Minding Your Mental Fitness
David Lowes and Dr Matt Long investigated the mindset of mature elite athletes and the mindset of social athletes.
Training hard is not always enough, although it can be argued that this is the most important. The training mix has to cover all aspects and if the athlete specialises in middle distance events then aerobic and anaerobic work will be used in varying proportions with the ingredients of speed, speed endurance and strength endurance to encourage developing and improving the various energy systems.
Elite athletes, in particular, will also add many other aspects to their training regimes including core work, plyometrics, weights, flexibility, drills, massage, ice baths - the list can be a long one. Every ingredient then becomes almost as important as the next even if 'running training' remains sacrosanct. If the day-to-day running sessions make up 90% or more of the workload, then even if an ice bath only attributes to 1% or less on the scale of success that meagre total can make a huge difference - perhaps the difference between a successful season and a mediocre one.
Without lingering on what is important and what is not, a major area where many athletes and coaches fail to apportion enough time is the 'mental fitness' of an individual at any given time. Being in the right frame of mind is an essentiality to deliver a performance allied with endless hours of steady running and repetition work on the track for middle-distance athletes. It is the importance of changing poor mental states into positive ones that can make huge differences both before, during and after a performance.
Many athletes dismiss the importance of psychology in sporting achievement. These are unequivocally the ones who have poor mental states - they are stuck in a rut and cannot see any way out of it! Hopefully, my research was done over the last three years (2009-present) will give an insight into how important being in the right frame of mind can be and what can be done to get 'in the zone.' The chosen subjects were both young and mature and from BMC Residential courses, BMC Grand Prix events and also included some elite athletes from Scandinavia, Spain, Kenya and Ethiopia. The findings will try to show how positive and negative mental states can affect a performance along with some surprising results in terms of differing mindsets.
The diagram below (Fig.1) shows the ideal model of how the mind should focus on a point (competition) from one hour prior right down to the sound of the gun. Those that have a successful race will generally be able to relate to this, although there are exceptions. However, those who have an unsuccessful result due to poor mental states can almost enact this model in reverse (Fig.2) with an incident or even an opponent upsetting their focus. Both external and internal cues can trigger reversals between telic and paratelic states, some of which enhance optimum performance and others which impede it. Although it is easy to comment that there should be no distractions, unfortunately in real-life scenarios this is rarely the case and it is those who can handle and negate any problems into positivism that will have success.
Athletes with pre-determined (SMART) goals are always more successful than those without any at all. Those with specific goals tend to let distractions affect them less with an almost indestructible attitude of nothing will stop them in their pursuit of excellence as seen in the table below which relates to dedicated runners (goal-oriented) and non-dedicated (enjoy the sport, but goals are secondary).
The chosen athletes in the study were asked to give as honest an opinion as possible and although some information was difficult to disseminate and extrapolate from some, many of the answers showed that many of their feelings and thus performances had not been widely published before. The findings came from a spread of 62 athletes ('mature elite' - national or international standard) and ('social' - club athletes enjoying the feeling of being fit in a social environment without too much thought towards performance) and all remain anonymous. The three most common responses are given in the table below, although many more not dissimilar variations were given.
Although positive and negative vibes are at opposite ends of the spectrum they are all related to emotions and everyone experiences these at varying times and in differing degrees. Indeed, this is normal in accounting for shifts between anxiety and excitement or boredom and relaxation as one reverses constantly between telic and paratelic states. Post competition, one of the most common emotions you will see this summer, and hopefully from British athletes, is when they stand proudly on top of the podium in the Olympic stadium. They are elated, vibrant and relaxed, yet when the National Anthem begins they are invariably reduced to a blubbering mess! Why is this? Is it because they are so patriotic that it only takes a few bars of "God Save The Queen" to render them to jelly or is it perhaps that all of the sacrificial training and nomadic lifestyle has come to fruition and something within is just saying "you have done it and it was worth all the proverbial blood, sweat and tears?"
I am sure many athletes have experienced the phenomenon of the hairs standing up on the back of their necks or a shiver running down their spine when they enter the home straight in front of a rapturous full stadium, be it English Schools or Olympic Games and that goes for the watching coach and parent too! Sometimes even a tear is shed as the finishing line approaches and especially at the end of a Marathon when victory or a big PB is about to be recorded. Emotions will be in full view this summer at the greatest show on earth and a myriad of sentiments will be apparent to onlookers with tears of joy and sadness along with expressions of delight, anger and frustration. These emotions need to be controlled during competition and who cares what an athlete does once they have achieved their goal - the more emotion the better as far as the TV commentator or spectator is concerned - it is all part of the theatre of sport.
Interestingly, as part of the survey, the mind-sets during a competition differed greatly when performing well as opposed to poor performance. In terms of running, emotions were also diverse from event-to-event (800m-Marathon) and the mind-sets of some poor performance athletes were admittedly absurd, but nonetheless relevant: thinking about 'socialising', past/future lifestyle events, considerations of never running again. This is clear evidence of counter-productive 'mental dissociation' in the extreme. However, the three most consistent responses are listed below:
Although no research data was taken for field events (this may be the topic of a future article), each discipline has its point of execution where aggression is released. A shot putter will usually get 'fired-up' before they enter the circle and more so when they release the implement. A javelin thrower, however, may have more latent aggression with much control needed on the run-up before hurling the spear into the stratosphere. Likewise, a long jumper needs a fast run-up to the board before exploding upwards and forwards to the sand-pit while a high jumper needs more restraint to enact the drive into and over the bar and it is quite common to see them rehearse their execution before they start their run-up.
Although this article has tried to list some of the mindsets associated with good and poor performance, it has not tried to instruct on how improvements can be made or indeed eradicated. There is a long list of techniques including self-talk, affirmations, reframing, pattern-breaking, visualisation, psychosynthesis, swish patterns and detachment to name but only a few which can help to improve performance significantly and would make an extensive article in itself.
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About the Authors
Dr. Matt Long is a British Athletics Coach Education Tutor and volunteer endurance coach with Birmingham University Athletics Club. David Lowes is a former international athlete, Level 4 coach and Coaching Editor of Athletics Weekly.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: