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Monday, May 3, 2010

HEAD to HEAD – The Mental Side of Being the Best You, You Can Be

A coaching friend of mine recently asked me what one could do with the very frustrating situation of athletes not achieving what they are physically capable of on race day. Now the coach happens to be one of the VERY best coaches that the sport of triathlon has & the athlete is a professional, so it is not like this coach has no idea how to motivate an athlete or has no experience with getting top results at the highest level!
After what I thought was a drug-riddled showing in the distance events in the 2000 Olympics I made a fundamental shift in my thinking as a coach—forget trying to find individuals with the physiological characteristics to be world beaters; work instead towards helping those athletes that choose you as a coach to become the best they can be. If one of those athletes turns out to be a world beater then so be it.
I am happy to say that I have since also been involved with athletes who make it to the very top – the answer lies in the acknowledgement that NO SINGLE FACTOR IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ALL THE REST. Holism is an easy word to toss around in a lecture or conversation with coaches & athletes, but a far harder principle to apply consistently with every athlete & yourself.
Most of us master of one or some of the facets that make up peak performance in endurance events & I know some coaches who have systems & people in place that manage close to all of them. However of all these facets that constitute success mental skills training is the most challenging to master.
Which athlete wants to own up to being a “head case”? Very, very few of us have the vulnerability & ego-checking capabilities of setting aside our desires of not being exposed & the guts to fully take on the very real risks of falling flat on our faces in the full on attempt required to be the very best we can be.
This process is like meditation or prayer – the minute one gets competitive with it one loses! The dialogue that leaves one’s mouth as an “explanation” of a subpar performance is ego driven & a futile exercise in avoidance of being exposed to oneself & others. Even the seemingly honest, “that’s all I had on the day” is pregnant with denial if there is information that indicates the performance failed to meet the standards set in training. The worst one for all involved of course is the “I tried my best” answer. Facing & fully experiencing failure honestly is at the very root of the learning process that makes champions of us all.
Add to this, the coach’s conundrum – they know the athlete failed mentally, the athlete knows they failed mentally & the athlete knows the coach knows! Yet, because of the many precipitating factors like avoidance of confrontation, the relationship (in terms of social environment), trust, frail egos & money, the partnership continues & the size of the elephant in the room continues to increase.
With every day a coach fails to address the obvious fact that the athlete needs to take on their mental & emotional limiters he/she is selling their athletes more & more short. Granted, if the cause of the failure is sufficiently severe & sourced in the athlete’s childhood, then the coach cannot become a psychiatrist. But can the coach become a parent of sorts? YES, if the athlete is willing.
The whole idea of consciously allowing kids to fail in a safe environment within a loving, empathic environment is so that they learn how to read situations & make smart choices when the chips are down & the consequences of failure are far more dire. (Can you tell I have a 3-year-old & I am using Love & Logic© principles!). Without an open honest relationship & a clear commitment to excellence, athletes & coaches CANNOT access the means by which the athlete may rise to a level commensurate with the athlete’s ability… Quite simply can not
Whether you are self-coached, coached or coach, if you want to experience the elation of crossing the finish line with a deep sense of knowing that you displayed full access to your talent, skills & fitness, then you must take on addressing your limiters. These may include mental & emotional hurdles that are largely unknown & unseen by you as the protagonist.
In every endurance event, 1st race to your ability & fitness levels & then, when you have gone as far & as fast as your physiology & pacing have allowed, then race & beat everyone around you, knowing that these athletes will include many with greater capabilities. In this way precious few with less talent will finish ahead of you. And many with more ability will end behind you – those who have less fortitude than that which you forged in the fire of ownership & hard graft.
Bobby McGee

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