Monday, October 08, 2012

Winning Mindset & Performance


A few months ago, I was contacted for an interview.

Loren Fogelman, founder of Expert Sports Performance, had come across my blog and wanted to interview me about mindset for winning athletes.  After reading a little about Loren, I was intrigued.  Her story is much like many of the athletes who come to me for coaching – what I call adult-onset athletes.  With no prior history of competitive athletics, Loren turned to rowing at age 40.  Quickly she realized she was indeed competitive.  But training alone wasn’t enough to excel.  To be at that level, she needed to work on her inner game – once she did, she took off in her rowing.  Wanting to share what she learned with others, Loren’s been working with athletes as a sports performance consultant.  Her website contains many relevant articles and strategies for athletes looking to take their own inner game to the next level. 

You can read more about Loren here.

The inner game is something I get a lot of questions about.  Working on the inner game is accessible to any athlete regardless of age, speed or experience.  In fact, working on the inner game is free speed.  Now is the perfect time to plan how you will improve your inner game to up your performance for the 2013 season.  There are countless books you can read to learn strategies for improving your inner game.  Here’s a list I compiled from my own bookshelves:


Freedom Flight by Lenny Bassham
With Winning in Mind by Lenny Bassham
The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum
How Winning Works by Robin Benincasa
Go Girl by Natalie Cook
The Winning Point by Loren Fogelman
Stillpower by Garrett Kramer
Finding Your Zone by Michael Lardon
Running Within by Jerry Lynch
Mind Gym by Gary Mack with David Casstevens
Becoming a True Champion by Kurt Mango
Magical Running by Bobby McGee
Embracing Your Potential by Terry Orlick
In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick
Mental Training for Peak Performance by Steven Ungerleider
The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training by Jim Taylor and Terri Schneider
Bounce by Matthew Syed

As you can see, the interview with Loren was timely as she just released a new book, The Winning Point. 

The interview took place in August.  Prior to the interview, Loren sent a list of questions to help organize my thoughts.  Below, you’ll find the preparatory text for my interview which will offer some insights into winning performance and mindset.  Hopefully you will gather some new ideas on how to improve for next season!

What led you to do what you’re doing today, coaching athletes on their performance?

I spent over a decade in the educational field; first as a program manager at a group home for children with autism, teaching children, staff and parents how to teach children with special needs.  Then, I moved on to being the manager of youth and family education at a local museum.  From these careers, I developed a strong passion for the process of education.  At the same time, in my non-working life, I had always been involved in sports, both formally and informally.  After college, I started competing in running races, duathlons, triathlons.  Over the next few years, I found myself satisfied with my job but also looking for a new direction to grow.  Coaching was the answer, merging my passions for education and sports.  I left my career and started my own business in 2007, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  Once I put it out there on my blog that I was going to start coaching, I was overwhelmed by the response.  Being open and honest about my life, my feelings and experiences on my blog resonated with people so much that they wanted me to help them in their athletic journey.  I felt honored with that responsibility, looking back I’m not sure how I wasn’t scared – but it was a decision that came from passion and confidence, not a fear of failing.  Since then, I haven’t looked back!

Like most of us, you are juggling many different responsibilities between work, sports and family. How do you do it all?

As a parent, wife, business owner and individual, this is a very important question and one that any successful person must answer – sometimes on a daily basis. 

First, I have a strong sense of commitment to the life I’ve chosen to lead – balancing my own business, stay at home parenting and managing a household is not easy but it was my choice.  It’s the hardest “job” I’ve ever had but I’m also grateful for the opportunity.

Second, on a daily basis, I have a plan.  I learn to prioritize what needs to be done (foremost, taking care of my child), then my work, my workouts and even making time for myself.  There are things I “want” to do – social commitments, etc – but if they don’t fit into the framework of what I “need” to do, I say no (for now). 

Third, in all of this, time management is critical.  I live my life in tightly packaged compartments of time for work, play, etc.  From early on, I set a schedule with my child and whether he was “easy” enough to follow it or just followed it out of consistent practice/habit, it’s worked.  I keep a very consistent, and yes – boring, daily schedule.  But this predictability allows me to get things done and minimizes any stress that might come from how am I going to get all of this done.

Lastly, I have strong support system.  People often asked why we stayed in Illinois given our lifestyle and the lack of areas to easily enjoy our lifestyle.  My answer has always been: family.  We rely on our family for babysitting and general support.  This alleviates any guilt and expenses.

In general, set your life up to be successful.  Make choices and put yourself into situations – personally, geographically – that allow you to live the life you want to live the way you want to live it.  Learn to be selective with your time and energy.  Commit to what’s important to you and learn to say no.  And know that success breeds more success.  A well managed day leads to another well managed day.  It can all be done, you just have to pave the way for it to happen.

When it comes to performance, whether it’s an athlete preparing for an Iron Man or a tri-newbie, How much of an athletes performance do you believe has to do with physiology vs psychology?

There are basic principles of training and physiology that must occur for progress and performance to happen.  That’s about 50% of the equation for success.  The other 50% is a mix of managing the peripheral factors (ie., nutrition, sleep, recovery) and then managing your mindset.  I often tell my top performers that they are going to be as good as they make up their mind to be.  It’s funny how when you bring that idea up, most will agree.  The light bulb goes off and they realize their performance is 99% within their control (the other 1% might be weather, other competitors, uncontrollables).  I tell my athletes, control the controllables – their mindset being one of the biggest and most influential pieces of that.

When swimming tension shortens the stroke and you end up fighting the water. So you’ll have more speed while swimming if you’re relaxed. Which seems counter-intuitive. How do you teach your athletes to remain relaxed during the swim leg of the race?

This largely depends on the distance of the event.  In a sprint distance triathlon, they need to give a violent effort in the swim, whether or not it feels good!  The longer the race, though, the more I tell athletes to view the swim as a warm up – it sets you up for the rest of the day.  It’s the idea of if you find yourself fighting against the current, turnaround and go with the flow.  This is very true in swimming.  Position yourself away from others, find rhythm in your breathing pattern, relax, reach, roll, slide, glide.  I find “cue words” are very effective in swimming.  Thinking about smooth swimming – how it feels, looks, sounds, is a good way to set yourself up to be relaxed enough you don’t channel unnecessary energy into fighting the water or other competitors; instead you access that energy for actually moving forward.  And, you can’t forget the value of practice. Keep your preparation as race specific as possible by getting into the open water with others at race pace efforts.  The more you do it, the more you know what to do on race day. 

Now I’ve come across many athletes who are physically gifted, but when faced with unexpected obstacles just crumble. Suddenly they lose focus and can’t seem to regain their edge. There’s rarely a perfect race when it comes to triathlons. What has been your strategy for helping athletes overcome unexpected obstacles?

Preparation.  Make sure your preparation is specific to the racing situation where these obstacles can occur.  Putting them into training situations that might have any number of obstacles.  This is why training needs to be as race specific as possible.  I’m a big fan of the quality, consistency and safety of indoor training but we don’t race indoors so get outside in the lakes, on the roads, on the paths and get into situations with obstacles that could occur in a race – weather, potholes, choppy water, wind, hills. 

Then, as part of their race plan, having them anticipate anything that can go wrong.  I believe triathlon great Paula Newby-Fraser once said “expect anything, prepare for everything.”  Obviously we cannot prepare for EVERYthing but we can think through all of the “what ifs” of things that possibly could go wrong and then plan our response to them.  This preparation is easy to access on race day if it’s been stored in the mind beforehand.

Underlying all of this is confidence, a can-do attitude that they can handle anything that comes their way.  Even if they haven’t prepared for it.  Psychologists call this self-efficacy, believing in their abilities.  This comes from within, from the language you speak to yourself with on a daily basis and how you evaluate yourself/performances. 

Let’s talk about strategy, because I’m sure it’s not one size fits all. What are the most important components to creating a tight race plan?

A solid race plan lays out a map of where you can expect to go and how you’re going to get there.
  • Timeline – when will things occur, what will you do from the days leading up to the race to the day after the race
  • Pacing – heart rate, power, paces, goals times for your best/likely/acceptable scenario
  • Fueling – what you’ll eat & when
  • Mindset – mantras, cues, refocusing strategies
  • Troubleshooting – thinking through what can go wrong, “what ifs” and what you’ll do to respond

From there, you just have to execute your plan – no matter what.  Easier said than done.  To execute you must have:
  • Confidence (confidence in training and in yourself)
  • Consistency (in training/preparations, in your commitment)
  • Preparation (you’ve practiced your pacing/planning over & over again in training until it’s automatic)
Sometimes you just feel flat the day of your race. Since my focus is all about mindset, I realize how closely tied your mindset is to your performance. What have you found is the best way to turn things around.

Separate how you feel from the outcome.  See yourself as part of the process but not needing everything to be 100% perfect to achieve your goal.  When speaking with world champion Craig Alexander a few weeks ago, he talked about how during this second win at Kona, he did not feel good that day.  Yet he still achieved his outcome.  Understanding that “perfect” is impossible in athletics because our bodies, the outdoor component, the race can be highly variable.  Above all, keep executing your race plan – and troubleshooting it.  If you feel flat because of a nutritional issue, know what you can do to perk up.  If you feel flat because you just think you feel flat – remember, we are about as good as we make up our minds to be.  Stay the path, fake it ‘til you make it, act as if you’re already where you want to go.

As another way to avoid feeling flat mentally, only choose things to do that you are interested in doing.  Motivation is like momentum; hard to gain but once you have it, easy to sustain.  You gain motivation by being genuinely passionate about and invested in your pursuits.

One of the things I teach my athletes is that success requires a willingness to fail. What was one of your biggest failures and what important insights did you gain from it?

Back in 2008, I turned professional for two years.  Many times throughout the two years, I felt like I was completely failing, wasting my time.  I was always finishing at the back of the professional field, I was not “improving” my times.  Yet now I look back and see it as one of the most valuable experiences for me as an athlete and a coach.  I learned what it really takes to be successful, I learned how to develop athletes to that level and then help them manage the experience from there, I learned more about the physiologyl of fatigue, the psychology of failure.  I gained a wider perspective of sport – I was so used to winning that I had no understanding of falling short and how to manage that.  Going through that made me a much more experienced and wise athlete and coach.   

When you’ve been racing, and getting great results, some athletes begin to ease up a little. Complacency and taking things for granted is the downfall for many athletes. What do you do to keep things fresh for you? What have you been doing to change things up?

Continually raise the bar for yourself.  When something starts to feel too comfortable, mix it up and throw in a challenge.  I took up short course racing this year because I knew it would make me uncomfortable.  After 13 years in this sport, I need to continually find ways to grow, learn and develop.  Gone are the days where “just” training will make me fast!  Find new ways to develop your experience, redefine what’s uncomfortable and work your weaknesses.

Mindset is huge. Is there a specific mental game challenge you’re working on right now? What is the biggest obstacle you face when it comes to racing?

The idea of “don’t be afraid to be fast.”  Don’t fear hurting or being a success.  Don’t play it safe.  Don’t be afraid to take risks and surprise yourself.  We get comfortable, we get complacent, we wait for our moment to shine.  You have to make those moments, create them and not fear the consequences – good or bad. 

What is the one best piece of advice you have concerning the mental game of triathlons

Train your brain like you do anything other muscle in your body.  During my most successful seasons, every Sunday I would sit down and think through my week behind and week ahead.  I would read a chapter in a book or find a quote and relate it to my experience. I would write out or reflect on my key training sessions.  I logged all of this in a journal.  Each year, I start a new journal and bring that journal to every race.  On the first page, I list all of the outcomes I’d like to see that year – might be placement related, time related, etc.  I look back through it for confidence, proof that I deserve to attain what I set out to do.  I write out my race plan and years later, go back to those plans to avoid making the same mistakes and remember what worked for me.  Be present in and reflect on the process continually, work on your mind by engaging your mind.  Don’t sit back, train and wait for results.  From every angle, work on what you can to improve yourself.   

I encourage you to visit Loren on Facebook for more interviews, articles and other thoughts for winning performance.  

2 comments:

Steve said...

There is so much to all of us. Being Human is being complicated. You seem to me to be one of those people I "talk" about on my blog.

Box ourselves up, or open up.

In the box we can show people how "good" we are.

In our opened selves we become exposed. Not in control of how people view us.

The box is safe, and the open is scary. The scary way is the better way, although we don't feel that good about it.

That is why I am such a jerk sometimes. I open up, and without support in a weakened state people (or just me) think people must just hate me.

I know you can be as strong as you want to show us. I'd love to see the other side sometimes too. You have shown it before.

Best of luck with everything Liz. :)

Samuel Johnson said...

Great article on the human experience, thought provoking questions & and quality answers that could be applied to athletic performance and live in general. Thanks for your thoughts Loren and Elizabeth.