Mental Training Techniques
by Joann Dahlkoetter, Ph.D.
Even the finest competitive athletes occasionally find themselves struggling with negative attitudes, or becoming too focused on physical pain during training or racing. They strive, like the rest of us, to keep moving forward in spite of the negative beliefs and internal chatter that goes on inside the mind as they attempt to challenge their current limits. Their distinguishing quality, however, is in their highly refined skill at managing and controlling that energy. Top competitors have developed this ability to relax, to remain positive and focused even under tremendous pressure and physical challenge.
Picture the scene at the Atlanta Olympics during the men's 100-meter finals. The world's top sprinters were subjected to immense pressure. At that moment, the athletes, who had trained for years, are primed to render their best performances, but they are met with a continual string of mishaps and distractions. They only have 10 seconds to give every ounce of anaerobic energy their bodies can produce, but three false starts begin to drain the strength in their legs, and for some the dream starts to drift away. Linford Christie makes his second false start and protests his disqualification in a lengthy tantrum with the judges and then begins parading around the track, causing 100,000 confused fans to boo and/or cheer. You see the growing frustration of the racers: anxious, angry, pacing back and forth, wondering how much longer this circus will go on. They're thinking: "Which sprint will be the real one that we actually get to finish; the one that determines the gold medal and, perhaps, my future?"
One athlete was not pacing; he didn't appear at all disturbed by the whole fiasco. The camera flashes on Donavan Bailey, who was sitting calmly, smiling, and appeared to be meditating. He was not wasting time worrying about things he could not control. He was conserving energy and building inner strength while the others were depleting their resources. Sure enough, when the final sprint began, Donavan Bailey was ready, using the whole sequence of events to his advantage. He shot out of the starting blocks like a bullet and ran 9.84, setting a world record.
He had turned all of the distractions and external negative energy into the best possible outcome. No matter what your level of training is, or how refined your athletic skills become, you will inevitably encounter some training or racing situations that you perceive as physically painful or mentally challenging. The key is to recognize them early and to develop strong mental skills with which to intervene. First let's explore some primary warning signals:
Typical Signs of Negative Energy or Pain:
Everyone has probably experienced a few of these symptoms at some point during their training or competition. With regular practice and awareness, you can develop the ability to manage pain and let go of negative energy more effectively. You can control how deeply you feel things, and how long feelings and moods last. You can learn to re-direct negative emotions to more positive images and change your focus from physical or mental discomfort to the intensity and enjoyment of your sport.
- Feeling anxious or fearful
- Developing tunnel vision
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly
- Diminished emotional control
- Self-defeating beliefs and critical thoughts dominate the mind
- Accelerated heart rate, with short, shallow breathing
- General aching, or body pain
- Legs or arms feeling weak and rubbery
- Muscles becoming tense or cramped
- Events appear in slow motion, or at an accelerated rate
When managing pain, you need to first distinguish two different types: bad pain and good pain.
Bad pain can be potentially injurious. It is often a sharp pain in a joint area, like the knee, hip, ankle or back. If it persists, it should be checked out by a health professional.
Good pain is the type that builds strength while not doing physical damage. It is the feeling of heart, lungs and muscles working hard and expanding their capacity. This is the type of discomfort you can work through using your mental training techniques.
Tools for Handling "Good Pain" and Bad Energy
Use these tools regularly to effectively work through the tough spots in your training and racing, and challenge yourself to truly reach your potential.
- Relax mentally and physically. Deliberately slow down and deepen your breathing. This will help your muscles let go and you can relax through the pain. Say to yourself:
"I'm breathing in inner strength; I'm breathing out negative thoughts."
"I'm becoming more relaxed with each step."
- Break the experience down into small, more manageable pieces. If you're doing the Ironman, don't think of getting to the finish line from the gun. That's much too far away. Just say to yourself:
"I'm now focusing on swimming to the turn-around point."
"Just get to the first aid station on the cycling leg."
"I'll hold this pace one more mile, then see how I feel."
- Use the pain as feedback. You can register it not as pain but as effort level. Say to yourself:
"Now I know exactly how hard I'm working; I know how this pace feels."
"My body is doing what it should be doing."
"This is how I should be feeling in order to improve and go faster."
- Redefine the pain as just a sensation. Say to yourself:
"Oh, I have felt this sensation before; this is familiar; I can handle it again."
"This feeling is connected to doing my best and being focused."
"Last time I felt like this I did a personal best."
"I'm experiencing the same sensations in this race that I have practiced in my training."
- Put your pain in another context. Distance yourself from the sensation so the relationship you have to the pain can change.
Imagine being an external observer watching yourself doing your sport.
View yourself from a camera lens; you can zoom in or zoom out to distance yourself and make the discomfort seem less intense.
- Embrace the pain. Rather than avoid the pain, you can draw it closer. Say to yourself:
"If I just hold on to this feeling a little longer, I can perform the best I ever have."
"I am learning to enjoy this feeling of intensity; it helps me focus."
- Associate. Be fully in the here and now, completely aware of your body and the task at hand.
Do a body scan every few minutes to assess your form and technique
Ask yourself questions: "How are my legs feeling; what is my turnover rate?"
First contract and then relax any problem muscle groups.
- Disassociate. Go somewhere else in your mind. Do this when you are not at a critical point on the course where you need full attention.
Imagine that you are swimming with dolphins or soaring like a bird.
Visualize yourself doing another sport that you enjoy.
- Develop a self-chant or a mantra. Create a simple set of phrases or words that you repeat to yourself to help you stay focused and prevent negative thoughts from entering. You can say:
"Smooth, easy, efficient."
"I believe in myself; I am well prepared for this race."
Count your breaths or footsteps.
- Create a sense of fun and enjoyment. Remind yourself of how much you enjoy doing your activity. If you can come from this perspective, the negative energy will quickly diminish. Say to yourself:
"I am doing exactly what I want to be doing."
"My body is getting stronger and faster every moment."
"I am in my element."