The Mental Game Of Triathlon

  • By Torbjorn Sindballe
  • Published Mar 11, 2013
  • Updated Mar 11, 2013 at 3:30 PM UTC
There must be a persistent focus on doing the work and mastering the task at hand rather than the dream of winning. Illustration by N.C. Winters.

The Science

The University of Wales’ Jones and his colleagues published an article in 2008 based on interviews with top coaches and athletes on how mental toughness is developed. First and foremost, every interviewee mentioned that building mental toughness is a long process that involves many different elements. But they agreed that the four most important elements are: motivational climate, key people, challenging experiences and a hunger to succeed.

The scientists theorized that the motivational climate within which the athlete works must be centered on the process rather than the end result. There must be a persistent focus on doing the work and mastering the task at hand rather than the dream of winning. Results can never be controlled—only your effort and level of skill can. If you build your fitness to the highest possible level, pace your race well and make sure you are completely spent at the finish line, feeling certain there was no way you could have run an extra inch—you have reached the limit of your potential that day and whatever results you get, you should be proud of. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden expressed this exact mentality in one of his most famous quotes: “Success is knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

To put it another way, going into a race with one goal—to race as hard as possible and to the best of your ability—can alleviate much of the pressure and dread that competition can stir up in your mind. You can’t control your competitors, so why focus on them and what they are doing?

Jones et al also pointed out that the key people around an athlete are an important part of developing mental toughness. Coaches, parents, team members and fellow athletes play a significant role in developing the values, goals and mental skills that lead to success. When Caroline Steffen began working with coach Sutton, he challenged her belief in her ability, telling her she had a lot more potential than she thought. The end result: She was the 2010 runner-up at Kona in her professional debut.

By posing structured questions that help athletes gain a higher degree of clarity and insight into their own reaction patterns and motives, one can sharpen mental toughness. Asking athletes how they react to high-pressure situations, helping them determine what they can do to change unwanted behaviors and helping them hone in on what their dreams and goals are will increase their mental preparation and motivation to do the work, endure the pain and remain levelheaded at all times.

Facing challenging experiences in sport, or life in general, also seems to aid in the development of mental toughness. Lance Armstrong is an obvious example of this, as he clawed his way back from life-threatening cancer with a ferocious focus never before seen in cycling and later won a record seven straight Tour de France titles. Upon his return, he said that the pain he endured during the hard climbs was nothing compared to the pain he underwent during chemotherapy, which is a classic example of how gaining perspective aids in cultivating mental toughness.

Overcoming harsh childhoods, severe physical illness or trauma, as well as other life crises seems to heighten one’s ability to maintain a successful, albeit sometimes cynical, drive toward the podium. Nevertheless, if you have overcome any obstacles in your life, you can use them to gain insight into your own reactions to taxing situations and help you gain perspective on racing, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that important.

One can also attempt to simulate challenging experiences in training, even if these experiences pale in comparison to legitimate life crises. For example, I would often use extreme weather as an opportunity to train my mental toughness—I insisted on riding for hours through the worst winter snowstorms in Denmark where I trained, knowing that this broadened my perspective of what was possible to overcome. (Before you head out, make sure the weather is safe for riding and that you have the proper apparel.) Three-time Ironman world champion Peter Reid, my former colleague, applied a similar strategy by doing his transition runs on fields of logs and rocks, which honed his mental toughness by teaching him how to focus when he was tired. You can even take these mental tests a step further and accept challenges unrelated to triathlon, such as learning basic survival skills and then camping in the wilderness with limited supplies.

The final, and in many ways most important, element of mental toughness is a deep hunger to succeed. Athletes from Third World countries or poor neighborhoods in the U.S. perhaps see sports as their only way out of poverty and are thus deeply committed to success, no matter the costs. Other athletes are driven to gain their very ambitious parents’ recognition. And yet others are driven to satisfy a wild ego or a fascination with where their body and mind can take them. One’s hunger to succeed revolves around very deep mental structures that are often founded in childhood, and it is thus hard to develop. In some cases the hunger is founded in basic survival instincts, such as those used when a triathlon pro races to put food on the table. In other cases, it is founded in a deep love for the sport, such as when an athlete chases the perfect race. While this hunger to succeed is difficult to develop, it is possible to develop it by forging a deep love for the sport through research into triathlon’s history and legends. Athletes have also found that committing publicly to extremely large goals and going all in to chase the ultimate dream, without a hint of a plan B, can galvanize one’s hunger.

The Risk

Surely the nature of sport is a constant struggle to push one’s limits and thus involves a high risk of injuries, burnout and, in some cases, severe psychological problems. Many coaches fall back on the simplest instrument for toughening up their athletes: creating a cult-like, isolated setting and pushing people harder than they ever thought possible. Those who break get left behind and those who last mentally have a chance of making it if their bodies hold up down the road. While this strategy is simple and in many cases successful, it is also very risky, and it may leave talented athletes behind who would have made it in a different environment. Athletes who are caught up with the hardened culture are risking running their bodies to the ground, cutting their careers short and possibly sacrificing life-long health for a few big races.

While there is no way around relentless work in the pursuit of excellence, top coaches need to become more aware of all the other tools in the book they can use to build up their athletes. They must never forget that they need to focus on an athlete’s long-term development. It might be relatively easy to make a winner, but creating a champion—someone who can dominate the sport for years—requires an entirely different skill set.

Good luck in developing yours.

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