Sport is just as much mental as it is physical. But it is the mental aspect that can make or break an athlete.
Triathlon is a sport of many challenges. It is not simply swim, bike and run for a battle of the fittest. There are a multitude of obstacles standing in the way of a good performance, from transitions, flat tires, energy needs to weather, terrain and fellow competitors. Suddenly, swimming, cycling and running in succession can become a challenge of epic proportions.
These are things easily mastered though. Learning how to fix a flat is straightforward, caloric and carbohydrate needs can be calculated through simple equations, transitions can be practiced in training and are perfected through racing and the weather and terrain, one can train for them or learn to adjust expectations for the extremes.
Physical fitness (speed, strength, endurance) is also relatively straightforward with a well designed training program. Especially in the modern day, with decades upon decades of athletic and coaching experience to fall back on. While fitness is a never ending pursuit, dedication and applied effort day after day, week after week, will make for a fitter athlete.
There are countless articles in magazines and blogs that can guide an athlete from beginner to elite, covering every topic imaginable: optimal cadence, ideal race weight and body fat percentage, the best run workouts, the top five bike workouts, enough swim tips to keep you up at night doubting every single stroke you take and of course, the ever-important aero gear, from bike frames and helmets, to body hair removal and strips of tape on your legs that squeeze out that elusive final watt of marginal gains.
These are things that can be quantified, measured and calculated – the tangibles. The question is though, when finally mastered, do all these things make for a successful athlete? On paper, they should.
BUT WHAT OF THE INTANGIBLES?
Abstract concepts such as feeling and emotion? And what of one’s mental state?
On paper, I should be competitive in almost any pro triathlon. In the pool, my swimming has me matching the pace of regular podium contenders; on the bike, my FTP places me well within the pro ranks; and on the run, I can whip out sub 3:00″ kilometres or endure a 2hr tempo run any day.
My resume as a pro triathlete, however, reads as follows:
– 17th (22nd overall) Ironman Syracuse 70.3 2014
– DNF ITU Toronto Pan Am 2014
– DNF Barrelman 2014
– DNF Challenge St Andrews 2015
– 19th Challenge Pocono Mountains 2015.
Not particularly impressive, nor very deserving of the “professional” title.
Heading into Challenge St. Andrews this year, I was in stellar shape and had been dreaming of a big result for months. I had been swimming like never before, my FTP had jumped almost 60 watts and my running, finally injury-free, had seen some very impressive speed and endurance. My coach had me doing things I never thought I could do before. But I bombed. I choked. I completely and utterly failed. It was an awful experience. There wasn’t a single moment of that race I enjoyed.
I had to have a serious conversation with myself. Either I had to figure this out, or quit. Far too many poor results and lacklustre races had me in the midst of an existential crisis. It was clear that no matter how physically fit I became, I would always be mentally unfit.
I had to admit to myself that there were deeper issues at play. I needed a sports psychologist.
Oddly enough, I don’t have those issues in training. Even racing within training doesn’t cause them to surface. I am otherwise very confident. Yet, time and time again, I have failed in races. Failure, for me though, is not losing; rather, it is not reaching my potential, not crossing the finish line feeling as though I got the most out of myself that day. Even if I finish dead last, as long as I can say, “That was my best today, I did everything I could”, then I will be happy. It is the effort, commitment and conviction that counts and provides enjoyment.
INTROSPECTION + ACTION
Looking back, my psychological issues have always existed. It has always been the same problem, in every race. I never realized exactly what was holding me back, always chalking it up to some external factors, like a flat, extreme weather, riding off course due to poor signage, injury or whatever else posed a challenge. Throughout the years, I have had some successful results that hinted at a bright future in the sport, but for the most part, I have achieved only mediocre results. The number of times I have finished a race unhappy with my performance is incredibly frustrating. What has kept me from quitting – I have been on the verge a few times – is the fact that when I don’t have this inner struggle, I am always very competitive, the result being a win, podium or in the least, making a significant impact on the race.
I have always taken pride in finishing, no matter what. I swore I would never DNF. Indeed, I stayed true to this for several years, my only DNF due to injury. But after so many poor results, a DNF seemed easier to deal with. A DNF means that something went wrong, that there is more to the story. A poor finish is the sign of a slow athlete.
I have also wondered how my peers perceive me and my performances. That is a dangerous path to go down, as it only leads to unfair comparisons when really, the only comparison that matters, is to yourself.
Sitting in our rental car just off the run course in St. Andrews, only minutes after handing in my timing chip, myself still drenched with sweat and in race kit, my girlfriend in support getup with camera, Twitter and direct line to coach on the ready, heavy disappointment in the air, we came up with a plan of action. Two days later, I had my first appointment with a sports psychologist.
A weight was lifted. My eyes were opened. At times, I felt stupid for making up these problems, because the solution was so simple. That is the funny thing with psychology – often, it is not some grand paradigm shift that makes things better, but rather, a small and simple change in approach. It is almost imperceivable, really, the thoughts are nearly the same, but when putting words to them, it becomes very clear where that change is, and how it truly changes everything that follows.
SPORT IS NOT JUST TRAINING THE BODY
Many athletes suffer from some kind of psychological barrier. Some have debilitating nervousness immediately pre-race, for some it is the build to race day that creates insurmountable stress, while others generate a storybook of negative self-talk during competition. I don’t have any of that. I get nervous and have doubts, but within normal levels. My problems surface within the first few minutes of the race, after the gun has gone off, which makes for a very, very long day. As noted, I don’t always have these problems, the good days are great days. I always left this up to the “powers that be”, but that is not at all how an athlete should approach performance. One cannot “hope” for a good day, one must make it a good day. I regularly do this in training: there are many days where I feel fatigued and sluggish and am staring at an impossibly hard workout plan, but somehow manage to get through it and nail the targets. That success is the outcome of taking control of the mental and physical effort, and working through the difficulties step by step.
Sport is not just training the body. Training the mind is just as important.
Some athletes are naturally strong of mind. Just as some are naturally better sprinters or better with a ball. Others need to work on their mental strength. And that is what is so fascinating about the mind: it can be trained. Like a muscle, it can be tweaked, massaged and strengthened.
After only two psychology sessions, I had my next race of the season, the MultiSport Canada Bala Falls sprint. There were a number of challenges that arose during that race, that just a few weeks before, would have completely derailed me. Instead, I applied the mental tools and strategies I had learned, and won. More importantly though, I crossed the finish line feeling accomplished, feeling that I had overcome something. The split times don’t really matter as much to me (I am proud of that wicked run split though!), as do the feelings I had during and after. In photos and videos from St. Andrews – and other poor races – it is visible that I am in pain in a bad way, posture slumping, face clenched, looking weak, not having fun, but in Bala footage, I had a completely different air about me, a more confident, assertive form.
I did the same in Bracebridge. There were many more moments in that race that provided the perfect excuse to drop out, but I kept driving. I didn’t perform very well from a physical standpoint – I swam strong but zig-zagged a lot, even swimming straight into a dock, I held back on the bike too much and burned myself by blitzing the first half of the run only to slow down significantly in the second half – but I performed well from a mental standpoint. I did what I could that day, and didn’t let soggy legs and low energy get in the way. I still finished second.
In St. Andrews, not much actually went wrong. It was mostly in my head. In Pocono Mountains, though, everything went wrong. The problems went from totally manageable to WTF. But check that results list: I finished. I contended with water-logged goggles, my Garmin computer had to be reset on the go because it wouldn’t pick up my power meter, a dropped (but retrieved) water bottle, puking at 50km on the bike unable to stomach anything but water for the remainder of the ride, hitting a massive pothole at 40km/h and tumbling into the bushes with a flat, fixing that flat only to have pinched the tire so it flatted again, and then having to slowly roll into T2 on a gimp wheel, to finally head out onto the hot and mega hilly run, again only able to stomach water. However, I never once thought of pulling out. My goal became to finish, even though it sucked to the nth degree. My psychologist remarked that this was more of a success than the win in Bala.
I had redemption the following weekend at the Toronto Island sprint. While winning was great, it was the victory over myself that stood out. I committed myself and didn’t let anything stand in my way. And most importantly, I had fun doing it.
In a very short time, I have made huge strides. There are still things I struggle with and need to improve, but it’s a work in progress. Building a strong mind requires the same effort and commitment as building a strong body. There is no quick fix; it requires regular practice, patience and time. Part of my training plan now includes a weekly psychology session that has me doing “homework” throughout the week, allowing me to put into practice the mental strategies I learn. I am stronger now, and will be better.
I know I am not the only one dealing with mental issues. Through talking with fellow athletes and being very open and candid about my experiences, many have offered their own versions of this story. Their physical abilities range from beginner to professional, but the struggles are the same. I imagine that there are many, many more suffering with similar problems, unable to find the key to their best performance. Honest introspection and reaching out for help is simple yet so difficult, but can provide the greatest return.
Read more from Mikael Staer Nathan.