Do you want it too much?

We focus a lot on the process of our training. Building workouts into training plans, monitoring progress, power, heart rate, cadence…..and so on. On race day most of us are meticulous about our physical preparation and super organised with what we need to perform well – carb loading, energy bars, drinks, bike serviced, sun block, washed kit, new socks (or is that just me?).

As a coach I understand that the physical and organisational preparation is essential, but most of us miss one vital ingredient – MENTAL TRAINING & PREPARATION.

I have just finished reading a great book called ‘How Bad Do You Want It’ by Matt Fitzgerald, which I highly recommend. In one chapter, titled, The Art of Letting Go, he describes the experience of a triathlete athlete, Siri Lindley, who finished third in her division at the 1994 age group triathlon World Championships and then turned professional.

With her sights set on the Sydney Olympics, she moved to Australia to be close to her coach and to be away from all distractions, dedicating her whole life to training until she qualified. Siri lived a solitary life, slept in a high – altitude simulation chamber, and fell asleep every night imagining her perfect Olympic qualification race. However her solitude, and obsession with doing everything ‘right’ was draining all the fun out of being triathlete.

Siri did not need to win the Olympic qualifier, she just needed to beat the four other American women in the race. A difficult start in the swim, she panicked and pushed way to hard to catch up, rushed the transition and then rode herself to the limit on the bike. By lap 2 of 6 laps on bike she braked, unclipped and quit.

So what happened? In a word she choked. The race had been totally different to how she had visualised for a year beforehand, and she could not adapt.

Choking is best described as “poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of the situation” (Sian Beilock). The source of the stress is the sense of the importance of the performance and achieving a certain OUTCOME from it.

Recent research into the brain suggests that it is not the pressure per se that cause people to choke, it is more self consciousness. Impaired performance when the stakes are high is linked to activity in the brain linked to self awareness.

This self awareness distracts us from totally concentrating at the task at hand and also reduces movement efficiency. Athletes perform better when they are focused on key features of their environment rather than their own body. This is the reason that people tend to perform better when training indoors when they have something to look at or listen to. Ask someone to ride as hard as they can for 5km and then ask them to chase another rider avatar for 5km, and almost certainly the rider focusing on the chase will ride faster than when just racing himself.

Self consciousness seems to increase PERCEIVED EFFORT and hence reduces endurance performance.

Following her disappointments Siri decided to switch coaches to Brett Sutton. One of his first questions was – WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS? – to which she replied – to win a World Cup race, to win the US Championships and a World Championship medal.

In no uncertain terms he told her to forget all of those goals and to mentally retire! All those OUTCOME GOALS were putting way too much pressure on Siri. Sutton wanted her to get back to loving triathlon, and seeing just how fit, fast and strong she could become.

To Siri this was an epiphany.

The more people fantasise about specific OUTCOMES the less likely they are to achieve them. Obsessing about OUTCOMES has been shown to be a bad coping skill that may be associated with a lack of self confidence in one’s ability. Siri’s nightly mental rehearsal functioned as a fantasy because it only ever ran through a perfect performance.

We are all better placed to directing our energies into DOING not DREAMING.

Siri’s performances almost immediately improved. Set free to focus on racing, rather than winning, she won race after race, in the process beating Brigette McMahon who five weeks later claimed Olympic Gold. Siri finished the season with a World Cup Gold in Cancun.

Triumph in the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton was the high point in her personal happiness as an athlete. Letting go of her goals and finding happiness in the day to day process of training and racing was the turning point.

Letting go of the dream enabled her to ACHIEVE it.

Is there an opposite of CHOKING – the mental and physical self sabotage that increases perceived effort and hampers endurance performance?

Can we be in a state where self consciousness disappears and efforts feel easier producing greater performance?

I have definitely found this place on some occasions. A training ride or event where I have had to dig really deep but for some reason the effort does not feel too bad and I actually enjoy it! When I am completely immersed in the effort feeling like I am looking down on myself.

Actually scientists have a name for this and it is a real thing. It is called FLOW.

Athletes are in the flow state when they feel an ‘absolute unity with one’s effort’. Hard work still feels hard but the feeling becomes enjoyable.

  • Anything that helps an athlete become less self conscious promotes the flow state.
  • Focusing on your environment rather than yourself promotes the flow state.
  • Having confidence that you are physically prepared promotes the flow state.

Flow is difficult to attain of you are prone to NEGATIVE THOUGHTS, and some athletes are especially prone to this when they have excessive focus on the DESIRED OUTCOME. This can be any outcome, both in terms of winning competitions or even in training when you are fixated on hitting a desired wattage when cycling for example.

Attaining OUTCOME GOALS will not result in SELF BELIEF.

SELF BELIEF has to come FIRST and comes from letting go and caring a little less about the outcome. This will seem counterintuitive to many of you. Surely we do well in the things we care deeply about? But the evidence suggests that an athlete that can put goals out of her mind, to train and race in the moment, will gain more self belief and perform to the best of her ability.

This ‘just do it’ mentality promotes a self belief in a way that no amount of fantastical visualisation can.

“Real confidence comes from real training and real results. It must be truthful” (Siri Lindley)

SirI is now retired and is now a great coach. Her coaching philosophy is based around ‘Gratitude and Belief’

  • Gratitude is about letting go of outcomes and fully embracing the privilege and process of pursuing your dreams.
  • Belief is about building confidence and self trust that is the polar opposite of the doubt fuelled fixation on goals and outcomes.

I believe that way too many of us focus on the outcome rather than the process. The slightly uncomfortable truth for all of us is that we are all capped by our genetic ceiling. Fixating on outcomes, over which we have no control, makes no sense. We can train perfectly, be prepared both physically and mentally, have the best kit in the world and still not know who is going to turn up on the start line.

We should all take a leaf out of Siri’s experience and live more in the moment, be grateful that we are able to live the lives we do, aim to do the best we can with time and genetics we are blessed with, and gain joy in the deep sense of satisfaction that will come from being the best versions of ourselves.

Rob Wakefield

Ref: How Bad do you Want It – Matt Fitzgerald