Matt Haugen – a former USA Triathlon National Team coach, an Ironman finisher and currently an endurance training coach with Performance Power in St. Paul, Minnesota – has a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“There are so many new people trying out the sport who don’t know themselves as well physically and psychologically,” he says. “Since the longer distances like the Ironman are so well publicized, people often rush the process and try to do one in their first or second year. That leads to underestimating the challenge and not respecting the distance.”
It’s becoming increasingly common for triathletes to hire coaches to help them improve their swimming, cycling or running techniques. “One thing about triathletes is that everyone has a third best sport out of the swim, bike and run,” Haugen says, “so every triathlete has to overcome some anxiety or fears related to that third best sport.”
Cheryl Hart medaled at the 2004 World Triathlon and 2004 World Duathlon. She holds a masters degree in sports psychology and teaches sports and exercise psychology at the University of Louisville. Hart suggests that hiring a sports psychologist is also worth considering.
“Athletes hire a coach to train physically. In that same way athletes need a mental coach. There are all sorts of strategies and techniques to make an athlete more mentally tough. New athletes particularly need those skill sets,” Hart says.
Registering for a triathlon event brings with it enthusiasm, anticipation and excitement. As with any physically challenging endeavor like a marathon or century bike event, race day can be an emotional roller coaster.
“Citizen athletes who take on a new physical challenge often enter the challenge with enthusiasm and the dedication needed to be successful,” says Dr. John Anderson, founder and chairman of The Center for Sports Psychology in Monument, Colorado. “However, I equate them with Olympic athletes who are new to an Olympic Games competition. The Olympics tend to be bigger than they are built up to be in terms of the competitive pressures experienced. Similarly, when citizen athletes seek competitive advantages in something like their first triathlon, they do not experience, during training, the heightened emotional state that occurs when the actual event takes place. These emotions can be draining unless the athletes have supplemented their physical training with proper mental training.”
Sports psychologists working with triathletes identify anxiety, lack of self-confidence and negative mental imagery as obstacles that can be overcome.
“Almost every issue I deal with among athletes comes down to self-confidence,” Hart says. “In sports psychology its called self-efficacy: whether they believe they are capable of performing a specific task. Being new to the sport, they question whether have the capability to do even do it at all.”
Confidence is created over the long term by facing and overcoming challenges as minor as running in a cold rain or as daunting as silencing self-doubt halfway through the running leg of a first sprint triathlon.
“Self-confidence goes hand in hand with resiliency which is the ability to bounce back after setbacks. A person embarking in triathlon will experience ups and downs. The higher your level of self-efficacy, the more equipped you are going to be to handle the setbacks and obstacles on the way,” Hart explains.
Triathlon coaches with sports psychology training often include strengthening mental toughness in their physical workouts. “Confidence is developed in practice by taking risks, finishing tough workouts, memorable sets in the pool and epic climbs on the bike or run,” Haugen says. “As a coach, you create a progression of workouts that challenges and allows them to overreach. Sometimes you push them to the edge and their breaking point. Certainly you have to sprinkle in workouts where they end with a smile on their face and end with ‘I did it.'”
Haugen adds, “Since there are so many more practices than races, that is the most important place to coach the mind and the confidence. We create the ability for them to be composed and relaxed in the middle of the challenge itself. Then when they are at the start of the race they know what they are capable of. They are confident, mentally callused, know how to pace themselves and can change a negative thought with a positive image.”
Most triathlon training programs include days off to let an athlete’s body recover. Haugen recommends taking the same approach to mental conditioning. “The mental burnout of Ironman training can really impact people, especially around May and June if they have been training since January,” he says. “I do see the need for mental recharging. Once every four to five weeks I have a rejuvenation week where we markedly reduce the amount of training hours and tell our athletes to take a day or two off and not think too much about training.”
A physical challenge, like a pulled calf muscle, can keep you from cycling or running. Self-doubt and anxiety can also hamper your training. Hart explains how anxiety affects an athlete. “They are not fully in the present. They are thinking about a past performance where they were not successful. Most of the time they lack self-confidence or are focusing on the wrong things. Concentration and focus is another area we work on,” she says.
Most athletes carry on an internal dialogue when training or competing. Hart works with her clients to make sure that self-talk isn’t detrimental. She says, “Are you playing negative tapes in your mind? What are you saying and how often are you saying that? We work to replace that with positive self-talk. They have to really enjoy what they are doing or they will never be successful.”
After registering for a race, the second step most athletes take is defining what success will look like. Finishing under a certain time or placing high in an age group category are two examples. Unwittingly, those expectations can add stress and anxiety as race day approaches. Haugen suggests keeping those goals private.
“Not everyone has to know your goal. Only share your finish line goals with the people you trust. Just tell a limited number of people so that you don’t have undue expectations on you. Sometimes the more information you have within about what you are going to do the more power it is. People can’t interfere or put pressure on you,” he says.
Hart agrees. “They have to set their own standard of excellence. The reason people get anxious before competition is because of ego. They are worried about what other people think. I work with clients to set a clear, specific goal or standard of excellence for themselves that is a measureable and realistic goal. That way, regardless of where they finished, they can measure whether or not they succeeded by what they set out to do. People get too anxious about what other people think and worry about the outcome and not staying in the moment and enjoying the sport.”
Athletes who can manage the mental demons that are certain to come in any endurance race give themselves a better chance of reaching their goals. Tapping into the expertise of a sports psychologist can give you that race day edge.
“So many athletes talk about how important it is to be mentally tough, but a lot of them don’t know the clear definition of mental toughness or what the attributes are that contribute to mental toughness so they can work on it,” Hart says.
Anderson adds, “Sports psychologists can assist these athletes by providing mental nutrition techniques, which help the athletes understand their zone and how to maximize the probability that they will be at their best on a consistent basis. Once the athlete enters the actual competition, then the mind takes over and dictates their success.”
During the 2010 triathlon season, the finishers with smiles are their faces will have endured the mental challenges as well as the physical.
Set daily, weekly and monthly goals. Setting a goal for each practice session and then checking off what you did successfully is an important habit to get into. Setting goals is essential, especially for those just getting started.
Keep a log of what you do every day toward your finish line goal. Write down not only what you did physically, but describe the confidence you gained or what made you feel good about that session. That way you are linking the mind and the spirit with the finish line goal itself.
When you are exercising, make a habit of talking to yourself with a positive term; to visualize what you are going to do in that workout. After the workout, recall what you did successfully. That’s creating a higher level of mental skills.
On occasion, take risks in practice. Extend the amount of time you spend doing a workout or go with a bigger gear on the bike so that you are callusing your mind and making yourself more mentally tough and able to tolerate more discomfort on race day.