When it comes to training your mental skills for triathlon or any other area in your life where you want to pursue excellence, the first step must be awareness of what you want to change. I always say, “You can’t change what you are not aware of.” So when people say “just think more positive,” it’s not that easy and it’s not all rainbows and sunshine when it comes to having positive thoughts. So instead of calling it “positive thinking” I like to call it “facilitative thinking, helpful thinking, or healthy thoughts.” But first things first, when examining destructive/unhelpful thoughts/negative thought patterns there are typically patterns that people fall into. I can’t tell you how many athletes I have worked with that fall victim to these patterns.
The first step is to identify the thoughts patterns and THEN change them. So just like a coach would give you feedback on bad running form or technique, an ineffective peddle stroke, or poorly executed swim stroke, this is the same idea. As a mental skills coach I observe an athlete’s thought pattern, what they say, how they say it, and associated feelings; target and identify unhealthy patterns; then make adjustments to thoughts, and develop a practice or ritual for incorporating new effective thought patterns. Each athlete is different so when I do this work it is important that the changes be tailored to match their attitudes, lifestyle, and beliefs.
Read the statements below and identify the ones that you can relate to. Many of these may overlap, and that’s okay. The first step is just recognizing some patterns.
The Big 10 Thought Patterns That Could Put You in a Performance Rut:
(1) Overgeneralization: Coming to a general conclusion based on a single event or one piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen again and again. Such thoughts often include the words “always” and “never”.
Example: I got a cramp on the run. Something always goes wrong when I am on the run.
(2) Filtering (Selective Abstraction): Concentrating on the negatives while ignoring the positives. Ignoring important information that contradicts your (negative) view of the situation.
Example: I didn’t get the time I was aiming for despite getting a PR. My swim time was so slow and I felt really yucky on the bike. I my legs felt really stiff on the run.
(3) All or Nothing Thinking (Dichotomous Reasoning): Thinking in black and white terms (e.g., things are right or wrong, good or bad). A tendency to view things at the extremes with no middle ground.
Example: I made so many mistakes. I am not making the time splits like I expected to be so I might as well drop out. (then the athlete DNF’s); I didn’t place in my AG. I must really have sucked out there today.
(4) Personalizing: Taking responsibility for something that’s not your fault. Thinking that what people say or do is some kind of reaction to you, or is in some way related to you.
Example: Coach gave other people positive feedback except for me. I must really suck or must have done something wrong that he is too embarrassed to tell me about. It’s obvious that he does not think I can get much better.
(5) Catastrophizing: Overestimating the chances of disaster. Expecting something unbearable or intolerable to happen.
Example: I’m sure I am going to be tortured on the run. It’s always so hard for me. OR I’m going to make a fool of myself and people will laugh at me. OR If I don’t perform well then I’ll know that triathlon is not for me.
(6) Emotional Reasoning: Mistaking feelings for facts. Negative things you feel about yourself are held to be true because they feel true.
Example: I feel like a failure, therefore I am a failure. I feel so sluggish, therefore I must be lazy. I feel hopeless, therefore my situation must be hopeless.
(7) Mind Reading: Making assumptions about other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors without checking the evidence.
Example: Coach is giving that other athlete more feedback than me he must like her more than me or think she has more potential. I could tell he thought I wasn’t good enough from the beginning.
(8) Fortune Telling Error: Anticipating an outcome and assuming your prediction is an established fact. These negative expectations can be self-fulfilling: predicting what we would do on the basis of past behavior may prevent the possibility of change.
Example: I’ve always been a slow swimmer. I’ll just always have to bike or run faster than everyone else in my AG; I’ve never been a fast runner. I can run a long time but not very fast; I don’t think I could ever do an Ironman.
(9) Should Statements: Using “should”, “ought”, or “must” statements can set up unrealistic expectations of yourself and others. It involves operating by rigid rules and not allowing for flexibility.
Example: I should be faster by now. I shouldn’t let the others beat me. I should know how to handle this already. I shouldn’t be injured or in pain.
(10) Magnification/Minimization: A tendency to exaggerate the importance of negative information or experiences, while trivializing or reducing the significance of positive information or experiences.
Example: Despite putting hours in of training and following the training plan I still am not prepared for this race. I should not have taken those days off.
*The examples are actual statements by athletes that have struggled with patterns of unhelpful thinking. The good news is these unhelpful thoughts can be changed.
Start today by observing your self-talk and thoughts. Notice if you fall into any of these thought patterns. Try not to be so hard on yourself. Thoughts, just like habits, have formed over days, months, and years, so expecting immediate change is unrealistic. However, the idea is to first be aware, then you will have the power and point of change.
Keep reaching for your peak!