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Mental Preparation
Get Mentally Prepared for the Coming Race Season

By Jerry Lynch, Ph.D
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Does your confidence waiver? Does self-doubt creep in prior to your event? Are you afraid of failing, having setbacks or making tactical mistakes during competition? Do you get down on yourself and angry when your goals are not achieved?

If you answer yes to any of these, your mental game may need attention.

You need to understand that there are two types of endurance athletes: those who fail, and those who will. If you want to reach your full potential, you must apply what the great athletes have learned about how to be mentally tough: tolerating the inevitable setbacks, learning from them and forging ahead to discovering your own greatness.

I have worked with some of the best endurance athletes in the world for the past 27 years and they have taught me what we need to know to become mentally strong and race ready.

Here are some practical strategies, mental “touchstones” and finger food for your competitive athletic soul. Use them to gain confidence and extinguish self-doubt.


1. Make this racing season one of zero regrets." You probably look back upon your performances and regret certain aspects, such as your level of effort, poor dietary choices, failure to train in a certain way, not having enough fun ... the list is endless.

Try this exercise to limit regrets. List five regrets that you could have about your racing when the season is over. Now, what five specific things can you do that would prevent these regrets from happening?

For example, you may regret not training harder. Don’t just say, “I will train harder” — write down what you will actually do, such as, “I lift weights three times per week, increase my mileage by 30 percent and do two workouts each week." If you fulfill these tasks, you will have greater confidence, less self-doubt and improved performance.


2. Confidence during a race is about focusing on the little things, the things you can control such as stride, pace, cadence, form, breathing, race strategy and the like. Whenever you focus on what you cannot control, such as outcome, results, finishing time and place, you become tense and anxious.

These emotions interfere with progress and detract from your chances of achieving your goals. All you need to do is train well, then show up to the competition and simply race by controlling what you can. Demonstrate what you have trained yourself to do, relax, enjoy and let it all out.

Remember, when the archer shoots for the love of shooting, he has all the skill; when he shoots for gold, he goes blind. Love what you do, do it well and the outcomes will take care of themselves.


3. You may be afraid to feel the pain of a strong effort. If you feel it, so do all of your competitors. Champions have told me that its all about who is more willing to accept the pain.

I do know this to be true: In the joy of going all out, you will forget your pain. Do not hold back if you feel you have something left. Know that the pain of fatigue is your body’s way of reminding you that you are entering new levels of performance and exertion.


4. You may or may not win this is a given. However, regardless of this, you can always commit to competing at your best level for that given day. And, the truth is, only you know if you have given your all.

Remember that the race gives you the opportunity to dig down deep and learn how good you are at this point in time. Don’t try to beat your opponent; use your opponent’s best effort to spur you on to perhaps your greatest performance. When you do, you may actually beat your opponent in the process.


5. Imagine that others friends and fellow competitors are talking about you after this season, a year down the road. What five words would you like them to use to describe you as an endurance athlete?

For example, the adjectives "strong," "fast," "fearless," "bold," "tenacious," "fun" or "courageous" may come to mind. Now, what five specific things should you do these days to guarantee that these are the words they use in describing you as an athlete?

Write these words, as well as the things to do daily on an index card and read this card often as a reminder of who you are, what you want to be and what you need to do.


6. Conceal your advantages, and by so doing, you gain the advantage. Refuse to let others know about your gains and level of fitness. Appear vulnerable or even weak by down-playing your past race results. Give sincere praise to others to take the attention away from you, creating low expectations and less pressure for you to be outstanding.

With less pressure, you can relax and paradoxically, performance will take off. Such a low profile will take others off guard. When this happens, you can strike with lightning speed and leave your competitors behind.

Remember that the converse of these principles is certain: It is the insecure athlete who needs to do self-promotion. When you attempt to appear strong, the reality is that you are not.


7. Remember the paradox of the effortless effort. If you want better race results, apply less effort. You can experience this now by doing the following:

Get into position to do pushups. First, tense the muscles of your arms and legs and do two pushups. Now, relax your arms and legs, keeping them firm and do two more pushups. Notice the difference with the second set ... easier and more fluid.

Whether you are going for the sprint, climbing a steep grade, handling a tough descent or charging toward the finish line, your performance improves when you simply relax your muscles and yield to the temptations to force a result and become less rigid. When you want to ride faster or run longer, don’t force it to happen. Relax and focus on fluid, technically correct movement.

All of your physical activity will go up a notch as you begin to exert less effort. To help you reinforce the above, take a few deep breaths and visualize the following. Use this exercise whenever you lose touch with the "effortless effort":

Take three deep abdominal breaths and then, with your eyes closed, imagine yourself about to perform in a race, one that seems difficult, one that traditionally demands a huge effort. In your mind’s eye, see yourself going about it differently.

Feel lightness about it. Refuse to obsess about the level of difficulty or the outcome. Experience yourself exerting less effort, yet you glide — almost float — through the task at hand. You are performing at a higher level with less effort.

Imagine yourself relaxed yet efficient, smooth and strong. Feel yourself passing others who are hurting. It seems so easy to you as your level of performance has improved. Feel a keen sense of finishing a job and doing it well. Say to yourself, “When I follow the way of effortless effort, I gain a distinct advantage.”


8. Finally, ask yourself, Why am I doing this why race? It might be the energy you derive, the risks you take, the fears you overcome, the healthy lifestyle you enjoy, the bond you feel with other athletes.

Racing elevates our spirits and enlivens our bodies. When you feel this strong connection, you begin to dance the dance and experience what the Japanese call satori the union of body, mind and spirit. Stay connected with your love of the sport when the going gets tough.

By adopting these attitudes and mental shifts described above, you will become more race-ready. You’ll begin to push the barriers you once thought were limits. You’ll redefine the levels of your potential, not only in endurance sports, but in all of life.

Jerry Lynch, PhD, is founder and director of the TaoSports Center for Athletic Development in Santa Cruz, Calif. A sport psychologist for more than 20 years, he has worked with numerous Olympic, national, collegiate and professional coaches and athletes. He was a U.S. regional and national champion distance runner and presently tests his endurance on bikes.

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