Preparing for success in Sport

(AKA: The power of reflection!)

So yesterday I posted up a great article by Sarah Robb O’Hagan on ‘How athletes beat failure’ — the essence of the article being how to overcome disappointing results in a chosen activity (e.g. a race, triathlon, a match) by using such setbacks as mental fuel to take more risks in preparing for future endeavours and reaching for greater goals in order to put extra effort into your training and preparation to avoid such disappointments again.

The honesty that Sarah advocates (and personally includes in the article!) is key to putting more effective and specific plans in place to give yourself a better probability of achieving your goals. As she says:

“In the end, it’s not about the failure; it’s about how you react.”

One of the guarantees, or truths of sport and competition, is that you will have bad days. Everyone will. Even those at the pinnacle of their field. That’s the reality check that our emotional selves fail to see sometimes, which can lead to many hours lost in feeling like crap after not achieving what you set out to do. I recommend you read the article as it doesn’t show anything ‘weak’ in Sarah’s thinking. If anything, I think it shows her (mental) strength and resilience in how she has pushed herself on in her endeavours to be stronger and get more of the results she wants.

But this pre-supposes that you’ve had a sucky race/swim/Tri! What about if you’ve spent the past few months waking in the early hours and hitting the road, track, pool and been living on mung beans?! What if you have that target race or event coming up and you’re beginning to get a little bit of (healthy) fear about how you’ll do on the day?

I thought about this more yesterday as I saw a post by my S & C trainer, Tony Everitt on instagram as he prepares for this month’s Barcelona Marathon. We talk a lot — in the gym, on runs, in the cafe, about preparing athletes for upcoming events and their attitude during training. We both try and ‘eat our own dog food’ and apply the same discipline to our training — whilst realising we’ll never make an Olympic games, what things can you do to benefit the mind as well as the body come the start line?

Tony’s reflective training diary.

How have you been preparing? REALLY?

So I throw this out there, as I would for any athlete I work with… 
How have you been recording your training? Do you keep a journal to get not just your times down, but how you felt? to praise yourself when you’ve done a tough set or session and achieved what you wanted? To make adjustments to training if you’ve been a bit off pace or colour, or injured?

As Sarah says in her earlier article about overcoming failure, the point of these journals/training logs, is to be wholly honest before your event to get past what you might feel and actually look at the facts, truth and evidence about how you’ve trained and what condition you’re in. Occasionally it is possible to wing it fitness wise and still achieve what you want, but often, the best results have happened because you’ve taken the harder choices and put the extra 5% in here and there.

Being realistic — but still ambitious

Having gone over your journal/history, have you put in place a mental strategy for race day? Be optimistic and adventurous by all means — we don’t want to kill the dream, but you also want to have a back up or two for different eventualities. I’ve seen far too many athletes who were in good condition for events, be thrown by small details that were out of their control but that threw their process on the day. Or they took their eye off the ball in the day or days leading up to competition. That McDonalds in the Olympic village has been the undoing of one or two folks. That’s all I’m saying…

When you’ve also thought about your upcoming performance, it’s important not to go too conservative. Whilst I’m not a keen advocate of the ‘shit or bust’ school of racing, I’ve talked to a lot of people who limit their ambition when they’ve done amazing training and are capable of more than their think they are currently thinking about.

So, get your training diary out as Tony has, go back over your times/splits/feelings — I’m hoping you’ve done some truly horrific sessions that make you feel terrible, this again is awesome race fuel! — be honest and then run your thoughts by a friend, coach or mentor. Get them to sanity check whether you’re being too ambitious or conservative. Ideally they won’t *tell you* what they think, but allow you to come to the clarity in your thinking that your target is spot on in your mind. If you really trust that person and they suggest for instance that you are capable of more, reflect and adjust your plans accordingly — we often surprise (and limit) ourselves by our ambition and the need to ‘play safe’.

Preparing for the tough stuff

Predominantly I’m someone who believes that ‘aim for the moon and you’ll hit the stars’ — meaning that set ambitious targets, strive for them in your prep, and that should mean that you give yourself the best chance of succeeding come the event you’re training for. As Tony said, one area he’s working on is later in his marathon, an expectation of the ‘pain train’ making an appearance. Ideally you’ve had some test races or sessions where you’ve been in the red or on the limit, to help you come your target event.

If he goes through and plans for this in his body and mind, he will be better prepared to cope with any discomfort (if it does turn up). As Prof Andy Lane talked about on this week’s Marathon Talk (minute 43:45), if we engage with our emotions in a race, and have a rehearsed coping strategy, we are more likely to overcome possible detractors from your target. What we call this in the psych game, is emotional regulation. Being emotionally skilled enough in pressure situations to know our own emotions in order to effectively cope with them.

Managing the chimp before the big day

Finally, having spent so much time training for something significant, it is natural for our emotional brains to start going off down possible avenues of ‘what if?’ — perfectly natural and healthy, but not very helpful for delivering that result you may want. Again, accept brain wandering (and possible ambition or catastrophization!) as likely and have some fuel to feed that fire. Keep steadfast in your thinking that your brain will keep giving you these helpful ‘offers’ as race day nears — in fact you’ll get offered even more of them in race week! But go logical and make the decision that you want to rely on the bank of 12–16 weeks worth of evidence in your training log and say to yourself (assuming you’ve trained your ass off!):

“Yeah, my body is ready and trained to race this distance

Take pride and confidence from that and work smartly to preserve your freshness, not get distracted by a wandering brain, other people’s ‘worries’ or suggestions and go for it!

And if you have been honest with yourself and you haven’t trained as fully as you’d have liked for an event, remember, ‘you can’t kid a kidder’ but max out on whatever you have got in the locker and see what you can squeeze out — you might just surprise yourself! ;-) 
Happy racing, running, cycling, swimming or whatever your bent is.

focusedmindcoaching @