Podcast, Psychology, Racing

6 ways triathletes self-sabotage mentally with Dr. Patrick Cohn | EP#51

 August 21, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

6 ways triathletes self-sabotage mentally with Dr. Patrick Cohn | EP#51

Triathletes are prone to mental self-sabotage. This ruins their chances of race success.

Dr. Patrick Cohn, a master mental game coach with Peak Performance Sports, explains the six most common ways athletes self-sabotage mentally, and what you can do to avoid it.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Placing strict expectations on performance and striving for perfection
  • What to do with pre-race jitters
  • Worrying about results, outcomes, and what others think
  • Proactively building confidence


About Dr. Patrick Cohn

01:03 -

​1. Placing strict expectations on your performance

03:10 -

  • Often expectations and confidence get rolled into one concept for triathletes where if they expect to do well, then they should be confident.
  • I tend to pull these two terms out for athletes and get them to understand that what they really want is the pure essence of confidence because expectations lead to them placing standards, or what I call the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”
  • "I shouldn’t make any mistakes", for example, or "I should have the perfect pacing" are a couple of examples of expectations that athletes have. And then when they don’t, they judge their performance and either doubt themselves or become frustrated.
  • The pure essence of confidence is a belief in your ability to execute your skills and race plan without the dire and strict expectations about performing to an exact standard.

2. Leaving self-confidence to chance

05:15 -

  • This is a big challenge with athletes because they tend to wait. I call it taking a backseat approach. They’re not driving their own confidence.
  • They take a backseat approach, where confidence is depending on how they feel that day. Or maybe even how they felt that week in their training, the day of competition or prior to the race, or even in the opening moments of the race. They tend to wait to see how well they’re feeling, how well they’re doing, and how well their performance is.
  • Thus, they allow their confidence to react to how they’re feeling.
  • The problem here is, if the stars don’t align and everything isn’t going great that week in training, in the warm-up, in the opening minutes of competitions, then the athletes tend to struggle with their confidence.
  • This is what I mean by leaving confidence to chance. They’re not really proactive and driving their own confidence like they should be.

What are some tips and tools that you can use to drive your self-confidence and be proactive about it?

06:31 -

Proactive confidence is about:

  • Number 1. Making sure that you understand where your sources of confidence are. What this means is focusing on your talents, abilities, and strengths rather than what your competitors have.
  • Number 2. Positive self-talk before the race. Making sure that it is enhancing your confidence. This means you don’t want to have a lot of doubt and question marks about how you’re going to do in the race.
  • Number 3. Having a race plan that is something you believe in that’s going to help you perform at your best in each discipline.

3. Worrying too much about results or outcomes

08:09 -

  • This is standard for many athletes because we live in a very outcome oriented society. A lot of athletes focus too much on their position, where they’re going to be at the end of each discipline, at the end of the race, and the times they are going to have.​
  • So, they get so wrapped up into the outcome that they’re not able to fully focus on the process.
  • I teach athletes how to focus on the process and what to focus on in the process.
  • In the opening minutes of the swim it’s really not about where you’re going to be when you come out of the water. It’s not about where you’re going to be in relation to the field or what the time is going to be.
  • It’s really about what you’re going to do one stroke at a time in the swim, your pacing, your tempo, and staying on top of the water. These are really simple things that you can focus on in the process.

How do you get into this kind of mindset?

09:19 -

  • Setting objectives. What’s going to help you have your best pacing or best power output in the bike? What are the cues you need to focus on?​
  • Not everybody is perfect with these and it’s okay. You simply have to be able to recognize when you start thinking about outcomes and numbers that you have to pull it back to the present moment and focus on that current section of the course.
  • It’s common for athletes to think ahead, but make sure you understand that it’s not that relevant, and be able to pull your focus back into the moment.

4. Misinterpreting pre-race jitters

10:43 -

  • Once again, another common misconception for athletes is they get those common pre-race jitters, and they think they are anxious or fearful in some way.
  • But really, the pre-race jitters for the majority of athletes are just a way to get excited, to get pumped, to get adrenaline, and to have the energy and thus the focus to perform your best.
  • So we teach athletes that you have to embrace those pre-race jitters as something that is going to be more helpful. It’s like reframing or turning around your interpretation of how you feel before the race.
"Pre-race jitters are common things your body does to get ready for competition."

5. Worrying too much about what others think

12:55 -

  • I often find what’s associated with perfectionism is a concept we call social approval.​
  • Social approval is simply worrying too much about what others think. This comes in two forms.
  • We find that perfectionist athletes tend to want approval, want to be respected, want to be liked by other competitors or coaches. This often can get in the way.
  • On the flipside, there’s athletes that fear embarrassing themselves, fear being rejected or looking silly for example.
  • They’re both the same thing, they’re just different sides of the same coin.
  • Everybody wants to be liked or respected, but where it really becomes a problem for racers is they become distracted by it and we find that it’s a source of pressure and fear of failure for athletes.
  • If I’m out there racing because I don’t want to disappoint a coach, or I don’t want to embarrass myself by finishing poorly in front of my competitors, that’s going to be a huge source of pressure for athletes.
  • One of the triathletes that I’ve worked with said, “I spend too much time watching others watch me.” This crystallizes the whole problem with worrying too much about what others think. It's a problem I call "mind reading".
  • Mind reading is when you’re just thinking about what other competitors are thinking about you. It’s irrelevant, it’s a distraction, and it has nothing to do with executing your race plan.

Do you have any tips that people can use to get out of this mindset?

15:30 -

  • Stop the mind reading. Recognize the moment you’re thinking about others and how others are evaluating you. Tell yourself that this is not relevant. This is like a refocusing strategy.​
  • I often tell athletes, “Look, you know what, they have their own stuff. They’re into their mind, their own race plan. They’re too busy to really focus and evaluate you. So, it’s a little irrational to think that everybody is watching and evaluating you when they have their own race to run.

6. Striving to perform perfectly

16:17 -

  • One of the things about perfectionism is it has some clear advantages when it comes from the training mindset, the work ethic, the motivation, commitment, goal-setting, etc.
  • But what many perfectionists don’t realize is that there are some downsides to perfection.
  • They have extremely high expectations so that they become easily frustrated with their performance.
  • They often don’t have the same level of confidence in racing as they do in their training.
  • They lose trust in their skills when they go to compete.
  • They’re often inundated with fear of failure, worry, anxiety, or the social approval that we talked about.
  • And just the fact that they want to perform perfectly, they struggle when the stars don’t align. I call it a “triple whammy”. When their performance doesn’t feel good, look good, or the results aren’t good, they struggle.

Rapid-fire questions

19:22 -

Favorite book, blog, or resource related to sports psychology:

Person in triathlon or in your field of expertise that you admire:

  • Triathlete Andre Becker

Personal habit that helped achieve success:

  • Understanding that it’s hard to multitask. Focus on one thing at a time.

Download this free MP3 from Patrick: Mental Toughness Skills in Racing for Triathletes

Listener question

25:43 -


"There’s been 2 years that I’m thinking of doing a short-distance triathlon. I’m tempted to do it to prove to myself that I can do it and experience a tri firsthand.

Even though I like sports, I never do it on a regular basis. To train for a tri you should at least 3 months before the tri train 6 times per week and I don’t have the discipline needed and feel overwhelmed.

Do you have any suggestions how to overcome this?​"


My simple advice to you would be, don’t think that you have to train 6 times per week for 3 months if that gets you overwhelmed. I would say that 4 times per week for 3 months would be plenty as long as your goal is just to get to the finish line in a sprint distance.

In that case, I would do 2 sessions per week in your weakest discipline. For many, that might be the swim but it could also be the run. Then 1 each for the rest of the disciplines. For example, 2 swims, 1 bike, and 1 run.

Maybe in the last 4-6 weeks, one of the weekly sessions would be a bike plus run brick workout. Just gradually build up volume to the race distance, easy aerobic pace, no need to add any intensity.​


I am currently (August 2017) taking on new athletes as I transition from my engineering job to working full time on Scientific Triathlon. If you want to learn more (or already know that you want me to coach you), email me at mikael@scientifictriathlon.com.

Links and resources

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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.

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