Finding your psychological anchors
“You have to fight with your brain, you have to put it in its place.” Cus D’Amato
As a newbie triathlete many years ago I remember one of my biggest psychological issues was failing to stay in the moment when out there racing. My mind always seemed to be drifting way too far ahead. When I was in the swim I was already thinking of the bike, when I was on the bike I was thinking of the run, then when I was on the run I was already thinking of the finish line. My mind had already finished the race while my body was still out there.
When I look back now the reason I did this was because I had become obsessed with seeing what the numbers were at the end of the race. I knew I’d put in the training and I was in really good shape so what did that equate to in terms of overall time improvement? It all became about the numbers and splits when I should have been focussed on squeezing the best out of each and every moment.
Not only did I have an issue with my mind wandering but I also struggled to deal with negative thoughts that would come into my head. Racing seemed like being stuck on an emotional roller coaster where there were just as many lows as there were highs. At the time I just didn’t have the tools to deal with it.
This is a common failing that I see amongst many triathletes of today. There is so much emphasis placed on the physical act of training but little thought is ever given to the mental side of the sport.
But where do you start? It all starts with what I like to call…
‘Finding your psychological anchors.’
These are thoughts and feelings you can use to pull you back in when the mind starts to wander, this helps you to focus on the immediate task at hand. Think of it as your own personal box of tricks you go to when those dark moments arise.
There are 2 types of psychological anchors that need considering:
- Anchors that help you stay engaged in the moment
- Anchors that help you deal with negative thinking
To help keep athletes engaged in the moment I encourage them to think of 3 key elements. Think of them as a checklist that you keep running through over and over again in your mind to keep you locked in.
- Rate of perceived effort
- The rhythm and flow of what you are doing
These are simple feedback mechanisms that your body is giving you. You should be asking yourself:
- Are you in control of your breathing?
- Are you at the right intensity?
- Are you optimising the flow and efficiency of your movement?
A constant analysis of these 3 elements can keep your mind switched on. They are all completely interlinked depending on what intensity you are training or racing at. Certain technological tools can also be used as a 4th element but I prefer my athletes to trust in what their body is telling them first and foremost.
Learning to deal with negative thinking is a crucial part of endurance sport. When it creeps in you are looking to find an anchor that helps to distract you from the discomfort you are feeling. This is highly individual because people draw inner strength and power from many sources. I’ve listed some examples below:
1: Self-affirmation statements/mantras
Self-affirmation statements have long been a tool used by many of the worlds best athletes to help rewire their brains. The theory being the more positively you repeat something the more you start to believe it. These are powerful statements that you can keep repeating inside your head when difficult moments arise. Statements such as:
- “The longer I go the stronger I get”
- “I’m fit, I’m strong, I can and I will”
- “Day by day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”
Former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson used the final mantra. He used to repeat it to himself over and over again to help build his incredibly low self-esteem both as a person and boxer. His legendary coach Cus D’Amato was a huge fan of self-affirmation statements. Cus was known as a psychological genius that helped shape the minds of many of the world’s greatest boxers. His inspiration came from the famous French Psychologist Emile Coue who introduced this popular method of psychotherapy and self-improvement based on optimistic autosuggestion.
2: Self-empowering word play
This is another form of powerful self-affirmation; words can play a powerful role in strengthening an athlete’s psyche. As an athlete I used to write words on my inner forearms when racing, I could then see them as I nestled into my aero position on my bike. Words such as STRONG, POWERFUL, STUBBORN, FAST & RHYTHMICAL would help to keep my mind focussed and engaged with how I wanted to feel at the time.
In moments of difficulty I would also try to meet any negative thoughts or feelings with a positive one. If it was really hot I would do everything in my power to think of being cool. If I poured water over my head I would keep thinking of how amazing it felt as it dripped down my skin. As I drank it I would imagine it cooling me internally. If I felt a breeze on my face I would fully embrace it, immediately connecting my senses to it’s cooling presence.
It was all about learning to play a mental game with myself to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.
3: Inspiring people & connections
We all know amazing inspirational people in our lives. They inspire us because of who they are and what they have achieved. One of my greatest sources of inspirations when I was out there suffering was triathlon legends Rick and Dick Hoyt. I was fortunate enough to meet them many years ago and one of my most cherished possessions is a signed copy of their book It’s Only A Mountain. When you read about what these guys have been through and what they achieved I felt I had no right to give into suffering during racing or training. I always thought to myself if Rick & Dick can, then so can I.
Another great example of finding a powerful personal connection comes from my old coach. Many years ago he his wife became pregnant with their first child, he was then given a photo of the scan of the baby. He decided to tape it to his aero bars while racing at Ironman UK. This had an extremely powerful emotional connection for him that he knew could draw tremendous strength from. It was no surprise when he qualified for the Ironman World Championships at this same race.
4: Create a sense internal gratitude
I’ve always believed that any athlete should feel eternally grateful to be able to do what they do. Sometimes you need to check yourself and remind yourself of how lucky you are to be able pursue life goals and chase your athletic dreams. There are people out there who would love to be able to do what you do but can’t for one reason or another. You should appreciate each and every moment, savouring the beautiful environments you do it in. This nourishes the soul because there is no better feeling in the world than being able bodied, fit and healthy.
Sometimes a sense of perspective is needed.
5: Draw on previous experiences
This usually comes from past training and racing experiences or any other hurdles you’ve had to overcome in your life. There will be certain moments where you thought you couldn’t do something but then you actually did. It’s the sum of all of these moments that will ultimately equal how mentally tough you become. The more you stretch yourself beyond your limits the stronger you will get.
These are all forms of positive reinforcement, they are also distraction methods. They help take the mind to another place so you don’t become overwhelmed with what you are feeling. They lift the spirit and help to keep you engaged, you just need to find the ones that work for you. When you find them, store away ready to use at a later date, you will then be able to call on the one that is most appropriate at any given time.
Mental training doesn’t need to be as difficult as many seem to think it is, it’s just your way of turning negativity into positivity.
When I asked the great Chrissie Wellington what was her go to psychological anchor was, she replied:
“I always find a big smile is the best remedy of all”.