What is more important: The body or the mind?
Now I will be the first to admit that I am not a sport psychologist. It was however a topic that I was very interested in during my time at university but I found the lectures so dry and unpractical that I quickly lost interest. Fast forward 7 years and all the time I have spent working with different athletes from beginner to elite, the psychological aspect of performance is the one thing I keep coming back to and the one that continually intrigues me.
It does not matter how fit an athlete is. They may have logged thousands of Ks, ticked off hundreds of threshold sessions and fine tuned their nutrition, but if their head is not in the right space all of this hard work cannot truly shine through. When athletes are asked what percentage of their performance is physical and psychological they give many different answers. Some say 50:50, others say 90:10. It seems that the higher the level of the athlete the higher they rate the psychological component of their performance. In actual fact to be at the top of your game (no matter what your level) you need to be 100% physically and 100% psychologically prepared. Any less and you are not maximising your full potential.
The body and the mind are one in the same.
They are typically talked about separately for ease of study or explanation but they cannot truly exist without each other. Just as a panic attack are mental thoughts about a situation that lead to a physical response (racing heart rate, rapid breathing) without any physical exertion, slowing your physical breathing can mentally calm your thoughts and bring clarity to a spinning head.
In this article I would like to give you two practical techniques that I have found the majority of athletes benefit from. This way you can start to bring your mental performance up to the same level as your physical performance.
Developing your WHY
Having a clearly defined goal is critical for success. You have no doubt read tones of articles about how a goal must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Adjustable, Realistic and Time bound). However, goals are pointless unless you have established a WHY and have an action plan set up. I know people who have stacks of 'self help' books that cover goal setting and how to achieve personal success. However, no matter how many time these people read these or stare at the pile of books they will not improve unless they take action and action is hard to take unless you have a significant WHY.
Unfortunately goal setting does not work unless you do.
WHY is it important for you to complete an Ironman, decrease your body weight by 5%, improve your half marathon by 8 min or rehab your injury so you can ride injury free. Without a WHY your goals are worthless.
Don't you hate those athletes who seem to have endless motivation. They continually get up early in the morning to train hard come rain, hail or shine, while others (you?) struggle to drag themselves out the door even on the best days. Developing a drive to perform the long, hard, tedious and often boring training sessions required for success is critical for any athlete. However it seems how athletes perceive their training sessions is a huge component of motivation.
If you think about your training sessions in the terms used above; long, hard, tedious and boring then it is no surprise that you struggle to get out of the door as you are consistently battling with your WILL power. Successful athletes often think of their training as fun, challenging and an adventure with every session acting as a stepping stone towards their end goal.
You have to WANT to get out the door to train even if it is cold, raining, windy and dark.
Your WHY has to be so exciting that it makes you WANT to get out the door and push yourself through hard training sessions. No matter who you are, WILL power will only get you so far before it runs out, the training becomes too demanding or the weather is too wet and cold. The first thing any athlete must do is to determine their WHY. Nobody can find your WHY for you, it has to come from within and be something that is so strong that it draws you to push yourself to your limits and beyond.
Breaking through the pain barrier
The second thing that I find makes a huge difference to athletes performance is their perception of the pain that is associated with hard training and racing.
Changing how you interpret and perceive this pain when you are pushing hard can be a big step in developing your ability to suffer. When you are pushing hard and your legs start to burn and your lungs are screaming at you, just remember this pain is not a negative thing. This pain is positive. It means that you are pushing hard and are going fast. The harder you push and the more you hurt the faster you will go.
Instead of focusing on how much it hurts and how awful it is try embracing that burning in your legs, see how much you can make it burn,
How hard can you push?
How much power can you produce?
How fast can you go?
It is all very well saying 'just embrace the pain' but if this is something you can embody you can use it to great effect.
So next time you are training, racing and you feel that your are coming to your limit have a think about this. Your body has a built in survival mechanism that will not allow you to push yourself to your true 100% max on a day to day basis. It will always hold a little something in reserve for those 'life saving' survival situations. Research has shown when you are at what you feel is your maximum you are actually only at ~80% of your true max.
You have no doubt heard the stories of mothers finding super human strength to lift a car wreck off their trapped child or unthinkable feats of endurance in survival situations. In these cases these people are able to tap into that extra 20%. In the sporting world you can see it all the time at the finish line where even those who have 'hit the wall' an hour ago still have the ability to sprint for the line. Then there are those top performers who collapse multiple times but get up and stagger on as they push their bodies to their true limit. It is possible to tap into this extra 20%, you just have to really want it and be prepared to suffer for it!
When you are at what feels like your max it is hard to think that you still have 20% in reserve. Rather than trying to push 20% harder, break it down and just work on pushing 1% harder or even just half a % harder than you are in that moment. This makes it a lot more manageable. Then think to yourself if you just pushed 1% harder surely you can find another 1%!
This is a really good strategy to practice in the closing stages of your intervals sets in training. Try pushing 1% or just half a % extra every 10 sec in short intervals or 30 sec in your longer intervals. Work a little harder, dig a little deeper. This is going to help you develop not only your physical performance by training harder but when it comes to race day you are going to be much better prepared to deal mentally with the physical pain.
I hope you can take these two mental development techniques and implement them in your training and racing to help boost your physical performance.
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