How much of endurance sports is a mental battle compared to the physical one? I have posed this question to many athletes in my time as a coach. And I am yet to have anyone say it is anything less than 60% mental. Some even say it is a high as 90% mental but overall, everyone I’ve asked, agreed how much of a mental battle endurance sport is.
My next question to them is, how much time do you spend training your mental game? The answers vary from none to, I don’t know how to, and I know I should do more. If we know it is so important why is it that athletes don’t spend more time improving their mental game?
My conclusion is that many don’t know how or what to do when it comes to improving mental fitness. It becomes all too easy to focus on the physical side of training and not allocate any time to improving our mental fitness. I am convinced though that once athletes realized the difference it can make to your performances then they would make the time to work on improving it.
Our brains primary function is to protect us. That is why when the discomfort starts in an endurance event it becomes a battle not to want to stop. As a coach one of the goals, I have in training is to provide opportunities for athletes to practice the skill of over- riding our natural instincts. To develop resilience or grit.
Regardless of an athlete’s ability there will be a time in the heat of competition that they will want to slow down, stop or give up. It is how we are wired which is why we need to practice overcoming this natural instinct. And like anything it is a skill that can be practiced and not just in training.
As an example, I take a cold shower every morning. It is something I started a few years ago after reading about the benefits exposing yourself to cold water. I remain unconvinced that it has physical benefits however one thing it has done is improve my resilience. Most mornings it is not something I want to do yet I force myself to stand under the water for at least 1 minute. And in winter it sucks.
In training context, you might find yourself riding your bike and there are 2 ways to reach a destination. Go over the hill or around it. Going over it will be harder, around the hill is easier. Naturally, our brain will want to go around it. This is a perfect example of developing resilience by going up the hill. And the more times you make these decisions the more of a habit it becomes.
The habit of making the hard decision means less thought goes into making the decision. It is something that happens without thinking and happens instinctually.
In training I work to create scenarios for athletes where they need to make these decisions. Set up the environment so that they are provided an opportunity to take the easy road or the hard road. Sometimes they will take the easy road however through a collaborative approach with me, self-reflection on their behalf and understanding why they took the easy road, hopefully next time they’ll take the hard road.
Anyone that has been in endurance sport knows progress is not linear. There are always peaks, valleys and setbacks. And the process of developing resilience is no different. Some days you’ll be on your game, embrace the challenge and take the hard road. Yet other days it is a grind and the temptation to take the easy road wins over. To find our best we need to push through on the days when we’re not at our best.
As long as we are striving for progress not perfection then our ability to develop resilience and grit is improving. It is becoming more of a habit.
Next time when you’re in a training session and the negative self- talk starts the first step is to be aware that this is normal. Once you’re aware of what is happening and why, make a conscious decision to take the hard road. Stay in the moment, focus on the process and don’t give up. Then repeat!