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The Mental Game Of Triathlon

  • By Torbjorn Sindballe
  • Published Mar 11, 2013
  • Updated Mar 11, 2013 at 3:30 PM UTC

There’s a subtle reason why the best manage to stay on top: the mind.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Inside Triathlon.

The controversial coach Brett Sutton has churned out many world and Ironman champions. Many of his athletes—past and present—are perennial podium finishers and the best of the best.

While Sutton is well known for his outstanding results, what he is perhaps less famous for is his ability to instill mental toughness into his athletes—for his psychology.

“When you go for eight or nine hours [in an Ironman], there are a lot of places with dark and unlit streets,” he said. “People don’t train athletes to go to those places.”

With Sutton, every athlete is unique, and he treats everyone differently, being a teddy bear to some and authoritarian to others, he said. When Chrissie Wellington showed up at his Team TBB training camp in the Philippines in early 2007, Sutton “challenged her at every inch,” he said. So much so, that the “first three months were horrendous.” Because Wellington had only given herself a 12-month window to succeed in triathlon, Sutton “hit her with everything that takes 12 months, psychologically, in a month and a half.”

He says he helped her narrow her focus and develop an approach to training that was like “a laser beam, every day.” He says he helped her become OK with not having a steady paycheck. And he says he helped her tap into her love of adventure, making triathlon a journey for her. After three months of constant combat, something clicked, and Sutton’s task became a breeze.

While Sutton has many detractors—those who say he breaks more athletes than he creates—no one can take away what came from his time with Wellington. During that time, he unlocked the talent of one of the greatest athletes in Ironman history.

Sutton’s relationship with Wellington is a perfect example of what the right psychology can do for an athlete. And while few of us have access to the world’s best psychologists, there are mental tools out there for all of us to use.

* * *

Coaches across a wide range of sports agree that mental toughness is the most critical element to winning. For example, in 1987 Daniel Gould of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and his colleagues found that 82 percent of wrestling coaches rated mental toughness as the most important psychological attribute of success.

Despite the importance of developing mental toughness in athletes, sport psychologists have had a hard time defining the term. Recently, Graham Jones and his team at the University of Wales attempted to coalesce the competing definitions by interviewing a long list of Olympic medalists, coaches and sport psychologists across a wide range of sports, including triathlon. They came up with the following definition of mental toughness, which was published in 2002 and 2007:
“[Mental toughness is] having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.”

This definition is still somewhat vague scientifically, but it nevertheless sheds a little light on what it takes, mentally, to become a champion—you must be able to cope with huge workloads and exacting demands as well as handle high-pressure situations. Much of this ability boils down to self-regulation, a psychological term that means regulating your mental state relative to a given situation. For example, when athletes fight for the win or find themselves having to endure a five-hour ride in pouring rain, they must be able to interpret the pain and the pressure in such a way that they are able to maintain, or regain, a positive mental state. This, in turn, helps build their motivation, confidence and focus relative to the task at hand. In short, they need to control what author Tim Gallwey famously called the “inner game”—the game one plays within one’s mind during an athletic event.

Triathlon is designed to test mental toughness. At its core, it is about going the distance and overcoming every conceivable obstacle in your way. Many triathletes master the first part of the definition of mental toughness—being able to cope with huge workloads and exacting demands—and have a good handle on hard training and physical pain. The unique positive energy that flows through every event in our sport is a testament to this; in the face of oncoming pain, athletes are able to reframe their minds and create positive mental energy. However, when the heat of the moment arrives during the actual race, some triathletes fall short in the mental toughness department and perform poorly, largely because they have no conscious control over the decisions they make on pacing, race tactics and nutrition. This is somewhat expected as many triathletes—especially iron-distance triathletes—participate in only a handful of races each year and thus have limited practice in the art of racing.

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