Can Mental Toughness Be Trained?

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We are not too far from the start of silly season (race season) - some of the elite athletes have kicked off their WTS racing in Abu Dhabi and early season Ironman races are kicking off. It all gets very exciting very quickly. However, is one of your limiting factors in racing not knowing what you are really capable of?

What do I mean by ‘not knowing what you are capable of’?

Here are some examples:

You may have been in the sport a while and during harder training you may not have dug-in as deep as you used to - one of the key reasons I believe performance slows as we get older. Maybe you have set your limits based on your own historic training and racing performances?

What about a young athlete or an athlete who is new to endurance sport who does not understand how to get through tough patches or through ‘training or racing pain’?

Do they just admit defeat and back off trying to race at the top? Or do they learn that all elite athletes have gone through this and learnt to get to the other side, then and only then have they learnt to understand their potential?

Some don’t need it:

Some people don’t actually want or need to deal with this and be mentally stronger - some people just want to be healthy, have fun, chat to their mates on the way round a triathlon and are not in the slightest bit concerned with where they finish or how they perform. If it hurts, they will walk or just slow down. In some cases, if they are in ‘no mans land’ (the mid point in a race or half way on the run) they just quit.

Boxing:

Believe it or not, not all boxers walk around angry and aggressive. Some can be very placid, kind, soft and gentle! They will go through a process of building up their aggression towards their opponent (professional) or to the night in question (armature).

In training they will spar (fighting in training), they will get hit with good shots and learn to deal with it. They will become physically exhausted, still have to take a good shot, but learn to get through these patches and still have the mental clarity to throw punch combinations or defend. Through their training/experience, know they will be ok and don’t quit.

Back to triathlon:

One of the toughest parts of our sport (whether you race Ironman, a junior or you’re an elite athlete racing WTS) is the first buoy.

Most back off, most take the outside line or stay at the back. It is brutal and even more brutal in elite racing when they know their position around that first buoy will greatly determine their exit position and therefore race outcome.

What about during your next Ironman (you know it’s coming), you’re about 20 - 25k into the run, it’s hot, your legs are heavy and you’re still a long way from home… are you backing off your pace, thus missing your Kona slot or podium?

What about a 16 year old girl, new to triathlon, 3k still to run, and she starts to get dropped by the small group she is running with… does she allow this to happen and then just decide… I’m not good enough?

Or the age grouper out on the Olympic distance bike course and some chap comes flying past with a very snazzy bike, disc wheel, nice aero position looking strong… does he try and take pace (not drafting!) or just judge the book by its cover and say ‘too good’?

The scenarios I have described, I think you will agree rely heavily on mental toughness… but, is it trainable?

I hear coaches, psychologists and athletes discussing this often and mostly they feel it is something innate. I fundamentally disagree.

We all have good and bad days, but coming from a sport where one must "dig-in" when you are caught with a good shot (boxing) and being involved in training endurance sport for 30+ years has taught me that giving people the tools to master their own headspace, mental strength can not only be strengthened just like physiology, but you can and will become mentally tough... how?

In sports psychology there is something called Thought Associated Process (TAP), this cognitive approach focuses on how we think to simulate a response, which leads to a behaviour change.

Weak Point Plan (WPP)

To simplify this I use something called a Weak Point Plan (WPP), where if you feel you are vulnerable or in a weak point, you kick start your plan.

The plan can be very simple, but you are basically starting a thought process to take your thoughts away form the negative of the moment and replacing it with something positive/related to the moment.

It must be available instantly, you must be able to recognise you need it and you have to know it works, to believe in the process.

Can mental toughness be trained

Just like swimming, biking and running, the more you practice good technique, the more efficient/skilled you become. Building and TAPping into your WPP in training is the only way to become mentally stronger in racing.

TAP into WPP

There are many weak point plans out there and most athletes will have one or two for different situations and levels of stress.

Below are a few examples of the ones the athletes I coach & I have used.

  1. Counting to 100 - most endurance athletes from the weekend warrior to elite level has used this form time to time. They know they are just going through a ‘bad patch’ that they need to get through.
  2. Form/technique - tapping into how you are doing something physically and optimizing it (Hold the water, pedal smooth, run tall)
  3. ‘In the now’ - thinking about your relaxed breathing or just lifting your head and looking at something beautiful around you. It’s amazing how you can stop negative thoughts, thus negative hormonal response, and change it to a positive thought, thus positive hormonal response, which changes the athlete’s demeanour.
  4. Relaxing – simply being aware that your muscles are tense can have a dramatic effect and allow you to flow.
  5. Positive or negative self statement - keep moving forwards - I will not be dropped - or just chastising themselves to get through a tough patch "come on you useless waste of space, get you ass moving and stop feeling sorry for yourself". Or one from a recent Ironman world champ – “if it’s hurting me, it’s killing them.”

Different scenarios, races and race distance will require different approaches. However, I guarantee you put this simple process in place during training, you will feel a million dollars for breaking through a tough patch. You then put it into practice during racing and you will start to realise your potential.

IT’S TRAINABLE, BECOME MENTALLY STRONGER.

Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.

-Carl von Clausewitz

JB