Mindfulness 101 for Endurance Athletes

By Mitchell Greene, Ph.D., Mental Health Editor

photo by Marco Quezada

Sport psychologists are forever attempting to get athletes to be more positive and to stop their negative thinking. The idea is that if you can replace negative beliefs with positive ones, your performance will improve. There is only one problem. The research data supporting the negative-to-positive replacement strategy doesn’t exist. In fact, experienced marathoners, triathletes, and other endurance athletes will tell you that second guessing, and whispers of doubt remain despite determined and repeated attempts at positive affirmations and confident self-statements. Even the best, such as Hall of Fame pro triathlete Scott Tinley, talk about pro triathlon having its own “dirty little secret.” He reveals that, “Self-doubt runs rampant through the ranks of even the best.”

Mindfulness strategies in sports have become enormously popular because hard-driven athletes have a knack for being very tough on themselves. Despite pushing their bodies to the brink, endurance athletes will still become frustrated (and humbled) to find that self-confidence eludes them. Kara Goucher, the Olympic runner says “it’s as if I have two voices in my head, one that says anything is possible and [the other] that tells me I am not good enough.” Pro triathlete, Jesse Thomas, has found “courage over confidence — the mantra I offered him — useful because Jesse knows lining up against the best in the business means it’s hard to feel honest-to-goodness positivity. From a mindfulness point of view, having an inner critic isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s an athlete’s attempts at positivity that can make them feel worse rather than better, because they become frustrated by their inability to achieve their desired result.

Mindfulness approaches accept the inconvenient truth that we have less control over our thoughts than we might wish. As many a triathlete can attest, forcibly making yourself feel great (“cheap confidence”) about p.r.’ing in your next race or telling yourself you will “nail” that ocean swim can be akin to throwing yourself a surprise party. In other words, it just doesn’t work. Trying too hard to feel something that you don’t really feel signals to a mindfulness practitioner that you are really saying, “I don’t know how to (and can’t) handle all of my self-doubt.”
It may sound counter-intuitive, but I help athletes prepare for races by encouraging them to “make room” for all of their doubts rather than trying to control or avoid them. Athletes practicing non-judgmental awareness learn that dark thoughts and second-guessing are part of the competition picture, and instead of negating their feelings, they can learn how to separate or “detach” from their inevitable second-guessing. From a mindfulness point of view, for your next race, you don’t need to be any more positive than you already are.

Once triathletes get the hang of this new mindset, we work together to pivot their attention towards aspects of the race that are much more controllable, and more apt to contribute to their success. For example, instead of trying to think uber-positively about how they’ll feel at mile 20 of a marathon, we discuss what embracing the inevitable self-doubt could “look like” for them, whilst encouraging them to focus on their reasons for racing, as well as their specific race plan.

Here’s a dialogue I had with “Dave,” a triathlete. Dave learned mindfulness strategies to help him deal with the messages his negative “Mind Chatter” was sending his way as he readied for his next big race.

Dr. Greene: So, Dave, you’ve signed up for a half-ironman in late May. Congratulations! I understand you want to really challenge yourself, otherwise I guess you would have stuck to sprint and Olympic distance triathlons.

Dave: Yes, I heard from others that the 70.3 distance is not so bad as long as you train the right way for it. The problem is now I’m literally freaked out about it.

Dr. Greene: I get it. One day you find yourself open to a new opportunity and nothing feels like it will get in your way. And, now, you are questioning the whole thing.

Dave: Exactly, I don’t know now if I can do it. In training I can basically do everything my coach asks of me, but I don’t know if my heat-related issues will happen again on the run the way they did at my last triathlon. The other thing I am really nervous about is whether I’m going to finish in a respectable time.

Dr. Greene: I get it. The way we’ll look at this Dave is that you are having a lot of “Mind Chatter,” which makes sense to me because
a) this race is important to you, and, b) it’s filled with uncertainty, and you have no idea whether you’ll be able to do it “respectably.”
It’s important you understand how “Mind Chatter” works: while you are looking to have an experience of a lifetime, your chatter is busy working on a wholly different agenda. Basically, it’s focus is on what can (and will) go wrong, and how to keep you safe (physically and psychologically). Your job is to remember why you are doing this, and that it is supposed to be a fun challenge. It’s important to know that even though it does make us feel uncomfortable, “Mind Chatter” is part of this competition process.

Dave: So, how do I get rid of “Mind Chatter”?

Dr. Greene: I’m sorry to say Dave, you can’t totally get rid of it. Not if you want to continue to live life fully. Actually, Dave, we want to do the opposite of what you might think, and “make room” for doubts and second-guessing. Why? Because they are what predictably comes up for all competitors when they try to push the boundaries of their athletic abilities.

Dave: So, I should try not to be worried by the fact that I’m worried, right? Just assume these negative thoughts are kind of normal to have.

Dr. Greene: Right.

Dave: So, that’s it?

Dr. Greene: That’s only part of it, and it takes some practice to get the hang of it. Now that you won’t be wasting so much energy on quieting the chatter because you will let it come and let it go, you and I will begin to work on setting small goals for each leg of the race. Let’s get very specific, like what kind of arm motions or kick do you want to try to do on your swim, what bike cadence do you want to sustain, and what mantras or re-focusing techniques can you use when the going gets tough? These can be helpful in occupying your mind in training and pre-race.

Dave: Okay, let the “Mind Chatter” do its thing while I try to keep it about my small goals.

Dr. Greene: Your getting it, Dave!

Here’s a fitting metaphor that resonates with many athletes who, like Dave, find themselves mentally exhausted trying to get on the right side of their racing jitters and fears. Think about being anxious for a big race as similar to being in a tug-of-war with a monster. The monster is big, ugly, and very strong. In between you and the monster is a pit, and as far as you can tell it is bottomless. If you lose this tug-of-war, you will fall into this pit and be destroyed. So, you pull and pull, but the harder you pull, the harder the monster pulls back, and you edge closer and closer to the pit. The hardest thing to see is that your job here is not to win the tug-of-war. Your job is to drop the rope!

Dr. Mitchell Greene is a leading licensed clinical and sport psychologist, whose success over the past 15 plus years is his ability to tailor personalized solutions to his client’s problems. The breadth of Dr. Greene’s clinical expertise with young adults and families and the energy and focus he brings to his relationships with athletes, coaches and teams makes Dr. Greene perfectly suited to advise and support his clients as they strive to reach their personal best.

In addition to office consultations, Dr. Greene writes articles and delivers workshops and presentations to numerous schools and organizations, such as US Squash, USA Triathlon, The Episcopal Academy, Down the Line and Beyond Foundation, Delmo Sports Elite Events, The Hill School, The Psychotherapy Networker, and SpeakUp! He is the sport psychology consultant to several high school athletic departments, and is an Adjunct Instructor in Temple University’s College of Public Health.

Dr. Greene is married with three children, and received his undergraduate degree in psychology and human resources management from Boston College, and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Temple University. He also spent an additional fellowship year at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, specializing in family therapy. Dr. Greene is very active in endurance sports, such as marathon running, triathlons and adventure racing. greenepsych.com