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Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Mantra Power

  • By Jesse Thomas
  • Published Aug 27, 2013
  • Updated Sep 6, 2013 at 8:42 PM UTC
llustration by Matt Collins.

Believe in the power of saying weird crap inside your brain.

Like my first exposure to most things, my introduction to mantras stems from an early ’90s comedy reference—Stuart Smalley. Stuart, a “Saturday Night Live” character played by Al Franken, hosted a self-help show where he’d talk about his many problems, fears and doubts. He would eventually overcome these doubts by looking into a mirror and reciting his daily affirmation: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

I clearly remember the episode when Michael Jordan guest starred  (as “Michael J” to “protect his anonymity”) not only because I was a huge M.J. fan, but because Jordan couldn’t keep himself from laughing while looking in the mirror and saying, “It’s OK if I don’t put the ball … in the basket. I just need to be the best Michael I can be.”

Of course at the time, I thought it was all a gag—it’s hard not to when you see it on “SNL.” In high school I’d joke about using his mantra whenever I’d have doubts in a race. But what I soon discovered was that Stuart was actually onto something. When I’d say positive, self-affirming stuff to myself, I could push through the pain with less doubt. I would run faster. Stuart Smalley, you are a genius!

As I moved on from high school to college and then to professional-level running, I continued to hone my mantra techniques. I had world-class coaches and sports psychologists recommend very similar strategies to deal with pain, doubt and fear. And after years of elite competition and conversations with tons of other professional athletes, I’ve found that mantras are no joke.

I don’t know the research, and I won’t pretend to. But I do know that positive mantras are used successfully by just about every professional athlete I’ve ever known, and are recommended by any sports psychologist and coach I’ve ever used. Yes, it feels funny to tell yourself something corny and positive mid-race or workout, but it works. If you want to take your racing to the next level, embrace the crazy!

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What is a mantra?

I realize there may be one or two readers out there who haven’t seen Stuart Smalley and are wondering what the hell I’m talking about. A sports mantra is defined by The Dictionary of Jesse’s Brain as a positive word, phrase or image that an athlete repeats to himself to combat fear, doubt and pain during training or competition. A simple mantra example might be, “I can do this!” or “I look amazing in these aviators!” You would say these mantras whenever you feel like it, but particularly during a time of difficulty or doubt. They can be used before (“I am superbly prepared”) or during (“I am the Pain King!”) training and racing to calm your nerves, balance the inevitable negative thoughts that creep into your brain, and ultimately, make you go faster and stay positive.

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How to create a mantra

To be honest, I don’t think there’s any one way to make a great mantra. I’ve created mantras from all kinds of sources, coaches, sports psychologists, things I randomly visualize or even something a friend said to me. I think whatever creates a repetitive, believable, positive image for you works, but here are a couple of general qualities I’ve found in my mantra experience:

1. Keep it short and simple. Obviously, if your mantra requires you to recite the entire Notre Dame locker room speech in “Rudy,” you’re probably going to have trouble bringing all that up in the moment. One to five words seems to work best to me. If it rhymes, even better.

2. Relate it to your successes. Mantras are most effective if they help you recall other successes you’ve had. That could be a great workout, a strong race or the time you got the cute girl from accounting to go on a date with you. Use whatever recalls a time you got through pain and doubt.

3. Stay positive and realistic. Some people try to say stuff like, “I don’t feel the pain” or “I’m not afraid.” That may work, but I think my best mantras are ones that acknowledge my doubts balanced with positive reinforcement to overcome it: “This is hard, but I own hard.” As Stuart says, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt!”

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My real-life mantras

Pre-race
Courage over confidence. I used this mantra both before and during my race at 70.3 Oceanside. I was facing a world championship-like field and was intimidated by the names on the list and unsure of where I’d finish. This mantra, given to me by sports psychologist Mitchell Greene, was perfect because it acknowledged that I was intimidated, but allowed me to be courageous regardless. It worked.

Trust your training. Remember Stinson. I used these mantras before Wildflower this year. I’d had some amazing training in the weeks leading in, particularly at a camp in Stinson Beach, Calif., but was still concerned about racing guys I’d never beaten before. These mantras helped keep me confident when those doubts arose.

Mid-race
Stay now. You’re killing it! These are two mantras I use very regularly in my training and racing when the pain comes in like a train. If I remember that all I have to do is get through this moment and keep myself from projecting an outcome (staying in the now) it doesn’t seem so bad, and relieves the anticipation of potential failure. Along the same lines, if I tell myself I’m freaking tearing this mofo up while I’m in the pain cave, for some reason it makes it easier. Yes, it hurts, but I’m asking for it and kicking its ass. I’ve found it’s best if I say these ones out loud as well, which has the extra benefit of psyching out your competition!

390 watts. 4:38 mile. In some races, and at specific moments, I’ll draw on specific workouts that were key confidence builders for me. In the lead-up to Wildflower I had a great hill climb/TT, and finished a long/interval run the next day with a smokin’ fast mile. These were both huge breakthroughs for me, and memories I relied upon when the going got tough during sections of the bike and run.

Eff beet juice. Daddy strength. Sometimes mantras just pop into your head mid-race, seemingly out of nowhere. These are two examples. “Eff beet juice” was my reaction to some good-natured trash talk from buddies before a race about how I was screwed because I didn’t drink beet juice before the race. “Daddy strength” just popped into my head on the run when I needed some extra motivation for the pain and randomly thought about our soon-to-be-born baby. In both cases, they were organic reactions to the moment, but phrases that meant something powerful to me, and that I harnessed to build confidence and momentum.

You are now ready to create your own power mantra list. Don’t knock it until you try it! And always remember that you too are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a three- time Wildflower Long Course champion and is the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

Look for Thomas’ “Triathlife” column every month in Triathlete magazine.

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