Hacking the mind to take the win

Regardless of the situation, all humans face some sort of anxiety in their lives and athletes are no different. Early on in my race career, I discovered that my own head and thoughts could get in the way of performing as well as I wanted to in races. Between coaches, teammates, and even the athletes, I coach I have learned a great many tips and tricks to deal with performance anxiety.

I receive race reports from all the athletes I coach for important events and races. Not all of these events or races end up on the world stage but that doesn’t mean these athletes’ notes aren’t beneficial in understanding how to improve their performances. I typically read and hear about starting line anxiety, descending and bunch sprinting fears, fear of failure, or the biggest fear of all, crashing.

For those of us who compete but still wrestle with anxiety, I have some tips to help you lessen or even remove the anxiety.

I realize that a modern athlete’s time is stretched and squeezing in more training time may be asking too much but, I do prescribe mindfulness meditation to many of my athletes and I practice it as well. The time commitment is only 1-2x 5-minute sessions per day.

What does it mean to be Mindful?
The website Mindful.Org described mindfulness “as the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”.

How do I practice Mindful Meditation?

  • I set a timer for 5-15 minutes
  • I find a quiet and comfortable place to sit
  • I begin by focusing my attention on my natural breathing
  • I soften my gaze or even close my eyes
  • Then I scan my body for tension, soreness, and discomfort. I am not trying to act on this information but just recognize it.
  • Take notice of how my legs feel
  • Take notice of how my waist and glutes feel
  • Take notice of how my abdomen and lower back feel
  • Take notice of how my upper back and chest feel
  • Notice if my mind wanders. I do not fight it or scold myself for thoughts coming and going I just continue on with my body scan
  • Take notice of how my shoulders and neck feel
  • Take notice of how my arms feel
  • Take notice of how my face feels
  • When I am ready, I gently lift my gaze

Typically I use no music while practicing mindful meditation but will use apps and headphones with ambient noise and even binaural beats to assist in focus and shutting out other everyday sounds.

Studies documenting the potential athletic benefits of Mindful Meditation
“After reviewing 18 753 citations, we included 47 trials with 3515 participants. Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety (effect size, 0.38 [95% CI, 0.12-0.64] at 8 weeks and 0.22 [0.02-0.43] at 3-6 months)” – http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754

“A 2003 study focused on how an 8-week training course would affect the brains and immune systems of individuals. This investigation provided some evidence of increased activation in a region of the brain correlated with positive affect, as well as evidence that the immune system would react more robustly in antibody production after meditation training

A study of 1st-3rd-grade children that involved a 12-week program of breath awareness and yoga (delivered once per week every other week) showed improvements in children’s attention and social skills as well as decreased test anxiety in children who went through the training as compared to controls”  – http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/MARC-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf

“Enhanced mindfulness, through mindfulness meditation practice, has been found to reduce many symptoms associated with anxiety (Baer, 2003; Keng et al, 2011) and mindfulness practice has been associated with the ability to let go of and decreased occurrence of negative thoughts (Frewen, Evans, Maraj, Dozois & Partridge, 2008).

Other mindfulness approaches in sports use meditation as the core of the intervention protocol. Meditation is defined as, “the intentional self-regulation of attention from moment to moment,” (Baer, 2003, p. 125). Mindfulness can be cultivated through the practice of mindfulness meditation (Baer, 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleague’s (1985) are the first on record to use mindfulness meditation training within sports. Rowers preparing for the Olympics independently practiced mindfulness meditation (using guided tapes once or twice per day, and for fifteen-minute sessions) for two to seven weeks prior to the Olympic games. Once per week group meditation training sessions were also provided. Kabat-Zinn et al. (1985) reported that some of the U.S. Olympic team rowers who medaled reported the usefulness of mindfulness meditation in helping them optimize performance when racing.”

Imagery and Visualization

I have written about the concepts and use of visualization in the past but I first learned about the use of mental imagery and visualization when I was in college. While I thought the practice I learned all those years ago was a bit silly I have come to rely on it for a great many things in my life.

You may have heard a coach or team director shout out at the beginning of a game or race “Visualize the Win!” I think this may be the most powerful instruction ever uttered when helping an athlete understand how to use imagery and visualization.

Once an athlete has relaxed and done everything they can do to be in the moment they can use their mind’s eye to imagine what it’s like to win how to get through a technical aspect of their course or how to stay calm in tough situations. I like to think of the process as organized daydreaming.

An Imagery and Visualization Script

I either write a script of what I want to cover in a visualization session or I just wing it. Below is a sample script for an upcoming race and a concern I have about the course I will be racing on. If you would like help with your own script or help with a visualization session please contact me.

  • I have a simple and specific goal before I start my own session
    • Clear a difficult turn in the aero position on my TT bike
  • I make sure I am relaxed before starting
    • Completed a quick Breath or mindful meditation session while laying down and devoid of distractions begin to daydream using as many details as possible
  • I feel the heat and humidity of the day
  • I hear the birdsong and insects of late summer
  • I hear and feel a light breeze as it moves through the trees
  • I hear other athletes chatting, working on bikes, and heading to the start line
  • I complete my warm-up
  • I hear and feel myself clip in
  • I head to the start and feel the easy effort of cruising to the start on my bike
  • I hear the race official call my name to the starting line
  • I hear my fellow competitors around me laughing and talking
  • I patiently wait my turn, breathing, relaxing, and putting my bike into my starting gears
  • I am a minute from my start now and keeping my breath calm and my mind clear
  • It’s my turn, the official holds my bike and I set myself up for launch
  • The official count me down as I focus on my starting protocol
  • I hear the official shout GO
  • I launch
  • The world goes silent and I can focus on what I love
  • I hear the rush of wind, my tires, and chain, disc wheel, and my own confident and steady breath as I move forward under my own power
  • I know the tight right-handed turn will come up quicker than I think
  • I know that if I don’t stay aero I will lose precious time I can’t afford to lose
  • I stay focused on cadence and glance at power to make sure I am executing my pacing strategy for the day
  • I feel sweat start to form on my arms neck and face
  • I notice the change in sound my tires make as I go over a rough section of tarmac
  • I see my 30-second man ahead, struggling
  • I keep my pace steady as I approach him
  • I see my turn ahead
  • I put just enough power down to clear my 30-second man
  • As I pass my 30-second man I see the turn approaching
  • I let out a calming breath and tell myself you have this
  • I relax my grip I let my face go slack and lean
  • I feel the bike under me as if it were in a groove
  • I move through the apex of the turn and as I exit I take another easy breath and I power down
  • I see the straight to the finish and begin my ramp up to max power.

If at any time during this visualization I let negative thoughts in I will start over. While the above sounds long-winded in practice the above daydream could last just seconds. I will go over this daydream many times in a session visualizing many potential outcomes until I have the one that makes the most sense and provides the deepest feeling of confidence.

Studies documenting the potential athletic benefits of mental imagery

“Practice makes perfect. But imaginary practice? Elisa Tartaglia of the Laboratory of Psychophysics at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and team show that perceptual learning — learning by repeated exposure to a stimulus — can occur by mental imagery as much as by the real thing. The results, published in Current Biology, suggest that thinking about something over and over again could actually be as good as doing it.” – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091203132153.htm

“Adding movement to mental rehearsal can improve performance finds a study in BioMed Central’s open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions. For high jumpers, the study shows that dynamic imagery improves the number of successful attempts and the technical performance of jumps.” – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130219201523.htm

“Anyone who has worn a cast knows that rebuilding muscle strength once the cast is removed can be difficult. Now researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) at Ohio University have found that the mind is critical in maintaining muscle strength following a prolonged period of immobilization and that mental imagery may be key in reducing the associated muscle loss.” – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141231154012.htm

“Visualization Boosts Strength Gains – ‘Mental Effort’ Boosts Biceps Strength Gains on Low-Intensity Workout by 20%!” – http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2017/04/visualization-boosts-strength-gains.html

Practice and Skills development

The old adage of practice makes perfect is one I think about quite often. I am constantly thinking of what can I do in practice that will improve my odds of having a successful race. I am not necessarily thinking about new training practices or protocols but instead, things that will keep my athletes and I organized, ready, and devoid of any mental concerns when we clip in and the official says go.

When I talk to athletes about this mental aspect of training I liken it to a time when they were taking tests in school and were so well prepared that they knew when they sat down to take the test that they were going to ace it.

This state of thinking has been referred to as a state of flow. The best-selling Author Steve Kotler defines a Flow State as “A hyper-focused state. We are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies, Self vanishes, Performance goes through the roof.”

While this article is too short and too broad now to cover the 4 cycles of athletic flow and the 17 triggers of the flow state I think one topic that is completely missing from ALL Flow state articles I have read and that is the work that must be done BEFORE an athlete can be concerned with even developing their own flow state!

Before an athlete begins to worry about a flow state they must prove to their selves that they can utter the words “I’ve got this!”

This is done simply through practicing bike handling skills, riding in groups, having the faith that your training will lead to the performance necessary to meet your goals, competing with one’s self and others often. I would also add practicing preparedness as well. Things like having everything you need the day of an event or race at your fingertips without thought. This could also be said about your training days as well!

BUT, if you cannot remain positive while in training, the day of your event and or race there is no amount of preparedness that will allow you to enter a flow state.

Stay tuned for an upcoming Endurance Quick Cast on Athletic Flow State.

Until Next Time,
Train Smarter Not Harder,
Coach Rob