I notice that a lot of coaches ask for their athletes to be mentally strong or focused at races or events. However, what does that actually mean. As athletes, we have all been in situations where we felt we thrived and others where maybe we fell behind our expectations. What is it that contributes to this? Most people talk about mental toughness as its some mythical experience, but I’m here to tell you that you can control it and it is trainable. Hopefully at the end of this blog you can have a better understanding of what it means and how to better control it.
Day in Day out: Confidence
Much of mental toughness comes from being confident in what you are doing. Being confident comes from knowing you can handle a situation because you’ve been through it plenty of times before. Like a student giving a final presentation or an athlete in the final game, confidence comes from having been in the situation before and believing in your abilities. As a coach, we try to put you in certain situations multiple times prior to a race so that you are confident in your abilities to handle the stress. Once you’ve continually handled certain workouts, you should feel good about replicating that again on race day. While physically we try to put you in these situations, mentally you can put yourself in race day settings as well with key #2... visualizations.
This can be done without ever leaving the house. It can also be done while in practice. When you were a kid, did you ever take the winning 3 pointer of the NCAA Championship in your driveway? Did you ever throw a Hail Mary in the Super Bowl while in your front yard? This is actually an amazing skill and tactic for building mental toughness. While we show up on race day and the conditions are outside of our control (weather, wind, etc), we can control these things in our visualization training.
Whats important with visualizing is that you include all 5 senses in order to fully trigger your brain and connect it with the experience. You want to taste the sweat and hear the wind… this is all important. If you know race day is going to be tough condition wise, you can mentally prepare for this and train the brain to be comfortable with it. This is a critical skill that is seldom used.
Note: If you are injured, this can actually help you maintain form while you’re unable to train. There are many scientific studies showing athletes getting better technique wise through visualizations while injured.
Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning
Probably the most important part of mental toughness in my opinion is setting yourself up for success. Have you ever watched the last 2 minutes of an NFL game where Tom Brady has the ball and is down by 6? How about Michael Jordan in the final seconds of a game? Yes, these are some of the greatest of all time, but they excelled in these settings because they were within their individual zone of optimal functioning. To demonstrate this, people often ask why didn’t they perform like that throughout the entire game and dominate from the beginning?
The IZOF is a well supported theory in sports psychology. It states that different athletes do better at different levels of arousal. I’m sure you can support this in your own experiences. Some athletes you know may do great when they are relaxed with low pressure while others seem to get better when under more stress. For each athlete, they have their own level of optimal functioning. Knowing when you perform best is a key understanding of your own athletic abilities. If you know that you perform better while relaxed, then you need to be focusing on relaxation techniques prior to big moments. If you know that you perform better while the pressure is on, then you need to motivate yourself and build arousal levels prior to the event. By entering into your individual zone, you are more likely to unlock that “flow” state of performing and hit closer to your potential.
Often times sports psychology gets thrown to the side because its not tangible. People associate skill and performance to physical attributes while we all know that the brain controls those movements. When talking about mental toughness, its important to know that it is controllable and can give you an edge in any race/event you do. By understanding some of the components that make up mental toughness, you should be in a better position to build your own and reap the benefits as you go through your racing calendar.
One of the perks of being a coach is working with an athlete that has true potential. As an athlete myself growing up, I always heard of a pitcher with potential, or a speedy running back. I wondered what the scouts considered “potential” and what they deemed to be not worthy. So, while this may not be the best representation of what they had in mind, I’m going to give you my input of what it’s like to work with athletes who show high levels of potential in their sports.
This is probably the portion that you really wanted to read about when you clicked on the title. The number is 6 or 7. 6 or 7 days a week of practicing your skill or sport with meaningful focus. It isn’t your v02, your mph on a radar gun, your 40 yard dash, or your cycling FTP. While those help, they don’t win you events all on their own. When we think of athletes with potential, we think of Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Tom Brady. But if you look at what developed them into the pinnacle of their sport, its the hard work and focused training they put in 6-7 days a week. While we all get caught up on improving our numbers (there is a place for this), sometimes we focus too much on the outcome and not enough on the process. So lets get to the meat of what it means to coach an athlete with potential
What is possible? If you want to know my response, the answer is I don’t know. I wish I could give you an exact response, but I don’t know if the human body has ever truly been maximized. An exercise physiologist would tell you that if you had a v02 of 95 then you possibly could have maxed out (you can count on your hand the amount of athletes ever with V02’s this high), but what if we can go higher and we are just stuck chasing this number. In my mind, an athlete with potential isn’t one set on any specific number, but rather is so engrained in the process of focused training that they constantly keep improving. Yes there is a point where your returns on investment with training won’t be as high, but the athlete that keeps focused on the day-to-day efforts will still squeak out those last few areas of improvement.
The Top Athletes
Heres the thing, all top level athletes/CEO’s/Teachers/Engineers/Etc didn't just fall there. While genetics do have some roll, environment and your mindset towards challenge and risk make up a huge percentage of the equation. While genetics may allow for improvements to come faster, hard work and continuous effort is what allows for improvements to continue. So it doesn’t matter where you’re starting from, what matters is if you put in the continuous work. As a coach that has worked with over 150 athletes the past 5 years and seen countless athletes across my lifetime, the athletes with the highest potential are those that work hard. For them, their ceiling isn’t defined by some number, their ceiling is unknown because they continuously break through it.
There is no overall winning or failure in athletics. Yes there is a winner and loser on any single day, but the battle is always on-going. If you are constantly putting yourself in a position to win because you’re scared of failure, then you are limiting the challenge and risk of your endeavors which will ultimately limit your potential. As a coach, I want to work with athletes that continuously focus on the efforts at hand, don’t get lost searching for an outcome, but rather are dedicated to the process of continued excellence. If you were to examine each of my top 20 athletes currently, you’d find many different age groups, male and female, body compositions, v02’s, etc. What you would notice though is that they each have the unique ability to keep building each week both physically and emotionally toward the goal of continued performance. They all focus on the process, and they are all my fastest athletes….and that to me is not by coincidence.
In the world of endurance sports, everyone is seeking to become faster or more efficient in their races. This inevitably results in newer athletes looking for loop holes in training or get fast quick schemes. Social media outlets, online forums, and magazine articles are quick to suggest “optimized workouts” or “the fastest bike” to help athletes achieve their best performances. While these resources can be good for finding new information, I have seen a troubling trend over the past few months. In just the past 3 weeks, there has been a fantastic blog written by a world class coach and a thread posted on a well known forum regarding the keys to getting fast. Both of these have been passed over by many due to the time required to reach the athletes potential. So here I am, writing another blog in hopes that it strikes home with one other athlete. Even if its just one, then this blog will serve a purpose and help one athlete reach their potential down the road.
Your True Potential
Its going to take you 4 to 10 years to find your potential. Most individuals will stop after having read this, but thats the truth. For reasons an exercise physiologist would better explain, our bodies need time to build the overall aerobic platform needed to excel in such events. If you look at the fastest times in Time Trials or Triathlons, they often come from athletes between the ages of 30 and 50. This is because our aerobic capacity (v02) maxes out (potential to max out) around the early 20’s, but then only drops at a very slow rate until we reach the age of 50-55. This being said, at age 40, you can have the same aerobic capacity as you did when you were 25, but now you also have the specific muscular endurance and stamina gained from 15 years of training.
Consistency Over Time
So whats better? hitting hard intensity intervals for 1 year and seeing how fast you can get, or running 40-50 mile weeks for multiple months on end? The result will be different based on what you’re trying to accomplish. But if you’re looking to hit your true potential, then I would suggest the 40-50 mile weeks for multiple months on end. Same goes for cycling, should you focus on a strong 8 hours a week, or ride base for 12-16 hours/week for multiple months on end.
The thing is, is that as consumers in this era, we want instant gratification. However, the more I experience as a coach, I realize that endurance athletics may be the purest thing left in our world. You have to put in your hard earned work before you can reap the benefits. There are no 1%er’s, There is no way to buy a win (you can buy speed, but those people also have been working hard), and there is no way to fake what you really are. When you step up to the race line, the individual that has been the most consistent and spent the time, will generally prevail.
My Best Athletes
I can only speak for myself here, but I just wanted to describe my best athletes for a second and what they focus on. I wanted to do this because I see a strong relationship between success and where their focus is.
Best swimmer: Consistent 20,000 yards/week over the past 12 months
Best Cyclist: Consistent 10+ hours/week over the past 12 months
Best Runner: Consistent running 6 days/week over the past 12 months
Its really not that hard, the best athletes I work with are ones that aren’t looking for get quick fast schemes, they are simply getting out the door and performing their sport daily. These athletes are business owners, traveling salesman, college students, fathers, mothers, etc. They have life commitments absolutely, but the one thing they constantly do is get in the work. It is part of their daily routine and therefore they are making the biggest improvements.
So Why Do I Need A Coach?
Honestly… training is very easy. Be consistent and you’re going to get better. But there is one major reason why a coach is needed. Many athletes think of training as either an on or off switch. This results in the thought of having training weeks or recovery weeks. So this might surprise you (or it might not), but my best athletes are still getting in their consistent training on recovery weeks. The role of a coach is to constantly manage a weeks training load so that the athlete can constantly be training while also recovering. These 3/1 or 4/1 (train/rest weeks) are costing you time. If you are taking a week off to recover, your coach isn’t monitoring your training load and costing you multiple days/weeks at the end of the year. If the overall goal is to constantly be training for optimized results, then your coach again is costing you from reaching that level. Yes, rest is just as important as the consistency of your training…. but rest is factored into workouts and weekly routines. This is the real value of a customized coach.
So, it would be easy to just think, I need to go ride 14 hours a week and I’ll get faster. And the answer to that would probably be yes for the first 3-6 months. But at that point, you’re going to become fried and not be able to manage your workload (not to mention where to do intervals go). So the value in a coach again is to have them managing this workload and finding the best way to piece together each week for the needed recovery and the needed consistency.
I hate to break it to you, but there is no get fast quick scheme in endurance sports. Yes you can buy a bike, wheels, helmet, wind tunnel testing, tires, gait analysis, etc, but at the end of the day, you still need the consistent training to maximize all of those results. A coach can help you manage your workload to monitor fatigue but push for consistency. But at the end of the day, its up to you the athlete to stop posting on social media or forums with your free time… that time would be better spent training and helping you reach your true potential.
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