Podcast, Psychology

Practical application of sports psychology for triathletes with Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter | EP#108

 March 8, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Practical application of sports psychology for triathletes with Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter | EP#108

Dr. JoAnn is a sports psychologist with 5 Olympic Gold Medalist clients, and the #1 Best-selling author of the book “Your Performing Edge”. In this episode, she shares practical ways to apply sports psychology to improve your performance in triathlon and endurance sports. 

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Dr. JoAnn's own examples of applying sports psychology in races like the Ironman World Championships (in which she has finished second). 
  • Examples of how age-groupers and elite athletes she coaches have learnt to use and benefit from sports psychology.
  • How and when to use visualisation.
  • The 3 P's - Positive image, Power words, and Present focus. 

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About Dr JoAnn Dahlkoetter

0:29 - 

  • Dr JoAnn is a sports psychologists and a licensed clinical psychologist.
  • She's an Olympic performance coach with 5 Olympic gold medalist clients.
  • She's the number one best selling author of 'Your Performing Edge' .
  • She was also an elite athlete herself, her career highlights include:
    • Winning the San Francisco marathon.
    • Finishing 2nd in the Hawaii Ironman Championships.
  • She has been an expert guest on Oprah!

Impact of sports psychology on performance

4:40 -

  • The best example I have is my own story, which is where I realised how powerful sports psychology and mental training is.
    • When I was doing my first Hawaii Ironman triathlon in October 1982 it was the longest distance I'd ever done.
    • I'd done some mental training but things don't always turn out as planned.
    • The race started, I did the swim and got off the bike and I was exhausted, I was ready to quit!
    • It was the hottest part of the day and I started to think "why did I even sign up for this?"
    • I was walking, and the woman behind me who I'd beaten in races previously even passed me, I thought I've got to do something.
    • Then I remembered from my mental training that you can go to a time in your mind when you felt good and strong and draw energy from that experience.
    • So I thought about when I won the San Francisco marathon 2 years previously, visualised myself there.
    • I was able to cool down my body by visualising running in the fog, I was mentally relaxed and physically focused - I won the race that day and ran 20 minutes faster than I'd ever run before.
    • Then I found I was able to run again. I started the marathon in 19th place and with that visualisation the momentum kept building - I moved to 14th, then 10th, then 5th place.
    • I got to the turnaround and everyone looked tired but I felt good and moved into 3rd place.
    • Then I overtook the previous winner and eventually came in second place!
  • What we can learn from that is: visualise to energise.
    • Go to a time when you were strong and feel that now to bring the energy in.
  • There's a lot of research showing the mind doesn't know the difference between something that's happening and something we're imagining.
    • You can use that mind body connection to accomplish what you want to do.
  • Elite athlete example: Shannon Rowbury, who was a 1500 m runner in the 2012 Olympics in London.
    • She was worried about getting boxed in. She wanted to feel more aggressive and be able to hold her own space.
    • I worked with her using a number of techniques, e.g. thinking of an animal that embodies the qualities you want to have in the race - she said tiger.
      • We went to YouTube and looked at videos of tigers and the look in their eye when they're focused on their prey.
      • It's total laser focus, and also aggression - whatever you need to get your goal.
    • I had her study the tiger and through our visualisations she felt a lot stronger on the track, and felt more focused.
    • It was able to transform her running and she did really well in the Olympics.
  • Age group example: a female triathlete I worked with who was fearful of being able to finish an Ironman.
    • It's a long daunting distance!
    • We used the 'magnet technique': when looking at a runner in front of you that you want to pass, imagine putting a magnet on their back.
    • So instead of you working hard, imagine the magnet is drawing you effortlessly towards the person.
    • She used that technique several times to stay in contact with runners.
    • Then on hills you can put the magnet at the top of the hill, or put the magnet on the finish line when you're nearing it.
    • It's a very powerful technique and this lady was able to do really well in her first Ironman.
    • It helped take away the fear and anxiety knowing she had a technique and could use her mind to get a better performance out of her body.
  • I'm currently working with some cross-country skiers who are at the Winter Olympics.
    • Working on being able to warm up the body by imagining yourself in a warm place.
    • Also using the magnet technique.
    • One athlete I worked with was engaging in a lot of negative thinking - e.g. "there's too much pressure here", "the stakes are too high" - in the Olympics the whole world is watching you.
      • I worked with him to be able to look at the other competitors just like you are. When you see another competitor, say "just like me" to remind yourself that you're similar.
        • E.g. "That other athlete has ups and downs, just like me"
      • Age groupers can apply the same technique when they're racing. Everyone is just human, they're not a formidable force.

Is the battle won or lost on the mental side?

15:59 - 

  • I agree that it's mostly the mental side - the performance is 90% mental.
  • 10% of our experience is what happens to us, 90% is how we perceive it.
  • This is good news because we have so many techniques that can help turn things around.
  • I use a technique where I have athletes take a piece of paper a draw a line down the centre.
    • They put their negative thoughts and their self-doubts on the left - e.g. I'm never going to get faster.
    • With each negative thought, on the right hand side you put a 'power word statement' which is a positive reframe of the negative thought.
    • E.g. Negative thought = 'I'm never going to get better'. Power statement: 'I'm making progress everyday'
  • We can't change our circumstances all the time but we can change our thoughts and emotions which impact how we see things.
  • Feelings are what emotions generate.
    • E.g. anxiety could be an emotion about racing, but you can change the feeling into excitement.
  • Before a race starts, it's important to have a ritual or a routine to get yourself into the right frame of mind.
  • Age group athletes can achieve the same mental strength as elite athletes - we all have the same mental capabilities.
    • E.g. Before a race if you're not getting excited enough you could jump around - swimmers do this a lot.
    • E.g. If you're too anxious/panicked, you can use deep abdominal breathing to relax. As you breathe in, breathe in one quality that you do want (e.g. breathe in strength), and as you breathe out, breathe out tension. Next breathe, breathe in confidence - choose a quality that you do want, and as you breathe out let go of unwanted thoughts.
    • Using these techniques you can help self-regulate your energy levels to find your sweet spot.

Improving your mental strength in triathlon

20:45 - 

  • In my book Your Performing Edge I talk about the 3 'P's' which I would recommend age group athletes use to focus on.
  • The first 'P' is Positive images:
    • See yourself doing something right, because we normally mentally rehearse something going wrong which is what your body will follow.
    • E.g. if you're starting the swim and you're saying "I hope my goggles don't fall off" repeatedly, you're mentally rehearsing that scenario and your body will follow those mental instructions.
    • Whereas, if you see yourself entering the water and everything going right, your brain will follow that.
  • The second 'P' is Power words.
    • Use your thoughts and your words to reinforce your goals.
    • The mental mistake most of us make is saying what we don't want (e.g. "Don't get a flat tyre" or "don't die on the run") because you're reinforcing that.
    • You want to say what you do want to happen in the present tense. (e.g. "I'm riding smoothly on the bike and everything is going well" or "I'm drawing in more energy").
    • You don't want to say things like "I'm a great athlete" because it's too abstract and far out, it's better to say something with an 'ing' at the end such as "I'm becoming a better athlete" which is more dynamic and forward focused.
  • The third 'P' is Present focus.
    • This is how to be right here, right now, in the present moment.
    • We're usually thinking about the past, what you should have done, or worrying about the future.
    • The present moment is all we can control anyway!
    • For example, in an Ironman using present focus in each discipline so you're not thinking about the finish line from the start
    • Chunk it down to one thought - your brain can only take in small bits of information at the time.
  • A way to remember the three P's is: See it, say it, do it.

    What has worked for JoAnn

    26:50 - 

    • In the marathon I was so tired, and this was back in '82 so it was before we had fancy sports drinks to use for energy, so I kept saying "just this person" about competitors in front of me to push me to stay with them or overtake them.
    • I would also say to myself "I'm getting closer to the finish line".
    • Half way through the marathon instead of 13 miles to go I'd say 12.9 miles to go as psychologically it sounds better than 13.
      • As I got closer I'd say 5.9 miles to go, 4.9 miles to go, and chunk it down.
    • Even though you're so tired, I would also say to myself "I'm gaining more energy" and imagine a funnel on my head directly feeding energy.
    • Bargaining with yourself can make it a mental game - and one you can win!

    Practicing visualisation

    28:59 - 

    • The best time to practice visualisation is before you go to bed at night.
      • Research shows that what we're thinking about before bed is what we dream about.
    • For example, when I'm working with athletes and on my website, I talk about how you can make a custom visualisation.
      • You can do this yourself by thinking of your best performance in the past, or an upcoming race, and bring in all five senses to the experience.
      • You can record it and listen to it yourself, or relive it in your mind before you go to bed and your subconscious can then work on it for the next 8 hours.
    • I used this technique myself before the Ironman when I wanted to improve my swim.
      • I watched underwater videos of the UC Berkeley women's swim team 5 minutes before I went to sleep at night.
      • I'd be processing that throughout the night and when I got up and went swimming I had a better feel for the water and my times got faster.

    Evidence base of performance benefit from mental skills

    31:02 - 

    • There's a lot of studies showing that using mental imagery can make a physiological difference in the body.
    • Studies show that if you're just doing one session of mental skill work (e.g. visualisation), it's not going to make much difference, but if you're doing it every day for 8-12 days you'll see a significant improvement in performance.
    • We need to build this into our regular training. Allow time for mental training and make it a structured part of your workouts.
      • You can do your mental training while you're working out.
      • Studies show that athletes who use visualisation while they're doing the exercise (e.g. swimming or cycling) will see performance improvements.
    • There are also really powerful studies with participants who have cancer and those that use visualisation to imagine the good cells eating the cancer cells in their body see a vast improvement.

    Rapid fire questions

    31:48 - 

    • What is your favourite book, blog, or resource related to endurance sports or sports psychology?
      • Of course my book Your Performing Edge is very helpful! It has lots of triathlon examples and is very oriented to mental training.
      • Also, Triathlon Science, which is published by Human Kinetics. It's very research oriented and gives lots of techniques for triathletes. I was invited to write the chapter on mental training.
    • What's a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
      • At nighttime we tend to have all kinds of worries and anxieties so I'll tend to do a 'brain dump' half an hour before bedtime and write down everything that's going on in my mind. It's almost like clearing out the trash in your brain. Then I make sure that I don't have any screen time half an hour before bed as this disrupts your sleep.
      • You can use that half an hour to do your visualising - imagining the next day and what your workout is going to be like, so I'll do that.
      • Also feeling grateful! Think of three things I'm grateful for, instead of thinking about the hard workout the next day, think of it as a gift that you can be active. Being grateful we can swim, bike and run!
      • If we get sore from running, we can shift to swimming - being grateful for this flexibility.
    • What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career?
      • I wish I'd started competitive swimming earlier because it's a sport where it's good to know the technique. If you have the correct technique when you're young it can really help you early on.
      • I wish women had more opportunities - we didn't have as many opportunities for coaching when I was growing up. Women are getting a lot more recognition now.
      • When women started to get on the cover for magazines such as Runners World or Triathlon magazine, that really inspired me to participate in the sport which was awesome.

    Key takeaway

    • The three P's: positive image, power words and present focus.
      • They are a simple way to illustrate what you should be focusing on and how you can improve your mental strength and psychology to your advantage in training and racing.
    • From Triathlon Science: There was a study done where one of the groups just visualised going to the gym and doing strength exercises, and that alone caused a 13.5% increase in muscle strength.
      • So say you go to the gym and your max is a 100kg squat. A few weeks later if you do this after regularly visualising it you could lift 113kg without doing any physical training!
      • The group that did strength training had a 30% increase.
      • They unfortunately didn't have a combined group which would have been interesting, but it shows the power of visualisation.

    Links, resources & contact

    Links and resources mentioned

    Connect with Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter

    • On her website where you can find lots of free resources, and information about individual mental skills coaching/sport psychology coaching. This can be done online. 
    • If you're interested in sports psychology, Dr. JoAnn also has a certification program which you can find more information about on this website. 
    • On her YouTube channel: Performing Edge.
    • On Facebook
    • On Twitter: @DrJoAnnDahl.

    Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


    Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

    I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

    I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

    I sincerely want you to contact me to

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    Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 

    Mikael Eriksson

    I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

    Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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