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How to Get Your Head in the Game

In light of the recent story on Simone Biles, our top US Gymnast in Tokyo, I felt compelled to write about the emotional and psychological side of competing. You see, before I was a triathlete, I was a runner. Before I was a runner, I was a top level gymnast.

I started gymnastics as a kid and couldn't get enough of it. I was always outside doing cartwheels on a wall, swinging on a bar, and doing back hand springs down a field. It evolved over my middle and high school years and soon I became part of the YMCA gymnastics team where we competed all winter long most Saturdays. It was then that I learned the thrill of competition and sometimes the anxiety and pressure that came with it.

In high school I was the top all around gymnast on my team and the uneven parallel bars was my best event by far. I rarely gave up the first place podium slot on the bars. But the pressure was tremendous to say the least, and I often remember wanting to throw up in the bathroom before I got out on the floor to compete. It took a large toll on me emotionally and I remember asking myself if this kind of agony was really worth the thrill of victory?

Fast forward to racing triathlon. Although I matured in many ways, that young gymnast often showed her face before I got to the swim start in numerous races. That nervous sometimes sick feeling would come making me question why I was outside before sun up getting in cold water with a pack of wolves. The more I raced though, the more confident I became and that super anxious feeling was still there but not so severe. You see, older=wiser and things like sports psychology became more popular when I started racing triathlons. These feelings of extreme anxiety could be channelled and controlled in many ways. Things like visualizations, verbal affirmations, and relaxation techniques became available later in my sports career.

Iron distance racing is a large commitment and requires months of work to get to race day feeling healthy and confident. It is an all day event that requires complete mental toughness and it motivates me to see some athletes push through even in the worst circumstances. I find that the most successful outcomes are with athletes who decide ahead of time that nothing will stop them from completing their 140.6. It's almost as if they have pre-programmed their brain knowing that they will stop at nothing until they have heard the words at the finish line,"You are an Ironman."

When an athlete comes to me for coaching they fill out an assessment form that point blank asks them about their confidence to complete an event. Whatever that number is we go from there. Over the years I have learned many techniques to help athletes feel confident on race day. Here are a few:

  1. I am big on self affirmations, listening and verbally repeating them out loud. The best time to listen to these is just before you fall asleep when your brain is about to slip into the subconscious mind as you relax. I suggest downloading a list of positive affirmations and playing them while in the car, waiting to pick up kids, during long runs, etc. Why not program your mind with confidence?

  2. On that same note, visualizations are great as well. I tell athletes to visualize the outcome they want for their race over and over again. What are you wearing? What are you eating and drinking? How do you feel crossing the finish line?

  3. Anxiety is fear and they only way fear can live is if we give it power. When feelings of anxiety come, I tell my athletes to not tense up, do just the opposite. Imagine yourself embracing fear with a huge hug. This immediately takes away it's power over you. Let the fear float through you as you hug it. Don't react, just let it go and it will slip away the more you underreact to it.

  4. I discus control with my athletes. I tell them to only focus on the things they have control over, not what they don't. Do you have control over the rain? No. Do you have control over the choppy water? No, but no one else does either. You DO have control over your nutrition, your effort, and your attitude though. Remember, if the conditions are tough on you then they are tough on everyone. Stop worrying about everything and focus on what you can control.

If you are having anxiety, fear, pressure, feelings of panic or anything else like this, realize you are not alone and you don't have to suffer if you employ some of my above suggestions during your training. Learn to train your mind to relax. Don't run from fear, embrace it as part of the journey.


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