That Triathlon Show - Episode 4
Motivation, mindset and the importance of psychology in triathlon with Dr. Justin Ross
Dr. Justin Ross is a psychologist specializing in, among other things, sports and performance psychology. He is a founding member of health psychology and counseling center MindBodyHealth in Denver, Colorado. Dr. Ross is an active triathlete and endurance athlete himself, and his list of personal athletic achievements includes qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
In today's show we discuss:
- The importance of psychology and mindset in triathlon
- The process you can take if you want to start working on your mental game - starting from scratch to some advanced level tips and tricks
- Motivation for triathletes
- What visualization is, who should do it, and how to do it?
- What mental tricks you can do just before or during a race to improve performance
Note: We had some connection issues at some point during the interview, so go ahead and skip ahead a minute or two when those connection issues occur. Justin has provided the information we missed after the fact, and it's included in the shownotes below.
How importance is psychology and mindset in triathlon training and racing?
- Mindset and psychology in endurance sports is huge. Everything starts in the mind. Just consider the fact that before you actually start training for your first event you decide in your mind that "I want to do that event".
- The big difference between beginners and advanced athletes is not in the importance of mindset, but rather in how anxiety is processed and what their focus is.
Beginners tend to have anxiety related to the newness of triathlon, and not knowing the open water swim, going through transitions, and so on, is going to be like.
An advanced athlete's mindset is more performance-oriented, so for them having the right mindset and training this skill helps them reach their performance goals.
- What you say in your mind really matters. You are going to hit patches in a race or in training when it's tough and you don't feel good. If your thoughts and self-talk during those patches are negative, like "This is painful and uncomfortable, I can't push through this", your performance will suffer.
What you should do is to use positive self-talk and positive, cognitive appraisal in these situations. In doing so, you will learn to tolerate this discomfort.
How do you get started with mental training and training you mind?
- First understand and get awareness of what mental skills you already have in place. You may not use them in triathlon at the moment, but maybe in other areas of your life. Knowing this is fundamental, as it sets the direction for your upcoming mental training.
- Start paying attention to what thoughts are going through your mind in different situations, both in everyday life and in triathlon training. This will enable you to do something about these thoughts if they are holding you back.
Motivation and goal-setting for triathletes
- You need to know your why. What is the purpose of triathlon in your life? For some triathletes, their why may be qualifying for Kona. For others it may be finishing their first sprint distance race.
- We often lose sight of our why over the course of a long training cycle, and that's when we can get demotivated. At these points, try to really reconnect with your why and see it clearly.
- Specific goals are very important for keeping your motivation up. Why is a particular race important to you? Why does a certain time goal matter to you?
Having this clear and crisp goal at the top of your mind at times when you maybe otherwise wouldn't be motivated to train is what can help you get the training done anyway, and get your motivation back on track.
But importantly, this only really works with clear, specific goals. Vague goals grabbed right out of the air won't give you the same effect.
- How big a goal you set, and for how far out in the future is very individual, and also depends a lot on time in the sport.
For almost all beginners, the goal is to finish the race, enjoy the race, and have fun in triathlon. A problem many beginners run into is setting semi-random time goals that don't really mean anything to them.
Working with a coach is a great way to set meaningful, appropriately challenging but achievable goals.
Goals that are too easy are not good goals. A goal that's just beyond your comfort level will make you push yourself that much more and reach a higher level.
In racing, you should have A, B and C goals. The A-goal is what you can maybe achieve if all stars align. The B-goal and C-goal get progressively less challenging from there, but set you up to still have something to work towards if your A-goal turns out to be out of reach.
What can you do to mentally prepare yourself before a race and in a race?
- You should practice your mental skills along with and during your training. It's a long-term project. You can't just show up on race day and think that you'll be able to suddenly have your mental game figured out.
- Visualize yourself being successful, being fluid, being free of anxiety, and successfully working through discomfort.
- Use positive self-talk. During training, pay attention to the messages going through your head. Are they positive or negative? Turning negative self-talk into positive can in itself lead to performance gains.
- Work on calming the stress-response in your body through mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness and meditation practice works as "recovery" for your mind, which allows it to "grow stronger" from the stresses placed on it during training (where you're working on visualization and positive self-talk). This is a direct analogy to how you grow stronger by recovering from your workouts.
Visualization in triathlon
- Use times that you're not training but thinking about your sport to visualize yourself moving fluidly. Picture how your swim stroke is smooth, you're running with good mechanics, and you're not tensing up on the bike.
- You also work on visualization in training sessions. Go through some body-checking to make sure you are moving the way you visualize yourself moving.
- So you can practice visualization every time you train, and also a little bit every day outside of your training.
- You should also visualize yourself executing your goal race. Picture yourself in the race as how you want it to be and how you want to perform. But don't focus just on what it will look like if everything goes right. Visualize yourself responding well to different situations that might come up that aren't ideal, and you'll be much better prepared to deal with challenges on race day.
Takeaways - what can you start working on now to improve your mental game and improve as a triathlete
- Pay really close attention to your thoughts and to what's going on in your mind.
- Log these thoughts in your training log so you get a track record of what's happening in your mind.
- Then you can start looking at your log and start noticing patterns and themes. This will allow you to start working on the areas of your mental game that needs working on.
- Triathletes that start working on their mental game early tend to be the ones that see the most success, and they will also enjoy the sport more.
- Remember that sports psychology is about helping you be successful and improve performance. Going to a sports psychologist does not mean that anything is wrong with your mental game, so don't be afraid to reach out to a sports psychologist and see if it seems like something that can help you.
- Favorite book, blog or resource: The Finding Mastery podcast with Michael Gervais.
- Favorite piece of gear or equipment: The body.
- Sports psychology practice Justin uses the most right now: The thought "Everything happens twice. First in the mind, then in the world." For triathlon training, use it to think about how your workout is going to play out, and that is then going to be realized.
- Favorite race: Kona and Boston Marathon. The Olympics for the everyday endurance athlete.
- What do you wish you had known, or wish you had done differently at some earlier point in your triathlon journey? Started swimming earlier, and not as an adult.
Links and resources mentioned on the show
Connect with Justin:
- In January 2017 Justin is starting a series of sports psychology webinars. One series will be for runners and one for triathletes. Follow the MindBodyHealth website for updates.
- The easiest way to connect is on Twitter, Justin's handle is @PsychDenver
- Check him out on the MindBodyHealth website
Learn more about That Triathlon Show
That Triathlon Show is a weekly live and on-demand interview show from Scientific Triathlon. It’s designed to help age-group triathletes discover ways to train smarter, race faster and achieve their triathlon and fitness goals.
You can check out the schedule of upcoming episodes and the complete archive of previous episodes here.
What's unique about That Triathlon Show is the fact that you can submit your questions to the expert guest during the live interview and get answers in real-time from some of the greatest minds in the sport. As a subscriber, you can also send in your questions ahead of time, to make sure your question get answered even if you can't attend the show live.