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Mental Toughness: Guidelines to Achieve the Next Level of Performance

By Adam D’Agostino | March 02, 2020, 8 a.m. (ET)

putting on wetsuit

Whether it be during training or in competition, every athlete ultimately encounters a crucial moment when their mind has a greater impact on their performance than their body does. These moments can make or break a key workout, an important race, or even have ripple effects on an overall training plan. How you deal with this adversity will likely determine which type of result you produce.

Acquiring mental toughness does not happen overnight. It is developed and honed through experience, just like any other important skill or technique. The first step toward achieving this is having a competitive mindset — not just in competition, but during your everyday training.

Most athletes want their bodies to perform in a specific way on race day, so they train their bodies to be able to handle a certain level of stress. Using this methodology, wouldn’t it also make sense to train your mind in a similar fashion? Yes! If you want to perform mentally on race day, you must also train your mind on a regular basis.

Here are four key factors that will help you improve your competitive mindset in order to achieve mental toughness: 

Short-Term Goal Setting – This may sound simple, but it can be more complex than you think. I am not referring to your overall training plan or race goals for the year, those would be long-term goals. Instead, I am focusing on specific days, workouts, or even intervals within a training session. For example, set a goal for Sunday’s run workout: “I want to run 8 x 3-minute intervals between 7:00-7:10 pace.” You can certainly get more specific, which requires even more mental focus during training. An example would be, “I want to run slightly faster during each of my 8 x 3-minute intervals, starting at 7:10 pace and working down to 7:00 pace.” 

When you have finished the workout, upload the data from your training device and analyze the results. Were you able to hit your marks? If not, what was the limiting factor? Was it a physical or mental one? Make notes in your training log so you can refer back to them later. Compare your results to previous days when you have completed the same or similar workouts. Over time, you will develop mental toughness during these specific intervals which will translate to enhanced focus at those critical moments. Setting specific short-term goals on a regular basis will undoubtedly take your training to the Next Level of Performance! 

Visualization – We all want to have a good performance on race day. But how many athletes actually visualize what they will need to do during competition in order to achieve their goals? Whether it be in the few seconds before the gun goes off, or the minutes before your head hits the pillow the night before, visualization can make a difference in your performance. Repeating this strategy in your training routine will bring you one step closer to mental toughness.

It can be as simple as closing your eyes and playing a brief “movie” in your head about a specific portion of your race, such as the swim start or your first transition. However, the key variables here are repetition and specificity. If you only visualize one time before the race for a few seconds, chances are you will not even remember it and there will be no positive impact on your performance. Similarly, if you simply visualize a general swim start without any specific details about your strategy, the impact will be negligible. 

Removing negative thoughts and images from your mind is necessary in order to replace them with positive and more specific ones. An example of effective imagery would be an athlete visualizing him/herself having a smooth swim start and taking a tight line to the buoys, while also controlling their heartrate and breathing pattern. Repeating this vision before every open water swim training session will increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome on race day. Repetition and specificity will make your visualization more efficient, which is a valuable tool to have in your mental toughness arsenal.

Positive Self-Talk – When things get tough, what do you say to yourself? These words, although not spoken, can impact your performance at critical moments in races or key training sessions. Your mind is most vulnerable to negative thoughts when your body is placed under intense physical stress. It can be easy for pessimistic words and phrases to overtake your mental space, such as “I Can’t Finish” or “I Give Up” or even just “QUIT!” Physical pain and extreme discomfort can render even the best race plan inoperative.

Much like visualization, positive self-talk is a strategy that should be repeated during your regular training routine in order to be most effective. During the swim portion of a race, phrases like “Long & Strong” or “Stay Smooth” can be effective cues to help keep an athlete mentally focused on the task at hand. During a brutal bike or run session, an athlete might say things to him/herself such as “High Cadence” or “Control Breathing” or “You Got This!” 

Again, these should be specific to each individual and repeated during training sessions. Find a few that work best for you related to each sport or discipline. Remember—you are saying them in your head or to yourself, so nobody has to know! 

Stress Management – Every athlete with competitive experience will tell you that unexpected things happen during races. If unprepared, these can be issues you have not experienced in training and will likely be detrimental to your performance. Part of being mentally tough is the ability to handle stress and overcome it in a competitive atmosphere. Putting yourself under stress during training, both physically and mentally, will prepare you to deal with adversity on race day. 

Weather conditions are beyond your control, but something you can prepare for. If an athlete never runs in the rain or when it’s extremely hot and humid, then he/she will likely not perform well in a race under these conditions. I am not recommending that you always train outdoors during unfavorable weather; however, occasionally doing so will certainly build your confidence and help you manage this stress in a competitive situation. 

Aside from weather, sometimes things just do not unfold as planned during a race. Unpredictable events such as inadequate sleep, muscle fatigue, or dehydration can all be pernicious to an athlete’s ultimate goal. Effective stress management uses all three of the previous tactics: short-term goal setting, visualization, and positive self-talk. If you have a goal time in mind for a specific race, but you do not sleep well, and the conditions prove unfavorable, manage your expectations by adjusting short-term goals. Maintain positive imagery and repeat mental cues or “mantras” to yourself in order to stay focused. For a long-distance endurance event, be aware of your nutrition and hydration to avoid any additional stress. Channel your muscle (and mental) memory to remind yourself of difficult training sessions that you completed under adverse conditions. Knowing that you have experienced something similar before, or even a more challenging event, and eventually overcame it, can be a great motivator at a critical moment. 

Now that you have a blueprint for building your mental toughness fortress, it is up to you to take the next step. Get organized with your training plan, set both long-term and short-term goals, perform each workout with purpose, and strive to improve on the athlete you were yesterday. If you are not sure where to begin or need help with any aspect of your training program, seek assistance! The guidance of a certified coach can be a valuable resource on your journey to achieving the Next Level of Performance! 

Adam D’Agostino is a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Certified Personal Trainer (CPT). He is a USA Triathlon (USAT) Certified Coach and US Masters Swimming (USMS) Level 3 Coach. Adam has additional certifications from NASM as a Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES), Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning Specialist (MMACS), & Nutrition/Weight Loss Specialist (WLS). In addition, he holds the TRX Functional Training Certification (FTC) and is a TrainingPeaks Certified Coach. Adam competes in Triathlons of all distances and has qualified for the USAT National Championships in 7 consecutive years (2012-2018). He is a two-time qualified athlete on Team USA at the ITU Multisport World Championships for Long-Distance Triathlon (2017 & 2019). Adam is the owner and head coach at Next Level Training & Performance in NJ, where he specializes in Personal Training, Triathlon Coaching, Nutrition, & Athlete Performance.