Building Mental Strength

Ten ways to build your mental resilience and help you perform better


Posted: 18 November 2009

As a triathlete you need the power to bounce back after disappointments, complete tough training sets and perform at your best in every race, and this power is as much mental as it is physical.

However, athletes often neglect mental resilience, possibly assuming that it will simply come in time, as physical performance improves. Not so. You have to train your mind to overcome the many barriers to success that stand in the way of all athletes. Some of Britain's top athletes and coaches share their advice with Triathlete's World.

1. When disaster strikes, analyse the reasons

Ben Bright, who coaches former ITU Triathlon world champion Tim Don, says if something isn't working or you have a bad race, you need to understand why.

"The first step is to establish whether you've done something wrong or have been hit by events beyond your control. You have to remove any mystery behind poor performance; otherwise it can become something that haunts you."

Analysis will show you what went wrong, how to avoid the problem in future and give you the confidence to keep going.

2. Set your own goals and have alternatives

"You need a goal for each race, and you also need alternative goals in case things don't go to plan," says British international Stuart Hayes.

Hayes talks from grim experience. He punctured twice in the qualifying bike race for the Beijing Olympics last year and didn't make the team. "I was really low afterwards and didn't feel like training but I did have a Plan B, which really helped me out," he says.

Plan B resulted in Hayes travelling to the USA, where he competed in non-drafting races. "In the end I had a fantastic season, with eight or nine podium finishes." Having multiple goals and alternatives reduces the pressure in a race. "In terms of performance, the less pressure the better," says Hayes.

It's also important for you to, as it were, 'own' your goals. "If a coach sets the goals and the athlete doesn't buy into them, the two may be working toward different ends. It doesn't work," says Jack Maitland, Triathlon Performance Coach at Leeds Metropolitan University, and coach to Alistair Brownlee, who finished 12th in the Beijing Olympic Triathlon.

3. Accentuate the positive

"Elite athletes contrive to see almost everything in a positive light," says Maitland.
A simple example: if your swimming coach identifies five faults with your stroke, do you respond by throwing up your hands and deciding you're hopeless or do you turn that bad news on its head and decide you're now in a position to become a very strong swimmer because there are so many areas in which you can improve?

Even an injury can be seen in a positive light. "Think, 'Great, I don't have to train'," advises triathlon coach Steve Trew. Instead, do all the things you've been putting off or neglecting because of training - going to the cinema, phoning your mother or hanging out with friends. Or take the opportunity to build your strengths in those sports you can still do safely while you recover.

4. Think long term

Maitland says it can take five to 10 years for elite triathletes to reach peak performance level. Age-group athletes may take even longer. "Within that time an athlete is almost certain to hit a performance plateau," he says.

When this happens, you should remind yourself of all the work you've done. It is rare for anyone to have consistently good seasons. Even if a key goal has been missed, the miles already clocked up will stand you in good stead for future improvements.

"Athletes tend to be very focused on themselves and their immediate goals," says Maitland. "But it is worth pointing out that short-term dips in performance are inevitable. Part of a coach's job is to share his or her broader experience and put things into perspective."

5. Balance work, life and training

Certain positive traits - such as determination and commitment - can become detrimental if pushed to extremes. Even professional triathletes should have a life outside of their sport and they need to maintain a balance.

"This can be a tricky area for highly motivated athletes but it's vital, otherwise long-term performance will suffer," says Maitland. His advice: agree your goals with the key people in your life.  

Finding the balance between work, life and sport for top age-group athletes is particularly tough. Annie Williams trains more than 20 hours every week and has completed many long-distance events, including the 2006 Hawaii Ironman. She also works full-time as a physiotherapist.

"It's all about lists, organisation and compartmentalisation. I set up a weekly plan and schedule time for my friends and downtime for myself. I also make a yearly plan. I arrange the time off I need for racing well in advance and make up the hours earlier in the year if necessary."

6. Believe in yourself

Michelle Dillon didn't learn to swim until she was 23 but that didn't stop her from representing Great Britain in Triathlon at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, where she came sixth.

"I've always set myself big goals and never doubted I could swim at elite level," she says. "I say a lot of positive stuff to myself. Mostly it works. You have to keep on telling yourself that you can do the things you want."

Dillon advises triathletes at all levels not to be intimidated by anyone else or their surroundings. "Don't worry about the fancy kit your competitors are using or what they're saying. Focus on what you've got to do and believe that you can do it."

7. Always finish a race

Both Stuart Hayes and Jack Maitland recommend you finish a race no matter how bad you're feeling or performing. "You always feel better if you finish and it helps develop your race fitness," says Hayes. "It toughens you up."

"The only exceptions are if you are injured or you have a very good planned reason," adds Maitland. "Dropping out of races is a bad habit to get into and a hard one to break."

8. Train hard

To build the resilience to finish a race, practise in training. "Training hard gives you the confidence to race well," says Hayes.

For Annie Williams, the prospect of competition motivates her during training. "If I'm finding training hard, I think how much better I'll perform on race day if I stick it out. In a race, I remind myself of those times in training when it hurt and I still pushed through."

What about those days when you simply don't feel like moving? "Training on bad days can be just as beneficial as on days when you feel great," says Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington. "Every session counts toward your bigger goals. If I miss a session I won't be as good as I possibly could be, and that's something I really care about."

To develop mental resilience, Ben Bright suggests occasionally attempting a training set you've never achieved before, such as 15 x 100m front-crawl intervals with 10 seconds' less rest than usual between each. "I'm always looking for athletes to say, 'I'll give it a go' rather than 'I can't do that'," says Bright.

9. Know your body to overcome injury

It's simple: if you're a triathlete you can expect to suffer injuries. "Most athletes have been or will be injured at some point in their careers," says Britt Tajet-Foxell, a psychologist with the Olympic Medical Institute. Her job is to help athletes deal with the psychological side of injury and recovery.

"Injury and the risk of injury create anxiety that can become a barrier to future performance," she says. Athletes need the mental resources to deal with this fear.

While each athlete requires personalised support, Tajet-Foxell offers the following general advice: "It is essential to be aware of the emotional impact of an injury. It's OK to be upset.Don't go into denial; acknowledge that you will go through a tough time. Increase your knowledge of how your body works and understand your injury."

10. Solve a problem, then evaluate

If you puncture in a race you could throw your bike in a ditch, you could get in the ditch yourself and cry, or - much better - you could fix the puncture.

"Don't make problems bigger than they are," says Steve Trew. "Instead think 'That's interesting, I've got a puncture. I'd better deal with it'." Only worry about your new, revised goals for the race when the immediate problem has been addressed.

You could decide, for example, to see how close you can get to your personal best or  whether you can do a fantastic run split? Just remember not to go too hard immediately after jumping back on your bike, and that Chrissie Wellington won in Hawaii despite a puncture.

The same approach works for other setbacks. Work out how to solve the problem, solve it and then set new goals.It also helps to be prepared for problems. In triathlon, as in life, luck plays its part. If you're prepared, you'll cope better.

"It's worth practising or mentally rehearsing bad scenarios, such as having your goggles knocked off," says Maitland. "You'll know what to do if something like that happens and you won't panic."


Previous article
Winter Training Tips
Next article
The Power of Positive Thinking

triathlon training, triathlon racing
TwitterStumbleUponFacebookDiggRedditGoogle


Discuss this article

We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.