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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Positive Leadership: Developing Mental Toughness

When you do a triathlon you step out of your comfort zone and push the boundaries of what you previously thought possible and it leads to experiences that most people won’t ever have. It takes great mental toughness, a vital sporting attribute that some say you either have or you don’t. But as with physical fitness, mental fitness can be trained and controlled.

The greats of the sport would tell you that you must train for adversity and suffering. One of triathlon’s most infamous coaches, Brett Sutton (the former coach of multiple Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington) trains his athletes for mental toughness using extreme measures. One example is a session where the athlete will run a marathon on a treadmill in a room no bigger than a large wardrobe, where no MP3 players or TV’s are allowed! Similarly, he never allows drinks bottles during pool sessions as you can’t drink during the swim portion of a race. He tells his athletes to get out of their comfort zone on a regular basis.

Here are some keys to developing mental toughness:

1. Self-belief
Develop a confidence mantra. Repeat it to yourself daily. Whether you believe it or not initially is irrelevant. With repetition you can trick your mind. ‘I can do this. I am strong, healthy and fit.’ When you are under pressure, repeat: ‘Calm. Confident. Strong. In Control.’ When negativity strikes as you get tired or something starts to hurt, repeat the mantra and distract the mind. Remember this saying: ‘Whether you think you can or think you cannot, you’re probably right.’

2. Motivation
Remind yourself why you want to do what you are doing. Remind yourself of a time, really visualise it, when you felt strong, positive and motivated in as similar a situation as you can. Bring this image into your mind regularly. Picture your friends and family being proud of your achievements and willing you to succeed. Try to bring the scene to life by using colours, sounds and situations with a high emotional attachment.

3. Focus
The key skill is to prepare for things going wrong. Practise how you might deal with problems. Concentrate on your own performance, as you cannot control your competitors. When the negative mind chatter comes in, silence it by focusing on your mantra.

4. Handling Pressure
Start by accepting that anxiety is inevitable in competition and know you can cope with it. Learn how to let go of mistakes quickly if things do not go the way you want. A key part of mental training is about compensating, adjusting, and trusting. If plan A does not work, go to plan B or C. Mentally rehearse these plans. Develop a systematic pre-performance routine that switches on a desired state of mind that’s ‘ready to compete!’ Examples are listening to a special playlist on your music player, or taking four calm deep breaths before the start and focusing on feeling strong and competent.


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