The ability to deal with the mental stress of important situations is critical if you want to do the very best job you can on race day. Even if you are a beginner, you still want to do your best. So how come it is so difficult for people to do this? Why do so many people break down or “choke” when it matters the most?
I personally think it’s because our approach to what we think is mental toughness has largely been flawed. In the past we have always focused on things like visualization and simply saying “you need to be more mentally tough” but what does that actually mean?
The goal is to put yourself in a mind space that allows you to perform freely and at your best. Visualization can backfire for people who are already in an overly heightened state of mental energy. Visualization is also more or less important depending on the nature of the activity. Diving for example likely requires a very high degree of visualization because the elements are so technical. Simply saying to someone “be more mentally tough” can also backfire if it creates a situation where someone “over-tries”. I’ve found these strategies often fail to lead to a useful headspace. Perhaps the very notion of trying to be mentally tough is the problem.
Perhaps we need to adopt a softer approach, one that allows full engagement without actually trying to engage fully in the task. Being “in the zone” is something athletes refer to on occasion but what does that actually mean and why is it so hard to get there if you try to get there? After several decades of competing I think “the zone” is simply nothing more than the ability to stay present. On rare occasions we get there without trying and have one of those magical days and wonder how on earth everything flowed so effortlessly. Inevitably we try hard to get back there the next time but the very act of trying is the problem and quite often we end up choking instead.
Choking is the term used to describe someone who has a significant mental and physical breakdown when it counts. Choking is usually a result of “mind noise” or fear based thought patterns that manifest in the body. The thinking mind or “ego” takes over and the result is often a disastrous performance. The problem with the thinking mind is that it is concerned mainly with outcome and during times of stress it can become consumed by a fear of not realizing that outcome. The unfortunate thing is that choking tends to perpetuate itself. Fear or worry about an outcome creates tension in the body, which causes physical malfunction, which generally causes failure in execution, which creates more fear of failure, which in turn creates more choking.
Below are some signs that you may be overthinking your current situation or in danger of choking:
- Mind noise
- Worrying about the outcome (thinking too much about the past or future)
Doubt, fear, anxiety, and worry are all emotions and thoughts that most humans experience when a race is approaching. It doesn’t matter how good someone gets, he/she will always have to deal at some level with one’s own mental sabotage.
What separates great performances from mediocre performances is the ability to deal with the onslaught of destructive or debilitating thought patterns that can be generated by the brain when a competition draws near. The most important strategy you can implement is learning to stay present. There have been many great books written on the power of this idea. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now is a great example of how powerful the present moment can be and has some great strategies on how to be present.
Ideally, we give the brain something to think about that exists in the present moment, is relevant to the task and is positive. Timothy Galloway’s “Inner Game” book series has great strategies for staying present when it matters the most. Examples include technical, motivational or strategic thoughts that remove the thinking mind from the actual act of doing. When the thinking mind tries to control the body, choking is usually inevitable.
We can learn from very young children and animals because they don’t choke. They may not always win or execute a task perfectly but they don’t choke because the thinking mind does not exist in their brains. They simply do, they don’t think about doing and by and large they are always engaged in the present moment.
Below are some steps to help in learning to be present:
- Step 1
- Learn to observe your thoughts and become aware of the fact that you are having them. More often than not we are so deeply entrenched in thought we are not actually aware we are having a thought. Thought patterns can take over and will manifest themselves as physical tension.
- Step 2
- Learn to observe those thoughts without judgment. By attaching negative meaning to thoughts we are placing judgment on something, which is pointless. If it’s raining on race day don’t view it as a positive or negative thing, just a thing that may require adjustments to your execution. (Judgment often creates a spiral of more negative thinking)
- Step 3
- Know that your brain can only occupy one thought at a time. Knowing this is very powerful because it allows you to give your brain something constructive and useful to do that exists in the present moment.
- Step 4
- Learn to bring yourself back to the present moment as much as you can. By focusing on things like breathing we are engaging the brain in a useful activity that exists now.
- Step 5
But why is the ability to be present so important in a sport like a triathlon? Part of the challenge in a long-distance event is to be fully engaged throughout and to be able to endure deep amounts of discomfort. Someone who can either distract the thinking mind from the current state of discomfort or simply learn to observe the present moment without judgment will have a mental edge every time. A triathlon or long-distance event can seem overwhelming if we project into the future and think about how long it is but quite often if we are fully engaged in what’s happening now we can handle the now.