I’ve always believed the main reason I’m good at triathlon is because I’m strong mentally and because I don’t give up, even when things aren’t going my way. I know I’ll never quit and it would take something enormous to stop me finishing a race. However, looking back at my race in Ironman South Africa in April, with hindsight I realize that I’d effectively lost the race before I even started.
Yes, I was going into the race with an injury that may impact on my run. However, both in the run up to the race and during it, I was spending all my mental energy focusing on the injury and the negative effects it might have, rather than concentrating on how I would optimize my strengths. I was starting Ironman South Africa as a participant, not a racer. Deep down I didn’t believe I would finish. And as such, when the going got tough I was never going to be able to squeeze out that extra percent that makes the difference between a decent performance and my best performance.
I’ve never really thought about sports psychology before. I kind of figured that it couldn’t be that difficult. My head was my weapon. I didn’t need help with it. But after South Africa I realized that perhaps I wasn’t as mentally strong as I thought I was. I realized that I’d talked myself out of that race before the starting gun went off and while it was a solid performance, looking back I think my head limited me just as much as, if not more so, than my injury. So when a friend, who has just completed a sports psychology masters, offered to do a few one to one sessions with me, I figured what was there to lose.
I didn’t really know what to expect to be honest and some part of me thought it might all be a bit wishy-washy for my liking. But I trust Helen implicitly so went into it with an open mind. I guess if you’re going to embark on something like this you have to buy into it wholeheartedly from the start otherwise there’s no point. We started off with an open ended chat to identify some areas which I might benefit from working on, and one of the first things we discovered was that, deep down, I lack confidence in my abilities as an athlete. I hold some deep-seated beliefs which, when I actually write them down on paper, are completely irrational. In general I would class myself as being extremely rational so the simple process of disputing these beliefs with a pen on paper was an easy way to help me overcome some of them. Much of the work we did focused on developing my confidence. We identified things that build my confidence and others that detract from my confidence and then discussed tricks I could use to build a more robust confidence, particularly in the run up to a race. We even went as far as putting together a plan for race week, which incorporated mental, emotional and environmental (such as friends or training sessions) strategies, aiming to optimize my confidence levels and get me absolutely buzzing for a ‘smashfest’.
So running into Ironman 70.3 Staffs, I had a plan I could work off in race week, aiming to dispel negative thoughts and cultivate positive thoughts. And it helped. Come race day I was raring to go and felt more confident and excited than I have been about racing in almost a year. I’d only been back running 2 or 3 weeks but that wasn’t something I was thinking about. Even if my run training had been 5/10 I was absolutely ready to give it 5/5 on the day.
As it turned out the race couldn’t have been a better test of my psychology work. My bike leg was eventful in every sense. So many things went wrong, including a massive wipeout 10 miles in, and it felt as though it was just going to be one of those days when fate was conspiring against me. I would never have quit, but I do believe, without the psychology work, that I would have settled for less than the win. I absolutely believe, hand on heart that the win last weekend was down to my head as much as my body. The psychological tricks I’ve developed over the last few months allowed me to overcome obstacle after obstacle, and when I started the run 2.5 mins behind the leader, for the first time in what feels like a long time I raced the run rather than survived it. In comparison to my best run form I wasn’t going fast. But I was going as fast as I could on the day. It was a 5/5 run. And my head was in a completely different place to where it was in South Africa. I was racing the race and this time I backed myself.
Sports psychology works. It’s a discipline of triathlon I wish I’d started working on years ago. Until now I’ve invested all my energy training my body. Moving forwards I’m going to allocate a little bit of that focus to training my mind too!