Cerebral Fitness: Mastering the Mental Game

Most athletes spend a great deal of time improving physical fitness and nutritional practices. Not too many spend time improving mental strength. When physically equal, the athlete with the strongest mental game wins every time. In some cases, an athlete with stronger mental skills can produce a better performance than an athlete that is physically stronger.

Where to Begin?

If you've never worked on your mental skills, a good place to start is to take notice of what that little voice in your head is saying. You'll want to determine if what your inner voice has to say is appropriate or exaggerated.

Once you realize that negative self-talk limits your performance as an athlete and in everyday life, there are several books, seminars, CDs and DVDs available to help you work on mental toughness. Pick one to start your journey.

If you have already worked on mental fitness, perhaps it's time for a review of your favorite techniques—or to try something new. Just like any other skill, mental fitness takes maintenance and can improve with the proper training.

The Script

One of the exercises I have athletes do is to script The Perfect Race. For some athletes, this means writing down a description of how a perfect race day will go.

For others, visualizing or scripting a movie where you play the starring role works better. Some athletes see the movie from the camera's eye, where they can watch themselves in action. Others see the movie rolling from their own eyes. Experiment with different techniques to find what works best for you.

If you are using visualization, begin by relaxing on the couch. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and let the movie begin. If you are writing, try to write at a time and place with no interruptions.

  • Triathletes can begin the script with pre-race details like setting up their transition area. Be as detailed as possible, describing or seeing how your equipment is laid out. Also make note of how you feel—perhaps you're excited to race, yet calm and confident.

  • Progress from your warmup to the swim start. Imagine how the beginning of your race will look and feel. How does the water feel? What does your stroke look like? What are you doing that makes your stroke so efficient? What positive comments is the narrator saying about your swim?

  • As you near the swim exit, what are you thinking? Are you jogging or walking toward your bike? Are there spectators cheering for you? What can you see, smell and hear?

  • Visualize the first transition. Describe your perfect transition in words or with imagery. Once on the bike, how do you look when settled into a good pace?

  • You're passing people on the ride. You say something encouraging to the people you pass. As you continue riding, although the hills require slightly more effort, you handle them well. You are strong. Near the end of the ride, you prepare for the second transition. See and describe a good transition from bike to run.

  • Your legs feel strange when you begin running, but that's no problem because you know they'll feel better in a few minutes. As you run, you focus on relaxing your face and shoulders and settling into a comfortable breathing pattern. You hold a strong pace.

  • See the finish line? How do you feel? What do you look like? Can you see and describe a great finish to your event?
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