as heart rate, cadence and stride length or how you feel. Don’t get me wrong, these are important quantitative factors.
But you need to be capturing the qualitative factors as well. Psychological experiences during training are less tangible than mile splits on your watch. When you record your runs, be sure to also jot down the following: What did you notice in your thoughts? What were you telling yourself about how your body felt? What happened in your cognitive appraisals when you got tired, bored, or the run became long? What did you notice in your environmental surroundings? Beginning to expand your frame of awareness from the objective metrics to your internal framework is the first step in becoming your own sports psychologist.
2. Mind Your Narrative
We each carry a running narrative in our minds about who we think we are as people and who we think we are as athletes. This narrative can build us up, or bring us down. It shapes how we approach just about everything we do in life. We can talk ourselves in to difficult tasks, or tell ourselves we are unable to be successful—or worse yet, that it’s not even worth trying. If we find that we are defending our own self-perceived limits, guess what—we get to keep them.
Try this: Take a day where you shape the “I am” or “You are” self-talk statements in the most negative way possible related to your training. For example, tell yourself some version of the following “I am failing at this. I am getting slower. I am never going to achieve my goals. Why bother?” and see how that type of negative rumination impacts not only your performance, but also your mood and your interactions throughout the remainder of your day. You probably already feel how crummy this idea sounds and can detect a shift in your mood just contemplating engaging in this task.
Then take the next day to be positive, enthusiastic, and encouraging about your training, “I am crushing my workouts! I am feeling myself get stronger. I am on the path to reaching my goals. I am unstoppable!” See or feel the difference?
The point with this exercise is that your thoughts shape a tremendous amount of the experience you have with your performance. Overly negative thoughts will spin you out, lead to a poor outlook, and possibly even cause disengagement during training. Overly positive thoughts may be misleading or unrealistic. Finding a mixture between being realistically optimistic, hopeful, and encouraging will set you up for approaching your training in a more productive manner. You control your thoughts. You can be in charge of your own narrative. Learning how to deliberately and intentionally work these messages is a critical step in the process.
3. Embrace Challenge
Everyone wants to talk about mental toughness, and I've written about this topic previously, but the truth is, mental strength only exists in the context of a challenge. You cannot be mentally tough without there being some hardship or difficulty to face. Sport psychology skills have the opportunity to develop most when you are actively challenging both your mind and body.
Try this: Difficult workouts on the training calendar provide the greatest opportunity to come in contact with how your mind reacts and responds to a challenge. In these moments, we can adopt a challenge mindset or a misery mindset.
Athletes love to be challenged, and if we approach these workouts with the appropriate cognitive framework of accepting and rising to meet the demands of the challenge, we are better able to respond and engage in tackling harder efforts, tempo runs, or mile repeats. A misery mindset is quite the opposite. Telling ourselves how awful the task is, how miserable it feels, how we can’t wait until it’s over not only makes the workout that much more unbearable, but it is also much more likely to lead to quitting early, which typically leads to guilt and negative feelings about doing so later. The task of embracing challenge with an intentional cognitive framework is a good reminder that however you mentally respond in training is exactly how you will respond in racing. And that this type of thinking is 100 percent within your range of influence.
We often mistake needing courage, confidence or self-esteem first in order to engage in hard things, but we have this backward. Confidence is born out of doing hard things. We have to embrace a challenge and insert ourselves into difficult tasks to find out what we are really made of and how we may respond. Doing so gives the opportunity to experience the default tendencies of our own psychology, and thus grants a glimpse into what may be possible, changed, or challenged in our psychological approach. This level of guided mental focus then requires repetition, consistency and attention on a daily basis alongside your physical training. And that, my fellow runners, is what sports psychology is all about.