What goes into a display of mastery? Why do some world-class athletes make a physical activity look so effortless? How much mental fitness is needed to achieve your personal goals, reach your personal best, or get on the podium?
I am a firm believer in the power of the mind and how it will contribute or take away from achieving excellence.
Athletes at all levels spend most of their time developing their physical fitness with dedicated sessions designed to improve their speed, strength, and stamina for their race season or “A” race. While this is essential, it is equally important to invest and make a deposit into your mental fitness account. This might seem counter intuitive; however, I firmly believe what elevates people from a good performance to a great performance is a high level of mental fitness, mental preparation, and a relentless focus and vision on excellence.
Are some people just born with a high level of mental toughness or fitness? Can it be developed over time? Why do some athletes crumble under pressure while others flourish under adversity or challenging conditions?
During my athletic career in various ultra-endurance events, ranging from IRONMAN distance triathlons, three-day triathlon stage races, 100-mile trail runs at 12,000-14,000 feet in elevation, and 24-hour races around running tracks, I have learned about the power of the mind, how it can be developed, and the importance of the proper mental approach to challenging training sessions. It is often just as important as your physical fitness.
As a triathlete coach, I share the lessons I’ve learned from my racing experiences with my athletes, and during our post-race debriefing sessions, we often reveal the positive impact that mental fitness played on a better-than-expected performance and how my athlete stayed with their racing plan, maintained mental focus and clarity, eliminated fear with hustle, and poured a ton of grit and perseverance into the final stages of their event. At the same time, when my athletes did not have a stellar performance, we often reach a consensus that it was a lack of mental preparation, loss of focus, self-doubt, or the negative effect of demons that zapped their energy and desire to stay the course.
As you get further into the competitive season, it is necessary to begin to shift your priorities. While you invest 15-20 hours per week for your “A” race, start to shift your priority to improve your mental fitness. How about spending more time visualizing yourself swimming smooth, bicycling with power and efficiency, and running effortless with a high cadence? How about more positive verbal affirmations such as “smooth and fast,” “light and strong,” and “quick feet’ while starting the run after your bike segment? How about telling yourself, “I commit not to quit”?
How about breaking than long segment on the swim, bike, and run into smaller segments especially while you’re starting to fatigue? Thinking about taking 50 more smooth swimming strokes, maintaining 85 rpms for 15 more minutes while on the bike, or running efficiently to the next aid station and then walking for 30 seconds is a game changer and will begin to re-build your confidence and reestablish your momentum.
Mental fitness is an integral part of a personal best or superior performance. I firmly believe this can be developed by athletes at all levels. I believe that athletes can close the gap on their current results and put it all together on race day through the proper mental approach to a challenging training session or competition. Furthermore, I believe that athletes who dig a little deeper for some more grit and perseverance do so because they have a belief in themselves, an attitude not to give up, and a strong sense of finishing strong.
Your time is now! When you get to the starting line of your next race, tap into and unlock the power of your mind that you have been working on for several weeks. You might surprise yourself. It is a strange yet gratifying phenomena. Rather than more work and effort, it is more like play. It’s a little challenging, but it’s still fun and appealing.
When you are “on your game” and achieving excellence, you will know it. It feels good. It feels natural, engaging, and something you can sustain for a long period of time with very little effort. You know you fully utilized your mental fitness when you exceeded your expectations, surprise your competitors, and have a burning desire to do it again and again and again.
Mental fitness does is not develop in a few weeks or months. The masters make it look easy. They have done it for years and it’s a major contributing factor relative to why they can make something that is almost undoable or impossible look as easy as a stroll through the park.
Look for more "Madden on Excellence" insight, advice, and encouragement in the future.
KURT MADDEN is an IRONMAN Certified Coach, USAT Certified Coach Level I, and TriDot Coach with an M.A. in Exercise Physiology. He is a 3-time top ten IRONMAN World Championships finisher, a 2-time winner of the Ultraman World Championships, a 2-time top ten finisher at the Leadville 100-Mile Trail Run, a 2-time IRONMAN North American age group champion, a 2-time IRONMAN All World Athlete age group world champion, a 25-time IRONMAN finisher and a 3-time Ultraman finisher. In July of 2016, he founded TriPrime LLC and is currently coaching 50 triathletes throughout the world. He and his wife, Kelly, live in San Diego.