Mind Control for Athletes
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
There are a million quotes out there that convey the importance of the mind in our physical pursuits.
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right”
“Sport is 90% mental and 10% physical”
“Where there’s a will there’s a way”
What none of these quotes show is that cultivating the mental resilience, strength, and confidence to go out there and perform your best is absolutely a critical component of training. Whether you are consciously training for this purpose with mindfulness techniques and neuroplasticity exercise or you are unconsciously building confidence in your abilities through a thoughtful and well-designed training plan, the mental component of your training cannot be overlooked or underestimated if you want to be successful in your goals.
I have, at times, been very successful using the tools below and seen huge benefits to my training and racing. Hell, during any Ultra-marathon I have run, I have always told my crew that their most important job is to make me smile. (pictured below they did a good job and I was all smiles... and finger guns at the during the Leadville 100)
Keep me positive, keep me smiling, and I will keep my legs moving.
(seriously, this 2018 paper in the "Psychology of Sport and Exercise" covered this exact topic. They examined the effects of smiling and frowning on exercise)
Every time you push past that thought of “it’s too cold” or “my legs are a little sore,” you are building the mental resilience needed to push a bit harder than the other girl late in a race. Every time you tell yourself “You’ve got this” or “stay with it” during a hard interval, you are building your skills of positive self-talk that will help you when you are staring at the “wall” at mile 20 of a marathon.
What we are talking about here is the simplistic version of the psychobiological model of human performance put forth by Professor Samuele Marcora in his 2010 paper The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle. The general premise of what we are talking about is simply that it is not purely the body that is the limit of our performance in training or racing; the mind sets the stage for how hard an effort feels and is thus the crucial barrier to our success and to accessing our full physical capabilities.
Okay, enough about all that, what the hell can we do then?
Simple, we can train our brains.
There are two ways we can train our brains to perform better on race day.
#1. Build Confidence - We have to cultivate and inspire confidence in our abilities
#2. Control Thoughts - We have to condition ourselves to control our thoughts during even the most intense situations.
#1. Building Confidence
So first, we have to be confident in our abilities but to be confident in our abilities we have to test those abilities. This is a bit of a chicken or the egg conundrum, but it is the role of any appropriate training plan or coach to inspire that confidence in an athlete. Successful training sessions inspire confidence. Period.
An athlete on an appropriate training plan is successful not only in training but in racing. We have all heard athletes saying “I am crushing training these days.” They are flying high, and as a result, that confidence breeds further confidence and carries over into race day. On the other hand, an athlete whose training plan is inappropriate or perhaps a bit too hard gets sent into a downward spiral of detrimental thinking. Going into each session with doubts and reservations about your abilities does not set you up for the kind of success we are looking for.
It is important that your training continually pushes you, that it consistently asks more and more of you physically and mentally, but likewise, it is important that it never asks too much or pushes the bar so far forward that it seems unachievable. This can be a fine line to walk when planning training. This is the role of a coach or a well-chosen training plan suited to your specific needs and abilities as an athlete and thoughtfully adjusted over time as things change.
#2. Thought Control
Controlling your thoughts and emotional reactions to exertion is the second piece of your mental training. This takes more conscious thought and practice than building confidence does.
Thought control isn’t something out of 1984; its foundation is Marcora’s psychobiological model and more recently has been discussed in fantastic detail in Alex Hutchinson’s book Endure.
Both Marcora and Hutchinson discuss in great depth how our mental state has a huge impact on how an effort feels to us and therefore how much harder we are able to push. Our brain plays two major roles during hard efforts, neither of which will come as a shock to any athlete. First, we, and therefore our mind, dictate our effort level, or more simply put, our brain tells our body how hard or fast to go at any given moment. Second, our brain interprets how an effort feels. That means our mind takes all of the external and internal signals, including those signals we send as thoughts, mannerisms, and body language, into account to help us interpret just how hard our effort feels at that moment. This presents an opportunity and means that if we can shift our thinking and control our thoughts, we can actually have a measurable effect on how hard an effort feels in the moment.
What is really awesome though is that this means we have a trainable ability to take control of how hard an effort feels to us. Simply put, the more positive we stay and the less we react in an emotional manner to how hard an effort feels, the easier it feels, and the harder we can go!!
There are many tactics to improving our mental abilities as athletes
Re-framing how we look at training, races, and hard effort. Turn a perceived negative into an opportunity. “This is going to suck” becomes “This is going to be so productive” etc.
Mantras are a well-known mental tactic in endurance sports. Having a critical, positive, and encouraging phrase that you can repeat to yourself when things get challenging helps to refocus you on the positive rather than the negative.
We are not looking for spiritual enlightenment or searching for the meaning of life, but spending stretches of time simply focusing on controlling your mental focus can help you retain that ability in the face of adversity late in a race.
Putting yourself in uncomfortable positions like ice baths or saunas.
Journaling your thoughts about your training and how you feel going into a training session and how you felt about it right after or later that day helps you to organize your thoughts and recognize patterns in your thinking.