“Stop Thinking. Let Things Happen.”

Ty Webb

Caddyshack – “Be the Ball” <<< CLICK  😀

As a coach, athlete, and a teacher, it’s always on my mind how to get the most out of ourselves on the day of the big test. In endurance sport, preparation, a smart taper, and a solid execution of a well-informed race plan represent those things over which we have control. As is often stated, however, proper mental preparation is often dismissed as insignificant, more in part, because, as multi-sport athletes, we’re busy enough! I sense that endurance sports represents a new frontier. It is my feeling that it is in to the mind we are headed next, to more effectively align our brains with our bodies, in order to surpass previous generation’s athletic achievements.

Mental skills and run coach, Bobby McGee, of Bobby McGee Endurance Sports works with all kinds of athletes, from elite level Olympic runners and triathletes, to recreational folks. With my own background in running and sport psychology, I found a mentor of sorts in McGee when I attended a USA Triathlon coaching clinic in Colorado Springs last year. I follow McGee on Facebook, as well as through his books (see below), and the webinars he hosts for USAT coaches.

Bobby McGee

First off, McGee preaches to athletes, be responsible for performance. I like to say when talking about marathon and Ironman races in particular, “respect the race by doing the appropriate level of training.” This, I feel, is a paradigm of thinking that must be central in the athlete’s mind. The law of the harvest reigns supreme: we reap what we sow.

More difficult, especially in male competitors, is to admit and face our demons, whatever shape or form they may come in. Admitting weaknesses we may feel is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability, however, has tremendous potential for growth. Purposefully placing ourselves in uncomfortable situations forces us to swallow our pride for the sake of improvement. I’m not saying it’s easy or fun, but I am saying it’s worth it.

Wanting some speed for this year’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene, I put myself in the awkward position of doing an Olympic-distance triathlon two weeks out from Cd’A, with several of my buddies. With swimming as my limiter, I worked as hard as I could on the bike and run but simply ran out of real estate to catch any of them in that race. I was definitely vulnerable by registering for that event. On the flip side, two weeks later, I did Cd’A and barely earned a Kona slot, my key objective for 2011. What would have happened had I not raced that Olympic? Would I have missed my slot by one or two places? Surely, my speed and mental toughness were sharpened by participating in that shorter, faster event. We’re grateful for having done the work.

McGee professes the incredible importance of being very clear with ourselves about what we want out of our participation in sport. Here’s his three big questions:

What do you want?

What do you have to do to get it?

Who do you have to be to achieve this?

For McGee and his highly successful athletes, simplicity equals power. We must believe that the training we’re doing will produce the results we seek. I am still very intrigued with his theory that 90% of athletes under perform in races according to their training while only 9% of athletes achieve what their training shows, while only 1% over perform. This was a paradigm shift in my own thinking and liberated me from “racing” my buddies all the time on group rides. What I finally internalized was that only on race day does it matter who crosses the line first. Athletes need to be okay trailing their buddies sometimes and not always sprinting for every town sign that pops up on the horizon. Doing so, leaves you fresh for your racing, when it really counts. That being said, I’m not against sprinting for those signs. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, but there’s a time and a place for such antics. And in the middle of an Ironman prep is probably not the ideal time to try and show your buds whose boss.

Grace. Gratitude. Guts. These are the three things McGee puts at the top of his list for success in endurance sports. We have to keep in mind that we make the conscious decision to put ourselves in these events, where our mettle will be tested. So, as McGee suggests, remind yourself when you’re out there that “you are a lucky person!” to have this opportunity to participate in something as exciting as triathlon or running long distances, etc. We are living at the top of our powers and this fact should be recognized and celebrated!

A hallmark of great athletes, McGee says, is that they totally accept that what happens to them out there. They control the controllables and let the results take care of themselves. They have absolute clarity of purpose, accept adversity, have a vivid picture of what’s possible. They create their race in immense detail before toeing the line. And above all, they let go of ego, allowing themselves to be vulnerable and learn from others who may possess the skills and knowledge they themselves may lack.

In a Facebook exchange with McGee, I had commented on a link to a mental skills article he had posted. I appreciated how he himself had been quoted in the article, stating that the most important thing we can concentrate on in a race is our technique, our form. He replied, stating that his thinking had since evolved and that such an emphasis in racing he now considered secondary to simply “being the running,” or “being the swimming,” or “being the cycling.” He went on to reference Caddyshack (“Be the ball”) as a fun way of illustrating his point. Training is a time to focus on conditioning ourselves to proper swim stroke, effective pedal stroke, and swift running economy. Racing is a time of “letting go of the process” as McGee coaches. In racing, we are fully engaged in the here and now, we are the process. McGee places feeling ahead of thinking when it comes to race time. I liken this to the saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In a race, our objective should be to arrive at a place of full integration. Simply put, body and mind are aligned. >>>

This year, I’ve been putting myself to this test; of trying this out first hand and “letting go” and just “being” the activity I find myself doing. I find the creative mind conjures up some powerful images such as the Bullet Train, while I’m cycling, for example. The Bullet Train does not dwell on its fuel consumption or if another train is going to beat it to its destination, it’s just relentlessly roars through the countryside, a completely integrated machine, aero and blazing down the tracks.  >>>

I believe it’s true that we’re not wired to envision success. The natural state of the mind is entropy. It takes energy to organize our thinking. We spend much of our lives in a process of organizing our minds in a painstaking process called education. Likewise, to perform at high levels athletically it stands to reason that our natural state of mind is to avoid failing. Of course focusing on failure ensures we do not live up to our potential and end up among McGee’s 90% of athletes who under perform according to their training. A much smaller percent of athletes have organized their thinking to a point where they are “motivated to succeed,” which implies that they have shed fears of failing and are, as McGee puts it, “always envisioning success.” When unfortunate situations arise in races, these athletes handle it by pushing the pause button, or by “changing the channel,” as my own sport psych professor, a WPGA golf pro, used to tell us.

Craig Alexander & Chrissie Wellington

So, wrapping this up, here’s some more notes from Bobby McGee as well as a mental skills questionnaire that you can use to rate your own mental preparation. As my professor stated, sport is 100% physical and 100% mental. We must attend to both if we want to climb into the 9% of athletes who can perform at the level their training suggests.

1.  Know what your capabilities are, especially on the swim and bike. Judge that according to how you feel in any moment.

2.  Practice visualization. Work on what will count on race day. Only work on what you need to.

3.  Empower yourself in terms of decision making.

4.  Vulnerability in training. Put yourself in those situations that will stretch you.

5.  Use mental imagery to encourage success. Deliberately practice.

6.  You can’t change mindset, you have to replace it. 20-50,000 repetitions are needed to make something your own. For that old mindset NOT to come back, in a specific part of a race. Also, realize and accept that you’re never going to feel fresh and springy at the end of a race. Therefore practice making parts of training sessions intentionally uncomfortable.

7.  Drop the subjective! Stay away from the “Oh, poor me.” or having to “look good” ego driven thinking. Strive to remain objective with your thinking. Take control of your mind!

8.  Empowering self talk. Find out, under pressure, what you are thinking. Habituating powerful thoughts over and over again. Say to yourself, “I am a good racer.” Tie it to process. “I do well” Use present continuous tense 2-5 words at most. Practice to reinforce. Remember, 20-50,000 times to replace old patterns of thinking.

9.  Managing race sensation.  The rhythm athlete versus the strength athlete. One can learn from the other. There’s always tough patches for each! What type of personality/athlete are you?

10.  Boom! It all comes down to one thing:  Focus.

11.  Pain management. Attempting to disassociate from the pain is never a good idea. So, ask the quads what they need. Focus on that feedback. The harder you focus the more effectively you’ll deal with the discomfort.

12.  The day versus the plan. Expect the best, prepare for the worst. Leave room for changing plans on the fly. Be aware to be wise!

13.  In your racing, keep things open to possibility. Know when to deviate from the plan. This comes with experience. “Snap decisions” as author Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book, Blink.

“It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ. It’s the brain.”  -Sir Roger Bannister

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