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Optimal Mindset (Part 1)

We live in a day and age of data and technology driven training. It is no secret that many of the breakthroughs we’ve seen in athletic performance as of late are the byproduct of advances in the equipment and software that are now widely available to anyone who wants to make a foray into competitive sport. Power meters, high tech running shoes, wind tunnel testing, aerodynamically optimized clothing and helmets, software programs that allow optimal race pace and nutritional strategy… the list goes on and on. All of these tools allow both coach and athlete alike to approach the training and racing process in an ultra efficient and machine-like manner. We are fortunate to have these resources at our disposal and I certainly enjoy employing them in a near obsessive manner on a daily basis! The technology that we have at hand has all but eliminated the guesswork that goes into training and racing. However, the belief that said technology is the end-all-be-all of modern day athletic preparation fails to take the following into account: Human beings are not machines, and all of the technology in the world cannot, by itself at least, fully develop the cornerstone of optimal athletic performance: An athlete’s mindset.

My Best Athletes Are My “Dumbest” Athletes

I often joke with my wife that I wish I could eliminate my brain’s ability to elicit negative emotion and to over-think. I consider myself to be a very emotional person. I would go so far as to say that my ability to harness and exploit emotion is one of my greatest assets in life. Strong emotional response can allow you to rise above and beyond when the going gets (really) tough. A spike in emotion can stimulate creativity and productivity. Emotion is the fuel that keeps the fire burning bright during challenging times. That being said, like most of us, I have allowed my emotions to get the best of me far too many times to count. If left unchecked, dwelling on the wrong emotional response or negative thought can and will lead to failure. In my particular case, I can look back at many of my failures in life, athletic and non-athletic alike, and see how an overwhelming negative emotional response was indeed to blame.

Emotional response is in large-part determined by the amygdala, a small, walnut shaped cluster of cells deep in the central region of our brain. The amygdala is responsible for the famed “fight or flight” response we first started hearing about way back in elementary school. This tiny structure has played an extremely important role in human evolution; without it, there is a good chance none of us would be here today (i.e. an utter lack of fear and concern for an approaching pride of lions would not have gone over so well for our ancestors. Remember the Dodo bird? There’s a good reason they are now extinct). The problem with the amygdala, for some of us, at least, is that it can overwhelm our brain’s ability to make logical decisions, especially during challenging or stress inducing situations (i.e. public speaking, athletic performance etc.). Our brain has the capacity to make or break us, if you will.

One constant that I have noticed over the years is that my best performing athletes are typically the even keeled folks that tend to not over-think things in training or on race day. I jokingly refer to these people as my “dumbest” athletes, as they tend to just get out there, follow the plan and refrain from letting the mind worry about any of the extraneous and non-essential information that can potentially lead to a catastrophic breakdown in performance. From an emotional standpoint, these athletes are consistent; although they experience the highs and lows that all of us do in life, they return to “baseline” quickly regardless of the good or bad that comes their way. My friend, Dean Phillips, elite cyclist and Fitwerx 2 co-owner, is one of those rare athletes who can maintain near laser focus on the athletic task at hand, seemingly regardless of whatever external stimuli that are there and poised to distract him. I will never forget the day that Dean and I were lined up for the 2009 Timberman 70.3. Dean tore his rotator cuff while warming up for the swim start just minutes before the gun went off and was basically unable to even move his arm. After shedding a tear or two, he was quickly able to refocus on the task at hand. Incredibly, he completed the 1.2 mile swim using just 1 arm and went on to finish the 4+ hour race to the best of his abilities that day (despite 2 punctures on the bike and high temps on the run!!!). That kind of focus and tenacity is incredibly rare in an athlete, but it’s also one of the (primary) reasons that Dean has chalked up the number of national and world championship titles that the rest of us envy so much.

Taking Control of Your Mental Game

With so much emphasis being placed upon boosting physiological fitness through the use of advanced technological gadgets these days, I believe that we may be taking a step backward in regards to learning how to best hone our mental game. Although the athletes of the past most certainly did not have access to all of the training tools we have at our disposal today, in many cases, I think that they were a lot tougher, mentally speaking, and the results back up my claim. Go to just about any road race or endurance related event these days and I am willing to bet that median athletic performance is greatly diminished over what it once was. I started my endurance racing career as a youth runner during what many would consider to be the tail end of the golden age of road racing here in the United States: The early – mid 1980s. I remember the day when 5 mile road races were almost always won by men running sub 5 min/mile pace with the top placing women not that far behind, pace wise. Running sub 6 min./mile pace was respectable, but nowhere near the front. The grit and mental toughness displayed by race winners and mid packers alike in those days was all around me and I learned a valuable lesson right out of the gates: If you want to race well, you have to learn how to suffer.

While at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst during my undergrad years, I was lucky enough to serve as a test subject for Olympic marathon runner and famed running coach, Pete Pfitzinger. Pete was working on his masters in exercise physiology degree at the time, and I jumped at the chance to serve as one of his guinea pigs as he conducted his research. I once asked Pete what he felt the key to his breakthrough to the world class level as a marathon runner had been (this is the guy who outkicked Alberto Salazar to win the Olympic Trials marathon); His reply: “I made my biggest breakthroughs when I learned to embrace the pain and discomfort that occurred during racing and training. If I was hurting, that meant I was running fast and breaking new ground as an athlete.”

Attaining this Zen-like ability to be at one with your discomfort does not come naturally for most athletes, however. As discomfort levels increase, the self-defeating negative thoughts usually start creeping into our minds: “This is too hard” “This hurts too much” “I can’t do this” “I’m not fit enough”… these types of thoughts, and the strong emotional responses they elicit, have the potential to completely shut us down in our tracks and compromise the hard work and sacrifices we make to prepare to our bodies to perform at their best on race day.

We must view our mind as we do the rest of our body: Like our muscles and cardiovascular system, the mind requires training if our goal is to improve. Through constant training and practice, we can condition our brain, and our entire neural system, for that matter, to not only master unique sport specific skill sets, but to develop an absolute belief in our ability to perform at a specific level, under very specific circumstances. At the risk of tooting my own horn, this is the same approach I took before winning the overall 70.3 age group title way back in 2007. Despite lacking the outright talent that many of my fellow national and international competitors possessed, I trained both my mind and body to firmly believe that I had the full capacity to race against the best amateur athletes in the world, and to beat every single one of them, on race day. Billy Mills used similar techniques before his gold medal winning 10k victory back at the 1964 Olympics; a performance that is still considered to be one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

In my upcoming blog posts, I will discuss the effect that techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, positive self-talk, reframing, visualization and selective focus have upon human performance. There is a reason why so many high performing athletes, elite military units, actors, etc. are all using these modalities as an integral part of their training, and I will go so far as saying that you are at a major disadvantage, in all areas of life really, if you aren’t as well.

As discussed in the following video, the brain has an amazing ability to adapt. This adaptation process, referred to as neuroplasticity, can in turn empower us to think differently, perform differently and accomplish feats that we might otherwise view as impossible. As I have always told the students, and athletes, under my charge: If you want to achieve, you must first believe. More to come next week.

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