Category Archives: base training

Psychological Skills – triathlete mind training

In this terrific excerpt reprinted with permission from Human Kinetics, Championship Triathlon Training, you’ll learn a few techniques to keeping your mind sharp and on task, a DEFINITE skill used by top athletes.

Psychological Skills
Many areas of life can produce psychoemotional difficulty or anxiety. Whether
it be flying in an airplane or speaking in front of a crowd, people admire those
who can perform without apparent difficulty. It’s often assumed that demonstrating
such skill and enjoyment in a task must be a God-given talent and not
something you can achieve for yourself. Yet a large body of scientific evidence
suggests that this is not the case. Those who do things with less anxiety and
more pleasure than others often have certain psychological skills specific to the
situation. These are skills you can set out to systematically develop and apply
in a given situation—often drawing on your own experiences in other areas of
life in which you have been successful. Typically these skills include the ability
to see potential outcomes with realistic optimism, to create sustained positive
behavioral change, to control and use positive self-talk in times of difficulty
or unexpected change, to enter a meditative state that can allow movement to
occur most effectively, to be able to produce physical relaxation and the full
expression of abilities, to develop a high level of self-efficacy regarding tasks
associated with sport, to deal with physical discomfort when desired, and to
be adaptive and able to change your perception of initially difficult situations
as you experience them.

High-Tech Cycling book cover

You can develop psychological skills by employing a systematic process
very similar to that used in developing physical skills. You begin by isolating
the skill and practicing it in an environment free of distractions and in which
you have maximum control, just as you might learn to hit a forehand shot
in tennis by banging a ball against a wall by yourself. If feedback on your
performance can be provided, the learning process progresses much more
quickly. The frequency of errors can be reduced and that of successful repetitions
increased. Hence you can focus on positive outcomes. In the example of
the tennis forehand, you are able to increase the number of hits and keep the
ball in play longer against the wall by making adjustments to your stroke and
seeing the immediate impact. As you strive to do better, the process becomes
its own game.

The same development process can be brought into play in the psychological
realm once you have defined the application of a skill and created measurable
outcomes that provide feedback. You can then extend the use of those skills
into progressively more challenging situations, ultimately extending them
to real-world applications. As you intertwine this psychological skill practice
into triathlon training, you will achieve the dual benefit of enhanced physical
and psychological responsiveness. For example, consider achieving physical
and psychological relaxation using a breathing technique, taking a slow nasal
breath over five seconds of inhalation and five seconds of exhalation. Feedback
on outcomes could be provided by measuring your heart rate in response and
creating an awareness of your self-talk. You could start the practice by performing the breathing in a comfortable environment with few distractions, with
the intent of lowering your stress level, using your heart rate as the measure.
You could then use the technique in more distracting environments, such as
during work, and then apply the technique to your movement during training
and ultimately to racing.

Examples of specific psychological techniques that are useful to triathletes
include realistic optimism as an approach to goal setting, performance visualization
and imagery to learn and refine movement skills, nasal and “belly”
breathing patterns combined with imagery to induce more effective respiration
and relaxation, desensitization to overcome anxiety-related aspects of training
and performance, belief systems and positive self-talk, and meditation to deal
with performance discomfort.

Realistic and Optimistic Goals
It’s easy to be optimistic when things are going well and within your control. It
becomes more difficult when things are not going well. However, multisport racing
and training do not always go well because, as in all life, some variables cannot be
anticipated. The realistic optimist in a given situation not only focuses on a positive
outcome but also immediately sets out to determine what factors he or she can control to get that outcome to occur. (Note that realism is essential to this total approach to training and racing. Thus, it is referred to repeatedly in this book.) This mind-set allows you to constructively respond to even very difficult situations. It also helps in determining the specific nature of goals you might set for training and competition. The mind-set can be created by planning for the accomplishment of challenging tasks associated with triathlon. Examples might include the completion of specific training efforts or challenging races. Developing a task orientation to success, in which you focus on the factors you can control, will help you meet your goal – whether it’s simply to finish a race or to beat your personal best time.

Creating Performance Expectations and Behavioral Change
Let’s say that you want to run a faster 10K race segment. You might determine
that to achieve that goal in training, you will need to achieve a faster 400-meter
time. Thus you will need to engage in a new or additional training process or
behavior, such as running some 400-meter target velocity intervals. Further,
you need to run those intervals regularly for a period of time before your target
race, thereby incorporating a series of short task goals in training that are likely
to help you achieve your long-term outcome goals. If you have positive experiences
in running intervals, making the change at this time will be quite easy
because you already have experienced the value of doing so. However, if you
have never run them before or have had negative experiences or beliefs associated
with pain, injury, embarrassment, or lack of effectiveness in running, the
task will be more challenging. Two things will be required: a stimulus for the
task and something to immediately reinforce the behavior. A location, training
time, and partner or coach make for excellent stimuli. The latter can also
be reinforcers if you choose the right people—those who can help you see the
positives in the process and who have value to you. But to continue to perform
the task over time, you must get intrinsic value from it in a way that offsets
potential negatives or drawbacks.

In a typical scenario, you might choose to run as fast as possible for 400 meters
several times until fatigue causes you to stop. While there may be an immediate
feeling of satisfaction in completing a difficult task, that is often offset by the
fatigue that occurs either immediately after the bout or later in the day and the
memory of the pain felt during the session. In later sessions of this unplanned,
unregulated type of training, cumulative fatigue will often prevent successful
duplication of the task. You end up failing on one or more levels again.
An alternative approach is to establish a realistic expectation of target times
or velocity for a realistic number of intervals. This should be based on abilities
or recent accomplishments in training rather than on the expectations of others.
Performance testing and a knowledgeable coach are helpful in identifying realistic
expectations. In this scenario it is also better to be conservative initially.
It’s much easier to set progressively higher goals in a training session (at the
microlevel—“Gee, I feel good today; let’s go a little faster than planned”) and
over the course of a training program (at the macrolevel—“Gee, I think that
I can set a lower time goal for the upcoming race than I did a month ago”).
Going backward—lowering expectations and reducing goals—is more difficult
and might have very negative long-term effects.

Run the intervals at the projected target velocity and distance and within
your current comfort zone, thereby meeting your basic training goal for the
session. Doing so provides the first significant intrinsic reinforcement. A key
will also be to reduce the inherent punishment of the situation—to accomplish
this kind of work without creating unacceptable pain, injury, or fatigue.

Objectively measure your efforts with a heart rate monitor and sense of
exertion to provide feedback. (Chapter 5 contains details on this.) In future
sessions, either increase the pace or run more intervals, but only as doing so
becomes easier to achieve. Make adjustments in small increments. An important
aphorism here, and actually for training in general, is “Gradual change
leads to permanent changes.”

The refinement inherent in training this way allows a high level of training
pleasure and is also a more effective approach physiologically, as discussed
in chapter 1. A strong coach or training partner can further the process by
providing external encouragement of your ability to meet the goal of running
a given pace and time rather than running as hard as you can. With
appropriate timing and recovery you will see progress in the successive sessions
in the form of lower effort and heart rate, improved recovery between
work bouts, and less fatigue as you perform the work. That way, you create
numerous intrinsic reinforcers in the process. You can further this reinforcement
by reviewing the outcomes in your training records. Finally, adapting
to the training will lead to improved race performance, possibly the strongest
reinforcing factor of all.

Periodically, however, issues you cannot control may interfere with your ability
to complete a task. Maybe one day the temperature is extremely high and
your heart rate is elevated. At that point you should be flexible in evaluating
your progress in your goal. If you do not modify expectations to match changed
environmental conditions, you may view such a session as a failure, which can
lead to a downward spiral of lack of motivation and the perception that you are
therefore a failure as an athlete. This can lead to the plan-disruption effect: If you
drop out of a planned workout just once, you consider the plan and yourself to
be failures. The program is broken and no longer exists for you. Consequently,
you give up on the new behavior.

To deal with this problem, outside assistance and technical expertise can be
very useful. An informed coach, for instance, will be able to reinforce the idea
that a given performance in more difficult conditions may be the equivalent of
actual improvement. Or you might conclude that you failed to get a good night’s
sleep the night before. Giving up in a hurry would be both a training mistake and
a missed opportunity to improve by developing a new skill. For instance, you
might need to focus on developing improved consistency in sleep and recovery
by modifying the sleep environment so that you can adapt to similar training
in the future. Of course, that would require additional behavioral change. Once
mistakes or failures are viewed optimistically as opportunities for improvement
through change rather than as failures, motivation can remain high. Another
way to put it is “When something that seems to be bad happens, try to use it
for good.” Alternatively, if you can see the “mistake” coming, by realizing early
that you are not ready for the set or session as it occurs, then you can also end
or modify the session, essentially making a midstream adjustment that will be
a more successful use of your efforts in the long run.

Training – Controlling Emotion and Thought

Race season is starting, you’re getting “geared” up, maybe a little anxious or nervous, maybe a little excited. Perhaps you are WAY nervous and excited, especially if this is your first race, not knowing what to expect. Before I go on let me tell you to expect to have fun.

This an appropriate excerpt for this time of year as your body has adapted to training and your mind wonders about the race. It’s an excerpt from Timothy Noakes’, The Lore Of Running.” If you’ve ever read or browsed the book you know it is a THOROUGH book on everything running.

Controlling Emotion
It is well documented in psychology texts that there are seven basic emotions: joy, sadness, anger, love, fear, shame, and surprise. Other emotions are regarded as combinations of these basic seven. The emotions you feel in any situation and how you respond to them will depend on four factors: your basic personality, how much control you have over your emotions, your emotional reactivity, and your flexibility. Control of these emotions is achieved by controlling the thoughts that cause them.

Renowned sport psychologist Thomas Tutko, formerly a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, has developed a technique to identify a person’s emotional profile and to indicate how that person will react according to seven separate psychological traits—desire, assertiveness, sensitivity, tension control, confidence, personal accountability, and self-discipline (Tutko and Tosi 1976).

1. Desire is the measure of your intent to be the best or to do your best. Those with low desire express an “I don’t care” attitude; those with high levels of desire are perfectionists. Both extremes are problematic, but it is the perfectionist who is more likely to persist in sport. Because perfectionists set goals that are unattainable, they live with a constant anxiety. Since they never achieve their goals, they are never content with their performances. To overcome this, perfectionists need to reassess their (unrealistic) goals and to realize that they are the cause of their anxiety. In turn, they need to focus on short-term goals, not the final results.

2. Assertiveness is the measure of the extent to which you believe you can influence the outcome of what you do. Those with low assertiveness are easily intimidated. They feel inadequate when someone else succeeds at their expense and they tend to support underdogs. Those with high assertiveness are known as killers. They frequently see sport participation as a “savage battle rather than an enjoyable challenge” (Tutko and Tosi 1976, page 68). Such activity is usually defensive since it is a front to protect a low self-esteem and the fear of being threatened or humiliated.

3. Sensitivity is the ability to enjoy sport without becoming overly disturbed at the outcome. Those with low sensitivity are known as stonewallers. Nothing can influence how they respond to any situation. In contrast, the supersensitive respond inappropriately and consider each failure, however slight, as a personal affront. The supersensitive must learn to separate the event from the emotional response that each evokes. Consequently, they are the most in need of training in emotional control.

4. Tension control is the measure of your ability to remain calm and focused under stress. Those with poor tension control are the nervous wrecks. They are unable to control their physical responses to stress. Because their motor function is impaired, they become relatively ineffective in sports that require high degrees of motor coordination. Those with excellent control are known as icebergs. Excessive tension control is detrimental if it prevents athletes from taking risks, from enjoying their participation, or from undertaking efforts to improve.

5. Confidence is the measure of your belief in your ability. Those with little confidence are insecure. Those with too much confidence are cocky. People are cocky either because they use bravado to cover an inner lack of confidence or because they truly believe that they are so talented that they need not work to achieve success.

6. Personal accountability is the measure of the extent to which you accept personal responsibility for your actions. Those with low personal accountability tend to hide behind alibis. Those with high personal accountability act as if “sports means always having to say I am sorry” (Tutko and Tosi 1976, page 84). Like the perfectionists, they feel guilty for everything except a perfect result.

7. Self-discipline is the measure of your willingness to develop and to persist with a personal game plan. Those with low self-discipline are known as the chaotics since they are unable to stick with any plan. Those with high self-discipline are known as the lemmings since their mental rigidity prevents them from changing their plans.

By grasping the extent to which each of us expresses these different traits, we gain a better understanding of our personal foibles and, in turn, learn how best to control our specific personalities in the heat of competition.

Controlling Thought
The thoughts we experience in sport are influenced by our concept of or attitude toward our opponents and ourselves. Attitudes are collections of thoughts and emotions that we have concerning others and ourselves, and these attitudes help determine the emotions we feel at any time. This can best be exemplified by returning to our previous example. The arrival of another athlete at your shoulder 10 km from the end of the Olympic marathon could stimulate two possible lines of thought that would result in quite different outcomes in the race. Clearly, the athlete who thinks, “This year I really thought I had it. I have worked so hard and now I have blown it. I really am a loser . . .” will drop off the pace and fall back. However, there is a far greater chance of success for the athlete who thinks, “Well, here she is. The woman they call the best marathon runner ever. And she has only been able to catch me after 32 km. I will just tuck in behind the about-to-become ex-number one, let her do the work for a change, and see if I can break her later. After all, my 10-km time is as good as hers, and in a close finish I have the crowds behind me as they always back the upstart.”

The difference between a strong or weak belief system is determined by your self-concept (what you believe about yourself), which is, in turn, established by your record of past performances, your body image (what you honestly believe you can achieve in sport), and the attitude that the significant people in your life (such as your parents, partner, friends, and coaches) have toward you and your participation in sport. The self-concept can be further divided into what you really think about yourself (your real self) and what you would like to be (your ideal self).

How the significant others in your life influence your performance can be shown by extending the imaginary example a little further. Had you fallen off the pace in the last 10 km of the Olympic marathon, your coach or other important person in your life might have said the following to you, “You really were awful. We were sure you had it sewn up and then you let that overrated athlete beat you. How could you?”

This type of verbal abuse is likely to stimulate one of the following responses: “He is right. I really am a loser. I will never win a major marathon,” or, “No, he is wrong. I ran my heart out. But he couldn’t know. Now I am more determined than ever to show them what I can do.” (A third response may be to rid yourself of any persons who could be stupid enough to express themselves in that way.)

Our next step must be to analyze the self-concept and to discover how it is possible to improve those areas in which there may be specific weaknesses.”