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What Game Are You Really Playing?

By Dr. Mitchell Greene | Jan. 16, 2019, 5:11 p.m. (ET)

Focused swimmer

In our only meeting this past summer, I tried to help Tom (not his real name) understand why, as he put it, he “completely underperformed” in a recent 70.3 distance race.

An elite age-group triathlete, Tom had expected to finish in his usual position on or near the podium. Tom told me during our initial phone call he was willing to meet with me, but only once. He said his friends had never seen him so discouraged after a race and had convinced him to “give sport psychology a try.”

I knew I had a very short window of time to capture Tom’s attention. So, after we met, and I heard his race report, I gave him a cut-to-the-chase explanation on why he struggled. Using my office whiteboard, I wrote “The Game of Triathlon” on the left side, and “Side Games” on the right.

“Tom, the reason you underachieved was because you were playing the wrong game,” I told him. “Basically, you spent too much time on the right (pointing to “Side Games”), and not enough time on the left.”

Tom said nothing, stared at what I had written, and then looked at me in a way that said “Please, tell me more.” 

Side games aren’t the same as triathlete-type games such as swimming, biking or running. Rather, they are “games” of the mental variety. And, the number one reason for sub-par race results, short of a physical injury or poor training, is the playing of unnecessary side games.

A side game is an additional agenda triathletes adopt that goes beyond what one might consider to be their stated agenda for competing. In other words, if the basic, and most important, goal for any race is to see how fast you can go, side games divert your focus to other objectives that impede your chances for success.

I wrote down for Tom a list of 30 potential psychologically-themed side games I know triathletes often play. Tom easily identified the three that were most impactful for him in his last race: (1) “Trying to prove I’m an elite athlete,” (2) “Trying to not make mistakes,” and (3) “Trying to break the bike course record.”

Tom surmised that each of these side games “came up for him” because of his recent plans to try to become a professional triathlete. (In my work with triathletes, I stress the importance of not just knowing which side games you tend to play, but why. That level of self-awareness can lead to major personal insights and breakthroughs.)

The tendency, I explained to Tom, of trying to do too much in “big races” is very common, especially for those who push themselves as hard in training as he does.

While Tom raced, his side games worked on a totally different agenda than swimming, biking and running. The moment trouble ensued out on the course, Tom’s side games worked against him for not being Mr. Perfect, when what he really needed was to focus on being adaptable and gritty. I told him that triathlon is more like jazz, with improvisation being essential, than like rock and roll, with its steady, predictable beat.

Tom could now see the direct connection between his “this is a big race” mindset and the side games his mind latched on to for this race. How could he prevent the same thing from happening the next time?

The answer has to do with a shift in mindset from simply hoping to race well to planning for adversities, small and large. If Tom incorporates side game planning into his future race preparations (by literally looking over the list I presented to him), he can mentally rehearse how he’d like to respond to a mistake or a slower-than-expected time on the bike course or any other distracting side game that arises.

I left Tom with the idea that he can ask himself, “What game am I playing?” when the perfectionistic side game voices start getting louder in his head. This can be his signal to refocus on the importance of mental toughness and resilience rather than sliding into a worried state of mind that falsely says his entire pro career is over before it has even started. I emphasize with my clients that they always have choice about what games they play.

I handed Tom a Greenepsych water bottle on the way out the door, with the request that for his next race he write on it, “No More Side Games.” 

Dr. Mitchell Greene is a clinical and sport psychologist, located in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For more information on Dr. Greene and his services for triathletes, go to

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.