You already know that sometimes the mental barrier is far harder to overcome than the physical. Your mind can so easily start to play tricks on you. Even the most experienced can have thoughts that impact how they see their performance, the people around them, or even themselves in inaccurate ways. But forearmed is forewarned, and so with experience we learn how to recognise the distortions our mind can throw our way. If left unresolved, these mental distortions can negatively impact how well we train, knock your self-confidence, and damage your relationships. In this blog, I want to look at three of the most common “thinking traps” and suggest a way around each of them.
A common thinking trap; your training or event performance must be exactly as planned or it’s worthless. Whilst it’s good to be highly motivated and focused, driven, and want the very best of yourself; but while perfectionism has its advantages, there are also some significant problems here. One of them is that there are uncontrollable events that can derail your performance.
For instance, work is busy and you are stressed. Perhaps this has led to a lack of sleep, adding tiredness to your already emotionally stressed self. But your plan say’s you have an interval session to run, and being the driven perfectionist you are determined to get it done and ticked off. You head out the door and it starts to rain. You are determined to get the session done, but your legs feel heavy, and your mind keeps wandering back to that unresolved work issue. When you look down at your watch after the first interval, you see that you’re three seconds slower than your planned target, so you get cross with yourself. It’s the same story with the second and third intervals – you just seem to be getting slower and slower. By the time you get back to your car, you’re fuming at yourself, the situation, and your “failure”.
But was that session a failure? Instead of focusing on the perfect, which frankly was never going to happen, you could choose to reframe the outcome. This then avoids the start of a mental downward spiral that eats away at you and leads to plenty more “missed” session goals. You had to fight to even get started let alone finish it. Rather than writing it off, you did the full session and, although off target, was a whole lot better than doing nothing! You are still closer to reaching your goal. So give yourself a dose of reality and a break… Set a positive target for your next interval session, which could be as simple as “I’ll be faster.” Then go make that happen. You can’t change the session you just completed, but you have full control over the one you have yet to start.
“End of the World” Syndrome
Growing up, my mother would frequently tell me that I was “making a mountain out of a mole hill.” But I suppose that’s what comes of being a boy! Albeit, even at a young age I was a proven Master of taking a small issue and turning it into a catastrophe (at least in my head). Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging a problem when it arises. But dwelling on it for too long and you can easily start to fixate or obsess, it can become a much bigger thing in your mind than it is in reality.
Let’s take injury as an example. Imagine that you’re out for a run, step off a curb, and tweak your ankle. You are a runner, and even though you know that you will tell everyone it’s nothing, experience says it will probably be something. In fact your friend Karen landed awkwardly off a curb stone and “ripped her Achilles to shreds”… Your brain immediately goes into free fall, as it’s suddenly a vital time in your plan. What if you can’t keep training? What if it’s as bad as that sprain that kept you off training for a month last year? What if it’s the same (or worse) than Karen’s Achilles? You hobble home and sure enough, when you take off your sock, you see swelling. Soon the ankle starts to turn a weird color. And here comes the panic!
OK, it’s not perfect to sprain your ankle. But before your thoughts get completely out of control, you need to check yourself and put the situation in context. OK, you might miss a few weeks of training, but your upper body is fine, so you can still get some good gym sessions in. And it’s not like you dislocated the joint or that there’s a bone sticking out of your skin, so it could be worse. While it’s a genuine setback, it’s not actually the “end of the world”. You can always choose how to look at a situation, it could be a tragedy or it could cause you to have to be imaginative and focus on what you can usefully do to continue progressing. It’s your choice…
The Negative Voice
Regardless of your sport or the level at which you participate, confidence has a major impact on performance. If you don’t believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about you. It is sometimes sighted that “The most important words you’ll ever hear are the ones you say to yourself.” And yet it’s possible that sometimes you completely undermine yourself by letting your Negative Voice be disproportionately hard on yourself. This will likely lower you confidence and probably limit your performance. Now you have a problem, because the Negative Voice has one and apparently turned out to be correct all along. Nothing more than a self fulfilling prophecy really, but never underestimate the power of your mind.
For instance, you are running late for a gym session and forget to bring your lifting gloves. You only realise when you get there, and immediately say, “I’m such an idiot.” Then you berate yourself again when you drop your keys as you get out of your car. These two things might seem small, but if repeated often enough, they chip away at your confidence and make you into your own worst enemy.
When you catch yourself saying something self-defeating, immediately counter it with a positive affirmation such as “That’s not like me”. This gets your thinking back on a positive track and will actually build your self-confidence. Sounds silly, trivial even, but it’s the little things that make the difference and this is more important that you might realise.
A parting thought
All too often, we focus our efforts on the physical aspects of our sport. The workout sets, the HR zones, the paces we hit… because in truth these are the easiest to see and measure, and therefore control. But your body heads in the direction that your mind takes it, so try to be more aware of what you’re thinking, and if it’s taking you the wrong direction, consciously recognise it. You know you will have times when your mind tries to undermine your performance, so have your own personal coping strategies to hand. You wouldn’t train without thinking through your nutrition strategy, so start seeing your mental strategy in the same light.