“Everything you want is on the other side of Fear “
As we approach the New Year I have to admit I start getting pretty excited about what is to come from the athletes that I coach. . We had some amazing success in 2015 and each year I like to see everyone raising the bar further still, I try to do this with my coaching each year and expect my athletes to do the same. So its that time when I like to put pen to paper and write something that will hopefully inspire you to find that extra edge for the season to come.
Without doubt most athletes at this time of year are raring to go and are looking to start ticking the sessions off one at a time developing great consistency moving forwards. But firstly why not stop to ask yourself, where are the biggest gains to be made? For each athlete this will be different but its important to recognise your strengths and in particular your weaknesses so you can formulate a plan.
The area I personally think that most triathletes have the biggest scope for improvement is without question the mental side of triathlon training and racing. Unfortunately though it’s the area most triathletes seem to neglect. They are often far too concerned with accumulating numbers, spending far too much time uploading & downloading data that for most of the time offer no substantial value to them or myself as a coach. Sure this data will then look good in a spreadsheet but what is it really telling us about the training session that the athlete has just experienced if left poorly described? When I see athletes wasting 5-10mins during a session pressing buttons on their all singing all dancing watches there is a huge disconnection from the workout goal because you are too focused at looking at the numbers. Learn to embrace the moment and feel. Gadgets have a place but know when and how to use them. I still find it astonishing how many athletes I see on a daily basis that time their warm up, cool down, technique sets and then check their watch at the end of every length to ensure they are on pace, I’ve even seen this done in time trials!
What I love in spreadsheets (yes I do use them!) is descriptions like how the sessions feel, what hurdles were over come, how did you react to this and how do you think you could do it better next time? Or simply if you just nailed the session then great – job done! This is kind of intuitive information is like coaching gold dust because it tells me that the athlete is really thinking about how they feel and their perception of effort.
I also like to speak to my athletes as much as possible because the look in their eyes, the sound of their voice and seeing how they move tells me more than any data file. It is also important to note that that data like this can really help to demotivate triathletes if they are slower that the previous weeks session. As coaches what we all understand about training is no two weeks or two sessions are ever the same as there are too many factors to account for. Some sessions will be great others will feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall…that’s ok! Don’t look back to a bad session just keep looking forwards to the next one, which could be so much different. I think there is a healthy balance to be gained from using gadgets and numbers but your training shouldn’t solely rely on it. Learning how to develop your feel for pacing and intensity because this is what will help to develop your racing instinct. You wont find a function for this on any watch.
As a coach that specialises in Ironman coaching I often hear the question asked – “how much of being good at Ironman is mental aspect compared to the physical?” I often hear numbers that Ironman is 90% mental versus 10% physical, I’m not sure I buy into this. I would rather say that each and every athlete has a certain make up and the ratio will be different from person to person depending on his or her ability. One thing is for sure both need to be developed simultaneously if an athlete is to be successful, you can’t have one without having the other.
The reason I think most triathlete’s neglect this side of their training is because its takes true self-reflection to understand who you are as a person and as an athlete. The person you really are is usually only revealed during your deepest and darkest moments of your training and racing. It can be a scary place to look because its ultimately about being honest with yourself and accepting your weaknesses and standing up to your fears and failures. Its also about asking yourself the hard questions, accepting the answers and then being able to do formulate a plan to do things better next time. Any athlete that wants to improve their performance year by year needs to go through process of self reflection frequently and on a daily basis and never more so important than just after a race.
But what does true reflection really mean?
For me it is epitomized by two of the greatest triathletes the world has ever seen – Mark Allen and Chris McCormack. Both multiple World Champions at short course and long course with Mark winning 6 Ironman Hawaii titles and Chris winning 2. Just because you are an age grouper doesn’t mean to say these guys are so dramatically different to you, they aren’t and the same lessons are applicable to all. You can still learn from their mistakes and apply it to your own training and racing.
What is truly enlightening is the process of self-evaluation both athletes needed to undertake to win the coveted World Championship titles in Hawaii. The reason being is both of them failed time and time again before they were ever able to come through and win. Never forget that all champions have experienced failure first before they ever achieved the success we take for granted.
” I missed more than 9000 shots in my career. 26 times I was trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeeded.
The reason I chose these two characters is because they couldn’t be anymore diametrically opposed as people. Chris is the a real extrovert known for his smack talking and outspoken nature while Mark is much introverted, calm and thoughtful in comparison. Both led the race in Hawaii many times before they quite literally fell apart, a very painful humbling experience for them when they were expected to win. But what they didn’t do was give up, particularly in Mark’s case, he failed 6 times before he actually went on to win in what is regarded as the greatest race of all time in 1989, now known as the Iron War. This eventually led to Mark winning a total of 6 Ironman World championships titles.
But why did two of the greatest athletes in the world fail so many times? Quite simply, they weren’t mentally strong enough to win. Physically they were in the best shape of their lives but neither were mentally strong enough in the latter stages of the race to come through and win. The pressure, the race, the conditions all served up one big knock out punch to beat them.
” I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying again”.
Essentially neither gave up and both went back to the drawing board for a period of deep reflection. Both wanted the title badly and would do whatever it took to go back there and win it. This would requite them to ask the hard questions about why they were failing so that they could formulate a plan to deal with it. For both athletes they both realised they had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, in fact more uncomfortable than they had ever been before because this is what it would have to take for them to win.
Chris journey took him on a path of self-reflection with his inner circle (coach & family), which lead him to question everything about how he was mentally dealing with his training. What he realised was how incredibly negative he was being in those deep dark moments during hard training sessions when the tough questions were being asked. He was astute enough to realise that his thoughts were far from positive, he spent too much time focusing on the negatives, this sucks, it hurts so much, cant wait to get this session over. When really what he should have been doing was learning to deal with these moments in a more positive light. It is in these crucial tough moments in training that he realised he needed to embrace his fear of un-comfortableness so he wouldn’t fear it so much when he raced. It was his fear of the uncontrollable that had been holding him back and he had to learn how to let go and break through it.
What’s really interesting is how he over came this, firstly he learned how to “smile” when he reached these moments, sounds too simple doesn’t it? But that’s what he did, he would realise when these moments were upon him and simply smile to himself and welcome them in like an old friend. He knew this would be one of the small tests he would have to continually pass that would contribute to making him a champion. He also coined a phrase “embrace the suck” which simply means rather than fearing pain and suffering, welcome it in and relish the challenge of it. If you can teach yourself to do this you will ultimately become a stronger more mentally tough athlete for it.
Mark on the other hand was incredibly spiritual, this led him to seek outside assistance from a Shaman called Brandt Sucunda. He began studying the teachings & practices of Shamanism. In it he found the tools for personal transformation that helped him change pain into joy, inner struggle into gratitude, and impatience and fear into calm and courage. Mark also learned how to think of fitness more broadly, in terms of his spirit and emotions and how to become the champion he to aspired to be.
Some of the key principles he developed were to:
1- See reward not negativity in repetition.
Doing one thing right in training is a positive, then repeat it time and time again to get an even deeper reward. Practice makes perfect. Learn to embrace the sets or sessions you hate because these are just dress rehearsals for those tough moments in racing when you want to give up.
2- Quiet your mind
Turn off the internal negative mental chatter when the going gets tough. Put it back in the box and don’t let it back out. Focus on the positives.
3 – Focus on the joy.
This is my favourite principle because I always tell my athletes to smell the roses while out there training and racing. Take in the beauty of nature and realise how lucky you are to be able to being doing what you are doing. This will counteract any negativity you are experiencing. The world can be a beautiful place when you look at it with big eyes particularly when you are suffering.
4 – Slow down to get faster
Its not all about high intensity hard training, get the balance right between mainly aerobic training, a smaller amount of harder training and make good recovery of paramount importance.
5 – Embrace your inner tortoise.
This means learn how to pace yourself and don’t follow what others do. There is tremendous strength to be gained from this. An Ironman is a long race and it’s amazing what can happen if you can pace yourself correctly in the latter stages.
These are two remarkable personal journeys which although very different in nature are also very similar in many ways. They are about two athletes who accepted they had weaknesses and were prepared to meet them head on to become better athletes. Each and everyone athlete is capable of doing this if you are prepared to look deep within yourself and face the truth.
For me mental training starts in day to day training, each and every training session will present a certain challenge to you albeit some more difficult than others. Some sessions will just be about execution whereas others will be about pushing your boundaries and testing yourself physically and mentally. Ask yourself if you are up for this and how you are next going to react when that fear arises in you ? Will you meet it head on or will you let it beat you? Will you react negatively or will you react positively ?, it is entirely down to you. Each and every time you over come these moments you get a step closer to becoming the athlete you really want to be.
“This session is the one that makes you who you are. Defines what you want to be and gives enlightenment to the individual of oneself. You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.”
So start to think with your head during training sessions, do it day in day out. Realise that if you want to get good you have to commit to excellence at all times. Make the most of every sessions no matter how easy or hard because ultimately you will become empowered by this. You should also try to look for a better version of yourself in the deepest darkest moments because you can and will find it if you look hard enough.
If you sit here reading this and think you give 100 % to your training then you are wrong because there is always an area that can be improved. That’s what drives on champion’s day after a day – they don’t rest on their laurels, they have to think outside of the box to stay ahead of the game. Remember the training doesn’t just involve the swim, bike and run accumulation this is just part of it – recovery ,nutrition and also mental training have an equally large part to play. Don’t be a volume junkie, the accumulation of miles doesn’t equal training success. Do things right and be smart with your training.
Remember its not your times or results that define you as an athlete, its the journey of self transformation you decide to go on that will ultimately tell you about the person you really are and what kind of athlete you can become.
All the very best for an outstanding 2015 !