Monday, February 23, 2015

Mental Skills Training

Lately I have noticed an increasing number of posts and articles related to the mental skills aspects of triathlon. Maybe you've skimmed a few and caught yourself nodding in agreement, but did they result in any changes? Probably not. Nothing was put into action. Maybe we didn't know how to change, maybe we didn't think it possible. And no one knows what goes on in our heads but us!

We understand that through training and physiological adaptation we can gain strength and speed. But do we even believe that we can change our mental approach to the sport? Or do we just figure we are set (stuck with) the way we are - our confidence, self-talk, focus, etc?

Top athletes and sports psychologists will tell you that mental skills most certainly can and must be developed and optimized to achieve our personal bests and/or for healthy long-term enjoyment of the sport. Mental Skills are often called the fifth discipline of triathlon.  (or fourth discipline, nutrition is one too, and recovery...who is counting).

So where am I going with this? Well, I have had the opportunity to work with Coach Amanda Leibovitz of Team MPI on MY mental skills for the past 6 weeks. She is an experienced USAT Level 1 Coach and completing her master’s degree in counseling with a specialization in sport and health psychology at the Adler University in Chicago. She's great to talk to - energizing and positive!

I really had no idea what to expect, but it's been very beneficial (way more so than I anticipated), so I wanted to share my experience. 

I've had all of my sessions with Coach Amanda over Skype, with her in Chicago and me in Virginia. If you've never used Skype, I'll just say it is so easy even my dad uses it (love you dad) and it's nice not to have to drive anywhere, or change clothes. At the last session I was still dripping from the bike trainer!

The first session began by reviewing some paperwork, getting acquainted, and talking about my athletic past, future goals, and approach. Then she administered a mental skills inventory that scored me on a number of elements like motivation, goals, self-talk, imagery, anxiety, etc. From that we were able to identify some areas for development, and chief among them were self-talk and imagery. That did not come as a big surprise to me.

Even though I am a pretty positive person, I can be pretty hard on myself in training. Oddly enough, I battle this negative self-talk primarily on my easy runs and rides, and have a VERY hard time allowing myself to really go easy. Logically, I understand why these sessions and warmups are important and need to be easy, but I get out there and think that "easy" should be faster than what it is. Long story short, I get into a very unproductive cycle of thought. But try as I might, I just haven't been able to will myself to think or act differently in all these years.

Enter Coach Amanda and her toolbox......

What we have been working on is replacing the negative thoughts with positive, productive thoughts. This has involved discussion, homework, and follow-up. I've had to jot down when negative thoughts hit, what resulted, and what replacement thoughts I could come up with. From that I've established a few go-to mantras that have been effective in stopping the negative thought cycle. For the first time maybe ever last week, I did a truly easy run with the heart rate evidence to prove it!

One of my new mantras is "Save it." By running easy in a warmup, or as a recovery run, I recognize I'm saving the good stuff for when I need it - for the hard intervals and hard runs. And saving is a good thing!


I was able to put my positive self-talk to the test at the Blacksburg Classic 10-miler race just over a week ago. I used the "Save It" mantra to stick to Coach Jim's race plan for some conservative early miles then switched over to "Strong and Controlled" to push through the final tough miles.

We are continuing with check-ins to refine the new thought processes and to be sure they stick. I am feeling confident that this will result in long-term change because:
  • I am not just getting "rid" of negativity, leaving a void for negativity to seep back in. I am replacing it with productive thought.
  • I am developing mantras to quickly stop the patterns (no need to overanalyze myself now)
  • I have done the homework and really dug into where my thoughts go
  • These negative thoughts have been diffused by writing them out and talking about them.
  • There is accountability in place with regular sessions with Coach Amanda

So if you are looking for a way to invest in a better race season, I would really suggest looking into Mental Skills coaching. Here are some of the questions Coach Amanda poses:
  • Are you looking for a competitive edge?
  • Do you perform better in training than on race day?
  • Do you lack confidence during training, during a particular event, or on race day?
  • Do you have trouble staying focused during long training sessions or a race?
  • Do you struggle to begin or continue a training program?
  • Have you lost confidence or motivation after an injury?
  • Are you looking for a way to improve your triathlon experience?

Before you pay out big bucks to save a few grams on the bike, or to get the latest and greatest wetsuit, you might consider investing some time in Mental Skills Coaching. It could be just the change needed to perform better and enjoy the sport with less anxiety and more confidence!