The following checklist provides an overview of some of the most important concepts in mental preparation for individual, endurance events. Please note that this is simply a brief summary of some key points. We encourage you to further explore any specific areas that offer you personally, the greatest room for improvement.
To consider yourself mentally well prepared, you need to…
1. Know, and be able to access your ideal performance state
Your ideal performance state refers to that mental and physical state which best allows you to access the capacity that you have trained in over the weeks, months and years.
Mental toughness is the ability to access and maintain this state, regardless of external circumstances. It is a skill which (like physical skills) can be developed and practiced. This is the essence of mental skills training.
In distance running for example, one of the key considerations in this regard is to not accumulate too much unnecessary tension in your upper body.
2. Manage your total life effectively
Your running cannot be looked at in isolation. It affects other areas of your life and is in turn, affected by those same other areas. Sustainable performance and well-being requires one to manage the total ‘picture’ effectively over time.
Note also that even if running were your number 1 priority – for the sake of your performance – there should in fact be a variety of other areas too. This is why there is a growing trend globally for even professional athletes to embark on ‘dual-career’ programmes.
It is also important that your approach to running, matches your reason for doing it. If for example you run for enjoyment, health and relaxation, it makes no sense to either stress yourself out about achieving specific times, or to be overly obsessive about missing any particular training run.
3. Manage your energy
We talk about time management, but energy management is just as, if not more important – and especially so for endurance athletes. Not just during the event, but in life generally. Your challenge over time is to ensure a sustainable source of energy through maintaining a balance between the ‘inputs’ (things that feed you positively) and the ‘outputs’ (things which drain / exhaust you).
Managing such a balance requires you to manage your boundaries well – sometimes growing the opportunities for more positives (eg rest, time on things you enjoy, etc) and minimising your focus on the negatives (eg negative people / issues, over-training, and so on).
The best performances seem to be associated with overall positive mood states on the day – high energy and vigour, and low anxiety, depression, irritability and fatigue.
4. On all levels, prepare to the best of your ability
Preparing on the physical, nutritional, equipment levels, etc. is important also for the mind. This is because true confidence can only come from having gathered evidence over time that you are in fact well prepared for the challenge ahead. There are no short cuts. Mental preparation therefore cannot be looked at in isolation of other types of preparation.
5. Set appropriate goals
Motivation is a natural state that flows when the challenge you set yourself is proportionate to your ability. Therefore, goals should be challenging, but realistic.
The achievement of outcome goals (eg winning, or a new PB) is determined by a combination of both controllable and uncontrollable factors. It is therefore strictly speaking not realistic to expect any given outcome.
By all means, aspire to any outcome that you want, but expect of yourself only those things which are totally under your own control (eg training in a certain way, or implementing a given race strategy.) The uncontrollables will then either help or hinder you on the day – nothing you can do about them. (Remember – they are certainly not a reflection of your worth as an athlete or person).
6. Have a clear race plan
Consider three parts to an event – pre, during and post event. Preparation and experience are about finding your own ideal approach to all three stages. e.g. Of all the different ways of spending the 60 minutes prior to the start of a race, which particular sequence of behaviours seems to prepare you the best? (eg What kind of stretching, going to the bathroom, any last minute fluid intake, etc? Also consider the ideal order of these tasks).
Once you have a blueprint that works for you, strive to implement this well, regardless of circumstances. This is a good example of a process (rather than outcome) goal, which amongst other things helps to relieve pressure at big events.
It can also be helpful to have a few set questions to ask yourself after the event. For example, asking yourself what to keep, stop and start doing (in terms of the controllables), helps you to keep getting better. Acknowledging the (positive or negative) influence of any uncontrollables on the other hand, helps to keep things in perspective.
Bottom-line – the way in which you think after an event potentially influences your approach towards the next one, so you want to do this as honestly and as accurately as possible.
7. Brainstorm & prepare for unforeseen circumstances
Having done everything you can to prepare for the perfect race, the final stage of your preparations is to also brainstorm potential obstacles to your goals, and to prepare your ‘Plan B’ in case any of these should arise.
For those inevitable last minute things which you genuinely could NOT foresee, do prepare to respond well to them – i.e. identify what you can do about them, and then just go about implementing what you can as best as possible under the circumstances. (See also next item).
8. Strive for current (rather than ultimate) potential
Your ultimate potential as an athlete is seldom a practically useful concept, as we have no way of measuring what it actually is. Your current potential at any given moment however is really important. Your focus should be on matching your actual performance, to your current potential.
Your current potential is determined by a myriad of both controllable and uncontrollable factors. Your challenge is to assume responsibility for everything that is under your own control, while accepting all the things which are not. In this way, you are most likely to perform to whatever your current potential is, thus in turn increasing the likelihood of achieving your outcome goals.
At any given moment, don’t waste time, emotion and energy on ‘judging’ the momentary circumstances (as fantastic, or terrible etc). Rather just focus on getting on with doing absolutely everything that you can, to make the most of things as they are.
Clinton runs the psychology practice of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Cape Town. His main interests lie in the fields of sport and health psychology where he helps clients to develop, implement and maintain strategies which optimise performance and well-being, on a sustainable basis.