It’s not uncommon for a physiologically gifted, elite, athlete to have poor performance on race-day. Any number of factors can be the cause for this unfortunate occurrence. However, when a repeated trend is seen, where race performance is far off the mark compared to training performance, the coach should include some additional mental skills and training for their athlete to help address any psychological challenges they may be facing.
If this is a chronic issue, it would be prudent to enlist the assistance of a skilled sports psychologist to provide assessment information on the athlete based on interviews, observations, and potentially some psychological testing. This will provide great insight into the type of personality traits the athlete exhibits, as well as determining if they have a fixed, or growth, mindset. If they are a perfectionist athlete. And, if they have the overall characteristics required to become a world class athlete (i.e. Work ethic, solid process-based goals, the ability to suffer, confidence, competitiveness, mental toughness, etc).
But overall it's important for a coach to have a solid approach to solving the challenges of psychological impact in our sport. Designing a mental skills strategy can be crucial to the success of the athlete. What are some steps and tools that can be employed?
- Work with the athlete to understand what sort of internal dialog is occurring during hard training sessions, as well as during a race. Is it negative in nature? Help the athlete recognize negative self-talk, and work to change the focus of their internal dialog to be more positive in nature. Changing for example, in simple terms, the phrasing of “I can’t” to “I will”. Show the athlete that they have the ability to work through the pain – as they have done in previous training. The brain really wants to tell the athlete that “this hurts”. So what? Push past it and see what happens.
- Race-day focus. Where is it within the athlete? Can the coach provide some verbal cues to keep the athlete in the here and now versus perhaps wondering if they’re going to disappoint their family or coach? Help the athlete develop a mental checklist that they can go through pre-race to keep them focused.
- Work on proactive thinking. Ask the athlete what they are thinking prior to challenging parts of races and workouts. Is there a different thought process between the two? If they become anxious during the bike portion of a race, but perform wonderfully on the bike during training, then develop some internal dialog the athlete can use to remind themselves of their abilities and to ease their anxiety.
- Self awareness / Trust in their training. Have the athlete compare how they felt during and after a very hard race-specific training session. When negative self-talk creeps in during a race, they can immediately compare their training to what they are doing in the race. They've suffered in training, they can suffer and perform on race day.
- Realize that anxiety can be a performance enhancer. Help them realize that feeling anxious before a race is normal – and that they have the ability to turn that anxiety into a positive instead of a negative. Racing is exciting. It’s the payoff for all the hard training that they’ve done. Feelings and emotions can’t really impact the race that much if you mentally control those feelings, keep them at an optimum level, and keep the mental focus (back to point #2 – having a checklist to focus on).
- Ensure that the athlete can exert a controlling behavior over nervousness. What is the athlete nervous about? Is it typical pre-race jitters? It’s essential to be nervous. This helps prime top-level performance. Go back to your pre-race checklist, focus – but remember that nervousness is normal and healthy. It shouldn’t be looked upon as a negative.