Mental Training - Do You Exercise Your Mind?

author : gsmacleod
comments : 1

I have seen very athletically talented teams fall apart in clutch situations and much less gifted teams play well above their ability!

By Shane MacLeod

You are all set, you have spent so much time in the pool you feel like a fish, so much time on the bike that you are thinking of giving Lance’s team a call and you have worn out at least a couple pairs of running shoes. You are all set - or are you? How much time have you spent working on your mental game? In my time as a volleyball coach, I have seen very athletically talented teams fall apart in clutch situations and much less gifted teams play well above their ability! Although it may sound simplistic, you can reap the benefits of mental training with only a few minutes a day.

Taking Inventory

Many athletes already complete some type of mental training, however it is usually unstructured and does not involve specific areas of performance, rather it is often along the lines of crossing the finishing line. In fact some athletes recommend against mental training for this very reason, they feel that only seeing positive results will actually hinder you when adversity strikes! With only a little more focus, you can use mental imagery and preparation to improve your physical performance. The first step is a personal inventory of skills related to each discipline as well as how you see your character. For each descriptor, rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 on how you see yourself performing that particular skill.


  1. Body position – are you stable or always fighting to maintain balance?
  2. Hand entry – smooth and hydrodynamic?
  3. Pull – strong, full, sculling?
  4. Recovery – elbows high, smooth?
  5. Kick – easy kick for balance?
  6. Breathing – bilateral, easy to breathe on either side?
  7. Stroke pace – slow, efficient pace?
  8. Goal pace – maintaining pace throughout?
  9. Negative split – finishing stronger than you started?


  1. Running to T1 – smooth, easy run (even through water)?
  2. Wetsuit off – pull top off on run, bottom quickly at T1?
  3. Bike socks/shoes on – quickly and efficiently?
  4. Hydration and fuelling – appropriate for race?
  5. Helmet and glasses on – quickly and efficiently?
  6. Run out of T1 with bike?
  7. Jump on bike – quick, seamless transition to riding?


  1. Acceleration – smooth acceleration and gear changes?
  2. Bike shoes on – if already on bike?
  3. Strong pedaling technique – good power transfer throughout?
  4. Strong cadence – not falling off as race goes on?
  5. Hydration and fuelling – appropriate to race?
  6. Course management – attack hills, spin at the end, managing the corners?
  7. Bike shoes off – if leaving on bike?
  8. Goal pace – maintaining pace throughout?
  9. Negative split – finishing stronger than you started?


  1. Jump off bike – quick seamless transition to running?
  2. Run with bike into T2 – easy run to rack?
  3. Helmet off, hat on – quick and easy?
  4. Bike shoes off, running shoes on – quick and easy?
  5. Hydration and fuelling – appropriate to race?


  1. Jelly legs – getting the legs going?
  2. Good posture – for the whole run?
  3. Hydration and fuelling – appropriate to race?
  4. Goal pace – maintaining pace throughout?
  5. Negative split – finishing stronger than you started?


  1. Determination – what will you do to finish?
  2. Optimism – do you see yourself powering through the rough spots?
  3. Positive self-talk – are you going to keep yourself motivated throughout the race?
  4. Realistic goals – are your goals to high or too low?
  5. Honesty – will you compete fairly no matter what?
  6. Self-confidence – are you sure of your skills and abilities?
  7. Concentration – are you able to focus for the entire race?
  8. Composure – will you be able to control your emotions?
  9. Commitment – are you committed to your training/racing?
  10. Ability to handle frustration – can you pick yourself up if required?

Now that you have your baseline, chose one or two of the descriptors from each list, preferably the ones you would most like to improve, and visualize what you would have to do to improve the rating you have given yourself by 2. Now that you know what you have to do in order to improve a skill by that much, you are ready to practice it. When choosing an area to improve, avoid the temptation to attempt to bring all your scores to 10. You will never perfect your performance, at best you can hope to be able to perform consistently and well in both training and racing.

Set aside a period of time each day.

The most productive times according to research are just after you wake up and just before you go to sleep; to practice some of these areas for improvement. The way I have my athletes do this is they first imagine someone else doing the skill the way they want to do. For this, it is usually more useful to picture someone you train with, who is only slightly better than you are at the given skill. Picture them doing the skill ten times, trying to visualize everything they have to do to be successful. Then, replace that person with yourself, picturing yourself doing the skill successfully at least ten times. The first time you “watch” yourself do the skill, all of your focus should be on the skill, but on subsequent viewings, start to visualize the entire scene, including obstacles you will have to overcome to improve.

An example of this could be seen on trying to improve your hand entry on the swim. The first time you visualize this, you would only see yourself and the water. All of your focus would be watching your hand slice into the water, fluidly, causing no resistance to your forward progress. The third time you visualize this, you may have added the lane ropes and line on the bottom, while still concentrating on seeing your hand slid into the water. By the fifth time, you may have added another swimmer, trailing close on their feet down the lane. The seventh time you might be in open water, swimming for the turn buoy, still seeing the hand slice through the water. Finally, the tenth time, you have added yourself to the midst of a race, trying to maintain your technique amongst all the other swimmers in the event.

Every week or two, you should take stock of yourself again.

If you feel that you have made improvement in one area, choose another weak spot to work on. On the other hand, if you have not yet improved to the level you want to be at, continue working at that skill.

The more times you can visualize yourself effectively performing the skill, the easier it will be to use it in training and during a race as you will not have to consciously think about it – you will have taught yourself to do it correctly after “seeing” yourself do it so many times. The key to this is to be able to visualize the scene as vividly and realistically as possible. The more details you can add, the more distractions and obstacles you can add and still see yourself doing the skill effectively, the more likely you will be able to unconsciously complete the skill when faced with the adversity of racing.


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date: December 27, 2004