Mental Rehearsal for Success

author : sethrose
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Increase Confidence with Race Simulations in Training

“You’re not training to be the best in the world. You’re training to be the best in the world on your worst day.” - Unknown

The Misconception of Confidence

Think about when you’ve performed at your very best. Perhaps it is when you hit a PR for that 70.3, you finally broke into the podium for your age group, or you moved up from 70.3 to a full Ironman. Were you always confident leading into that race? Think back to your taper weeks that didn’t go according to plan. You might have felt sluggish, or your legs may have felt heavy the day before or morning of the race. Then suddenly you have a breakthrough performance and you probably even surprised yourself! Can you be 100% confident to complete a full Ironman if you’ve only done a 70.3? Of course not! Confidence is always desired but not required and is often overrated!
There are so many variables (e.g., equipment, weather, injury) that can impact the outcome of each race, that having 100% confidence in your ability to complete the race is unlikely. You’ll always have concerns, doubts or fears leading into race day because of these uncontrollable variables, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. In fact, having a few doubts about the outcome is okay, as it allows us to develop plans that can strengthen our preparation leading into a race. Doubt doesn’t mean you have to train harder, perhaps it means there are just a couple of ‘stones’ aren’t turned over, and there’s something nagging at you, like your nutrition on the bike or what you tell yourself before the swim start.

Usually, people think about confidence as a feeling that they have leading into a race, but you don’t have to feel confident to perform well. If everyone needed to feel confident to race, there wouldn’t be too many people racing! If our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors change and fluctuate every day, then it makes sense if our confidence does. However, you CAN increase the chances that the feeling of belief arrives when we need it most, for both long term and moment to moment situations.

The Confidence Tree

What if I said our confidence is like a tree? Some larger and stronger than others, some smaller and weaker than others. These trees continue to grow, gain experience and confidence as we progress as a triathlete. Tree roots continue to flourish through the soil and continuously build a strong foundation. You can always work on the growth of this tree, so when faced with high pressure situations, nervousness or unexpected challenges during the race these circumstances have less of a negative impact on our race when we need it most.

This tree all stems from our self-belief, or our self-judgement system, or the roots of the tree. Your confidence starts with the true self-belief and conviction in yourself. Since its expectations of others that start causing pressure, worry, and doubt in the first place! Your belief system is built over time, and it’s these that will be the foundation to your confidence and triathlon performance.

"You put me in a race where there's a lot on the line, especially when people tell me 'you can't win,’ or 'you're too small,’ tell me those things, and I'll find a way to prove you wrong.” – Miranda Carfrae

Your preparation and evidence for training/racing is reflected in the trunk of the tree. The better your preparation the stronger the trunk. Stress, worry, and fear typically cause you to prepare, it’s the preparation that builds resilience when obstacles and challenges arise in your race. This preparation can be for each session (i.e., you’re fueled, bike/gear/nutrition is ready for long ride, or knowing the purpose for each workout) or for races (i.e., gear is set up for check in, fluids and nutrition are planned for bike/run, or setting up transition early). Your evidence is all the hard training sessions you do day after day, the hard races and performances you’ve had, and the past successes that you look back on that can give you the boost you need. Think of preparation and evidence as your long-term confidence. These are built over time and will reassure you that you can race your best when you need it most. Begin looking at small ‘victories’ in your workouts and races to be successful at. Be more successful, more often!

“The key is to trust in your preparation. You have done all you can, so focus on that fact. You will remain the same person before, during and after the race, so the result, however important, will not define you. The journey is what matters.” – Chrissie Wellington

Lastly, what you say to yourself is critical for moment to moment confidence, and these are the branches of the tree. Each situation in a race has the possibility of snapping these branches if they are weak, but you also have the choice to make those branches strong. When you’re nervous going into a swim start, or your limits are being pushed in the final mile, and you want to give up. You have a choice what you say to yourself, and with repetition, these self-talk statements can be very effective when you need it most. If you don’t like your unproductive thoughts, change them! Positive thoughts and instructions you say to yourself about your form or process have been shown to improve performances and ultimately, your confidence. These words have power and can be crucial to your performance.

“You can overcome a lot of obstacles along the way if you, say, focus on your elbows [while swimming], ‘High elbows, fingertips down.’ This becomes a repeatable mantra that can take your mind off things. It can help you burrow into what is propelling you forward.” – Andy Potts

How Can Simulation Training Help?

Imagine you have just been selected to become a Blue Angel pilot. Touring the nation and performing daring airshows that include aerial acrobatics and synchronized flying at hundreds of miles per hour, all within inches of the next aircraft. If you thought triathlon training was intense, Blue Angel pilots during winter training will train up to three sessions per day for six days a week. Sound familiar to some of us? Also, they will perform simulator sessions to practice different scenarios that might be riskier to practice during regular sessions. These simulator sessions are key to their airshows. They aren’t worried about winning or losing a race; they are practicing, so they don’t crash!

Take that same approach to your training. Become a student of your training (technically, tactically, physically, and mentally) and most importantly of your sport. Simulation training is about creating opportunities in your workouts to practice some part(s) of your performance that is as close to the actual competition. You’re allowing yourself to add quality preparation to help ease the nerves and pressure come race day. How do we do this?

From your list of races that you have scheduled this season. Think of the one you are currently training for and ask yourself these questions:

  • What are some challenges for the next race/course?

  • What are some ‘what-ifs’ running through my mind?

Based on these answers, you know what challenges you should practice more during training. Recreating as much of the race environment as possible on your own. Don’t allow your mind to fall into bad habits when pressure, doubts, or fears hit. Rather than reacting, build a RESPONSE for yourself and equip your mind with an arsenal of confidence when those situations attempt to break your walls down. You also know what ‘what-ifs’ that can happen and have a physical and mental plan going into the race. Deal with adversity by creating those specific plans for your specific race (environment, nutrition, etc.). When those instances come up, rather than freaking out, your brain tells you that you’ve done it before!
Here are some examples:

  • Train in same element/environment that your race location is (rain, heat/humidity, hills, etc.).

  • Wake up early and go through your pre-race routine before your longer training days. Get used to fueling, and race day in early morning to make sure you’re prepared.

  • When you get a flat, focus as if it’s race day and get it done.

  • Practice putting goggles on mid-swim in the water.

  • Swim with group or packs during your master’s swim practice or swim in open water if you can!

  • Practice your transitions! You can’t do a flying mount or dismount if you’ve never practiced it before!

Nobody said these races will always pan out the way we want them. However, you don’t have to leave them up to chance. By training the mind and using race simulation during workouts, you can increase the probability of a great race, and build that foundation of self-belief and confidence that you want. When you have an outcome that you admire; take all your challenges and potential obstacles that could happen and create the response that will guide you to that desired outcome. Triathlon isn’t a straight and smooth road to the finish; rather it’s full of peaks and valleys that you must conquer, and it’s such a rewarding experience when you reach the finish line.


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date: October 28, 2017


M.S. Sport and Performance Psychology
Part-time Lecturer in Kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton


M.S. Sport and Performance Psychology
Part-time Lecturer in Kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton

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