Realizing Your Potential
Whether you’ve been preparing for an important Olympic race in Atlanta, or training to do "30 something" in the 10K, or working out for fun or fitness, there’s an element of training you’re probably neglecting. If you read the sports literature, you’ll learn about everything from Achilles tendon care to updating your heart rate monitor software. However, you may not be putting an adequate amount of time into the psychological aspects of your training. Mental preparation can do for the mind what stretching does for the body. It can make all the difference in how you experience your workouts and racing. Yet it is a skill that even the best conditioned athletes fail to practice sufficiently.
Common Concerns for Athletes
As a top endurance athlete I have been racing for the past 20 years, and I have worked with athletes of all levels doing sports psychology, coaching, and stress management. I have worked with Olympians, with novices and serious life long athletes. No matter what level of ability, I have found that the same kinds of problems arise: Lack of motivation, self-doubt, stress and nervousness before races, low self-esteem, fear of recurring injuries, weight concerns, performance slumps, and lack of balance in one’s life. We heard athletes talk about these issues in Atlanta during Olympic Centennial Moments: Kerri Strug coming through under pressure to clinch the U.S. women’s team gold medal in gymnastics, then struggling with frustration when her ankle injury kept her out of the all-around competition.
An External or Internal Fix?
When I give professional seminars at corporations or running clinics people inevitably ask me: "So what’s the secret; what’s the magic potion that’s going to produce that quantum leap in performance?" Everyone is looking for an external fix: that special nutritional supplement, the titanium bicycle, the rocketing gold track shoes of Michael Johnson, or the golden arching 2-inch fingernails of Gail Devers. You may be thinking: "If only Nike would design for me a pair of custom golden shoes maybe I could run a 19.32 world record in the 200 meters." Those things brought Gail and Michael the gold medals, right? However, if you took a good look into their eyes as they were warming up, stretching, approaching the starting blocks, and executing their events, you could appreciate their sense of unwavering focus, drive, and internal strength which brought them the results they were looking for. As Gail Devers said right before her final heat in the 100 meters: "All I’m thinking about is what I have to do right now in this race. I’m just here to take care of business." So the good news is that you already have all the resources you need to produce the results you want. They’re all right inside your head. It’s just a matter of developing those mental skills just as you have your physical endurance.
I Could Have a Major Breakthrough?
Let’s say your next race is two days away. No amount of physical training between now and the race will make a significant improvement in the outcome (except of course overtraining, which may well hinder your performance). However, the techniques which I will discuss in this on sports psychology have the potential of giving you a major breakthrough in both your workouts and in competitions. You can experience substantial growth as an athlete and have more fun and enjoyment as well. You’ll learn to train smarter, with more intensity, and yet reduce risk of injury because you’ll gain a new sensitivity to your body’s signals. You can develop the ability to train with a sense of relaxed concentration so that your mind and body are 100% in the present moment, focusing solely on the task at hand. You can begin to tune into a channel of energy that perhaps you’ve never experienced before and broaden your perspective of what is possible. The greatest barriers in our quest to excel are the psychological ones that we impose on ourselves, often unconsciously. Whether it’s the fear of that recurring knee pain, or worry about going out to fast in the first mile of a race, or hitting the wall at mile 20 of the marathon, we each have some mental/physical block to overcome. With proper and regular mental training you can learn to work through these obstacles and enhance your self-confidence. You’ll find that as your beliefs about your limits change, the limits themselves begin to move. Beliefs give rise to reality.
Critical Mental Skills for Optimal Performance
Take for example two runners with similar physical capabilities (e.g. same max. heart rate, biomechanical make-up, ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibers, etc.). One becomes an Olympian and the other ends up as a mediocre runner, never making it beyond a few local races. Why do they run significantly different times when they have virtually the same bodies? The answer lies in one’s motivation and in using what one has to the fullest capacity. My personal experience in consulting with top athletes over the past 20 years has taught me that there is a collection of mental skills and attributes, all of which are learned, not inherited, which are characteristic of successful performers. These are the cardinal skills which anyone can acquire. They include:
1. Creating an inner desire: Each great human accomplishment begins with some kind of vision or dream. There needs to be a hunger, a fire inside which fuels your passion to achieve an important goal, regardless of your ability level. Where the mind goes, everything else follows. Making a personal commitment to excel in your sport: To improve in anything, your business, a relationship, or your sport, you must decide to make it a priority in your life. At some point you must say, I want to be really good at this; I want this to work. To notice significant growth you must live this commitment and regularly stretch what you perceive to be your current limits.
2. Being self-directed and motivated: One’s personal direction and drive needs to come from within. You must want to do it for yourself, not for your parents, your coach, or for the medals. The goals must be ones that you have chosen because that’s exactly what you want to be doing.
3. Ability to handle adversity: Rather than avoiding pressure you feel challenged by it. You are calm and relaxed under fire. When the odds are against you this becomes another chance to explore the outer limits of your potential. Setbacks become an opportunity for learning; they set the scene for deep personal growth.
4. Having a positive outlook: Your focus is fixed on what is possible, on what can happen, on success. Rather that complaining about the weather or criticizing the competition, the mentally trained athlete attends to only those things which he can control.
5. Being focused and yet relaxed: You have the ability to maintain concentration for long periods of time. You can tune in what’s critical to your performance and tune out what’s not. You can easily let go of distractions and take control of your attention.
6. Ability to self-energize: Regardless of personal problems, fatigue, or difficult circumstances, you can generate the optimal amount of excitement and energy to do your best. Because you love what you do it becomes easy to maintain a healthy consistency in training and in racing. The athletes who develop and practice these skills regularly have the best chance of excelling in athletics as well as personal and professionally. Sport offers a wonderful chance to free ourselves for short periods and experience intensity and excitement not readily available elsewhere in our lives. In endurance sports we can live out our quest for personal control by seeking out and continuously meeting challenges that are within our capability. Each of us begins at a different starting point physically and mentally. The true challenge lies in personal growth, enjoying the pursuit of your goals.
by JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., Sports Psychologist
JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., is a nationally known licensed psychologist, past winner of the San Francisco Marathon and has placed 2nd in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. To receive her
Optimal Performance Vizualization Tape, send a check for $15.00 to: JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D, 3341 Brittan Ave., #10 San Carlos,