For as dedicated as we athletes can be to our physical health, however, many of us allow our mental health to fall to the wayside. This can have deleterious effects for many reasons that are obvious and less so, but it’s important to acknowledge the role that having a high degree of mental toughness -- or mental resilience -- has on our athletic endeavors.
We can be in the throes of an important athletic contest, like a weightlifting championship or an Olympics time trial race, or we can be simply trying to complete a workout to the best of our ability; having a developed mental toughness and capacity to pull ourselves out of the dark places that we find ourselves in when the going gets tough can be the difference between a lackluster and a breakaway performance.
Below, I’ll talk about some of my best practices that will help you navigate the mental tough spots that will arise during training. Of course, training is meant to be challenging -- it’s when we tax our bodies to the limits that we can push ourselves to see what we are made of -- but admittedly, sometimes it is really hard to work through the mental rough patches. I’ve been competitively running for nearly a decade, everything from 5ks all the way up through 50 kilometer ultra-marathons, and so I base my suggestions on my (and my friends’) years of experiences.
When the going gets rough during your training, and you feel like you’re mentally hitting rough patch after rough patch, here are some tips to help you weather the storm:
Positive self talk matters. When training isn’t enjoyable or fun, it can be tempting to try to talk to yourself as though you were a boot camp instructor, imploring you to get your sh-t together or relegating yourself to the idea that you’ll never be fast enough, fit enough or “whatever” enough to accomplish your goals. I can’t encourage you enough to abstain from this toxic self talk! Talk to yourself like you were talking to your best friend. Chances are that you wouldn’t say that mean-spirited stuff to him/her, right? If so, then don’t talk to yourself like that, either. You need to be your own biggest advocate and cheerleader because if you aren’t, then who will be?
Just believe in yourself. Really. Ok, this one might sound a little silly, but just like our parents told us growing up, it’s so important that we believe in ourselves. Athletes are generally really hard-working, tenacious people, and once we set our minds on a goal, we’ll do whatever it takes, come hell or high water, to realize our goals. All along, it’s really important that we actually believe in ourselves and in our willingness and capacity to work hard toward our dreams because just like I said above, if we don’t believe in ourselves (and act as our own biggest cheerleaders), then who will? Believing is achieving, my friends, and it’s a crucial first step.
Mantra up. In the running community, it’s fairly common to see runners who buy-in to the power of mantras, or short and powerful phrases, as metaphorical vessels of strength. Runners will often select a short phrase or a few words that they think give them a psychological boost -- anything like “I can do hard things” or “Take a chance” or “Man up” -- and it’s not uncommon to hear about runners who dial in to their mantra power-up phrases during especially hard workouts or in competition. In fact, I know of some runners who will actually purchase personalized bracelets with their mantras inscribed on them so that their mantras can always be visible while they’re running. Even if you’re not a runner, consider a phrase that you like that empowers you to perform at your best. It can be literally anything you want, provided it gives you a positive psychological boost.
Powersong playlist for the win! Similar to the mantras I talked about above, I know many runners who create special workout or race day music playlists that feature their favorite “power” songs -- songs that they enjoy and that leave them feeling like they’re able to go out and take on the world. If you regularly train or compete while listening to music, consider creating a powersong playlist of your own. The songs can be anything you want -- from classical to gangsta rap, and anything and everything in between -- as long as the music leaves you feeling like you’re ready to throw down.
Take a breather and remember why. A little perspective can go a long way, and sometimes, when training and competing seem impossible, it’s important to take a step back and take stock of where you came from (and account for all the steps that you’ll need to take to where you ultimately want to go). Having a quiet moment with yourself for some introspection will allow you to revisit your original motivation for getting started in your sport of choice, and doing so will force you to examine how your motivations have changed over the years (assuming they have at all). Training can be especially challenging if we feel like we’re plateauing, but sometimes it helps to give ourselves a bit of perspective to ponder how we’ve grown in our sport since we first began participating. Plus, sometimes it’s from these introspections that we can enliven ourselves and recommit to our sport and training, basically renewing our vows to become the toughest and strongest (and fittest and fastest) athlete that we can be.
Get to, not have to. Finally, if you feel like you’re going through a mental rough patch in your training, remember that unless you are a professional athlete whose livelihood is depending on your athletic capabilities, you don’t have to do this stuff at all; instead, you get to. Having this sort of healthy perspective will help you to not take yourself too seriously and will probably also help you enjoy the experience more. There are numerous people out there who would love to even have the opportunity to get to try whatever it is that you’re doing, but for one reason or another, they can’t. Having an attitude of gratitude can go a long way, and combined with a healthy, long-term perspective, you may be able to pull yourself out of your mental funk sooner than you think.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to become mentally tough, there are many resources available to you online or in bookstores. Sports psychology has become increasingly popular over the years, and some athletes even have chosen to invest in seeing their own personal sports psychologist to help them better hone their mental fortitude. Whichever path you take, it’s critical to spend ample amount of time strengthening your “mental muscle” just as you do your other muscles. You may be surprised to see how big a difference having a high degree of mental resiliency can have on your game, attitude, and competition.
Dan Chabert, writer from Runnerclick
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