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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.