Updated: Dec 13, 2019
I attended the annual Race Mania Summit & Expo in Boston last weekend and was lucky enough to to attend a panel on mental toughness. I frantically scribbled down notes, as there was so much to learn — and unlearn.
There were three panelists, including Karen Smyers (Ironman World Campion, USA Triathlon Hall of Fame inductee), James Olson (Former US Navy SEAL & endurance athlete), and John Young (accomplished triathlete and marathoner with dwarfism), and moderator, Sean Riley of Swim with a Mission. The panel explored the threads that bind their unique perspectives, and lessons learned from years of experience digging deep and finding that immeasurable inner strength to push forward, to overcome, and to win.
Three athletes, all with different backgrounds and life experiences — and very similar philosophies regarding mental toughness. The common thread among these athletes was their consensus on the need for perseverance. By definition, perseverance is defined as: steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc.,especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
Karen Smyers is an amazing athlete and inspiring role model. She leads computrainer classes at a local studio I cycle at and humbly offers athletes compelling insights and coaching tips that can be applied to their own training. At the panel discussion, she reflected on her journey through sports and triathlon and spoke about the concept of persistence and the mindset of not seeing things as failures, but as temporarily not succeeding at something. She recalled being out on a triathlon course early on in her career and allowing her mind to dwell in the negative chatter: Why did they start the pros at 11am in Florida? Why are we running through a golf course for a triathlon? Why are those two woman in front of me out kicking me on the run, again? Thought patterns like these aren't productive and lead you into a spiral, which can only hinder an your ability to push on, overcome, and truly compete. As athletes, we tend to devote much of our time and effort on the physical aspects of training and don't necessarily take the time to train our minds. Karen suggested that as athletes we need to get our minds to work better for us — smarter for us.
When I heard that there was a former Navy Seal speaking at this panel, my first thought was: what could I possibly have to learn from him? So much! James Olson was a member of a Navy Seal training cohort, which included 140 participants. He was one of thirteen to complete the training program. Navy Seals are constantly having their mental toughness challenged. Olson mentioned that as a Navy Seal or an endurance athlete, it's easy to fall prey to the negative committee chattering in your head. So, how do we quiet that unhelpful interference? He suggested not accepting the pain you're experiencing and moving though it. Like Karen, he recommended preparing your mind and finding the fortitude to move through the discomfort — as the discomfort is temporary.
The third panelist, John Young offered a unique perspective on mental toughness that I genuinely appreciated. He spoke about the adversity he faced as a child and as an adult athlete competing with dwarfism. From doctors who told him he shouldn't run marathons because it would be dangerous for his back to other athletes who continue to judge him out on course. His philosophy on pain was slightly different from Olson's views. Young believes that pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice. While their philosophies may be somewhat different, the common thread is about mindset and training your mind to work better for you. Young's race accomplishments are impressive and include multiple ironmans and marathons. He wisely pointed out that being an ironman has very little to do with the day and has much more to do with the preparation. If you have done the preparation, trust it.
How many of you have experienced that negative committee or interference? I have. After reflecting on the wisdom of these three athletes, I've been tuned into and monitoring my thought patterns — and training myself to create positive self-dialogue. That dialogue will sound different for each of us, perhaps a mantra that you can repeat.
Over the last few years, I have also found visualization to be an invaluable tool to mentally prepare for the physical challenges ahead. For example, breaking down each component of a race and seeing yourself successfully hitting your pace targets — or envisioning a race under the most ideal conditions regardless of what they actually are on race day. You can also think of visualization as a self-fulfilling prophecy, see yourself slowly reeling in or pulling away from competition or adjusting your pace so you're more relaxed and focused. If you have put in the preparation, then really all that's left is to believe in the training and enjoy each moment of that race — and wish your negative committee farewell.
Everything you want is on the other side of fear and doubt.
New move of the week video on home page: Plank/Side Plank with Resistance Band Pull