I notice that a lot of coaches ask for their athletes to be mentally strong or focused at races or events. However, what does that actually mean. As athletes, we have all been in situations where we felt we thrived and others where maybe we fell behind our expectations. What is it that contributes to this? Most people talk about mental toughness as its some mythical experience, but I’m here to tell you that you can control it and it is trainable. Hopefully at the end of this blog you can have a better understanding of what it means and how to better control it.

Day in Day out: Confidence
Much of mental toughness comes from being confident in what you are doing. Being confident comes from knowing you can handle a situation because you’ve been through it plenty of times before.  Like a student giving a final presentation or an athlete in the final game, confidence comes from having been in the situation before and believing in your abilities. As a coach, we try to put you in certain situations multiple times prior to a race so that you are confident in your abilities to handle the stress. Once you’ve continually handled certain workouts, you should feel good about replicating that again on race day. While physically we try to put you in these situations, mentally you can put yourself in race day settings as well with key #2… visualizations.

This can be done without ever leaving the house.  It can also be done while in practice.  When you were a kid, did you ever take the winning 3 pointer of the NCAA Championship in your driveway?  Did you ever throw a Hail Mary in the Super Bowl while in your front yard?  This is actually an amazing skill and tactic for building mental toughness.  While we show up on race day and the conditions are outside of our control (weather, wind, etc), we can control these things in our visualization training.
What’s important with visualizing is that you include all 5 senses in order to fully trigger your brain and connect it with the experience. You want to taste the sweat and hear the wind… this is all important.  If you know race day is going to be tough condition wise, you can mentally prepare for this and train the brain to be comfortable with it.  This is a critical skill that is seldom used.

Note: If you are injured, this can actually help you maintain form while you’re unable to train. There are many scientific studies showing athletes getting better technique wise through visualizations while injured.

Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning
Probably the most important part of mental toughness in my opinion is setting yourself up for success. Have you ever watched the last 2 minutes of an NFL game where Tom Brady has the ball and is down by 6? How about Michael Jordan in the final seconds of a game?  Yes, these are some of the greatest of all time, but they excelled in these settings because they were within their individual zone of optimal functioning. To demonstrate this, people often ask why didn’t they perform like that throughout the entire game and dominate from the beginning?

The IZOF is a well supported theory in sports psychology.  It states that different athletes do better at different levels of arousal.  I’m sure you can support this in your own experiences.  Some athletes you know may do great when they are relaxed with low pressure while others seem to get better when under more stress.  For each athlete, they have their own level of optimal functioning.  Knowing when you perform best is a key understanding of your own athletic abilities.  If you know that you perform better while relaxed, then you need to be focusing on relaxation techniques prior to big moments.  If you know that you perform better while the pressure is on, then you need to motivate yourself and build arousal levels prior to the event.   By entering into your individual zone, you are more likely to unlock that “flow” state of performing and hit closer to your potential.
(Hanin, 2000)

Often times sports psychology gets thrown to the side because its not tangible.  People associate skill and performance to physical attributes while we all know that the brain controls those movements.  When talking about mental toughness, its important to know that it is controllable and can give you an edge in any race/event you do.  By understanding some of the components that make up mental toughness, you should be in a better position to build your own and reap the benefits as you go through your racing calendar.