Sport psychologists are forever attempting to get athletes to be more positive and to stop their negative thinking. The idea is that if you can replace negative beliefs with positive ones your performance will improve. There is only one problem. The research data supporting the negative-to-positive replacement strategy doesn’t exist. In fact, experienced triathletes will tell you that second guessing and whispers of doubt remain despite determined and repeated attempts at positive affirmations and confident self-statements. Even the best, such as USA Triathlon Hall of Famer and pro triathlete Scott Tinley, talk about pro triathlon having its own “dirty little secret.” He reveals that, “Self-doubt runs rampant through the ranks of even the best.”
Mindfulness strategies have become enormously popular for several reasons, the most obvious being that people, particularly endurance athletes, have a knack for being very tough on themselves. They often relish pushing their bodies to the brink but many become frustrated (and humbled) to find that self-confidence still eludes them. From a mindfulness point of view, having an inner critic isn’t necessarily the problem. Moreover, solutions aimed at becoming more positive may actually make an athlete feel worse rather than better.
Mindfulness approaches accept the inconvenient truth that we have less control over our thoughts than we might wish. As many a triathlete can attest, trying to forcibly make yourself feel confident about p.r.’ing in your next race or “nailing” your ocean swim can be akin to throwing yourself a surprise party. It really just doesn’t work. Trying too hard to feel something you don’t really feel (i.e., confident) signals to a mindfulness practitioner that the athlete is basically saying, “I don’t know how to respond when I start doubting myself.” Instead of trying to not be nervous, mindfulness teaches athletes how to practice non-judgmental awareness of one’s thoughts (and feelings). The goal is to create some much-needed separation from your inevitable second-guessing.
Here’s a dialogue I had with “Dave,” a triathlete. Dave learned some basic mindfulness strategies, including what I call “managing the mind chatter,” to help him deal with the messages his negative self-talk was sending his way as he readied for his next big race.
Dr. Greene: So, Dave, you’ve signed up for a half-IRONMAN in late May. Congratulations! I understand you want to really challenge yourself, otherwise I guess you would have stuck to sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons.
Dave: Yes, I heard from others that the 70.3 distance is not so bad if you train well for it. One early morning, immediately after a great swim session, I found myself paying the fee and there it was … an email congratulating me for signing up. The problem is now I’m literally freaked out about it.
Dr. Greene: I get it. One day you find yourself open to a new opportunity and nothing else at the time seems to matter. Now, you are questioning the whole thing.
Dave: Exactly, I don’t know now if I can do it. I mean, in training I can do all the distances, but I don’t know what will happen in the race and whether the heat will get to me, which happened once before, and I had to walk for a big chunk of the run.
Dr. Greene: The way we will look at this Dave is that you and I need to team up against something I call “Mind Chatter.” While you are looking to have an experience of a lifetime, your chatter is working on a wholly different agenda. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t want anything bad to happen to you. If we stick together Dave, we can figure out what to do about that chatter.
The key, Dave, and this may sound a bit odd, is to accept that the doubting voices aren’t just going to go away because you say so. Consider them part of the competition picture. If you don’t want chatter you’d basically be telling me you want to stop pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, which obviously is not the case. By the way, your chatter would be happy if you stayed home. It wants to protect you from getting hurt or looking bad.
Is this making sense Dave? For now, let’s try not give the second-guessing any more importance than it deserves.
Dave: So, the idea of me trying to not be nervous is a mistake?
Dr. Greene: Correct. It sounds funny, but your energy is better spent breaking down the race into small goals — physical ones and mental ones. I can help you with that. All along, while you and I are trying to figure out how to tackle this challenge called half-IRONMAN, your chatter will pop up and tell us why this might not be a good idea. We won’t do anything directly about that chatter — we will try to just let it do its thing — and we will shift our attention to race-related actions that put your training to good use.
Dave: I kind of get it. I’m not going to be worried that I’m worried. I can race worried. But, it’s better to fill my “mind” with how I want to approach each of the three sports, in terms of specific techniques and strategies.
Dr. Greene: Right. You are off to a great start!
Here’s a fitting metaphor that resonates with many athletes who, like Dave, find themselves mentally exhausted trying to get on the right side of their racing jitters and fears. Think about being anxious for a big race as similar to being in a tug-of-war with a monster. The monster is big, ugly and very strong. In between you and the monster is a pit, and as far as you can tell it is bottomless. If you lose this tug-of-war, you will fall into this pit and be destroyed. So, you pull and pull, but the harder you pull, the harder the monster pulls back, and you edge closer and closer to the pit. The hardest thing to see is that your job here is not to win the tug-of-war. Your job is to drop the rope!
Dr. Mitchell Greene is a sport and clinical psychologist in private practice in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For more information on Dr. Greene, go to greenepsych.com.The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.