Saturday, June 8, 2019

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

My Journey Towards Mental Toughness

Growing up, I was not mentally tough, or, tough by any definition of the word. There were the “tough” kids in middle school who intimidated me. They had swagger and confidence. They were far more physically developed than the rest of us. They had real muscles and armpit hair. Most were either the good athletes or, as we called some of them, “hoods.” You remember, the rough guys who hung out the bathrooms smoking during class breaks? Me? I was not tough. I had no muscles. I was the very skinny preacher’s kid.

I tried wrestling in 8th grade. Had one match. Lost 12-0. Tough guys wrestle. Short-lived career there. I played football in 9th grade. Third string halfback. Got in three games and about five plays the whole season. Tough guys play football. It was one and done. I was massively intimidated trying to play those sports. So, I played a couple of years of JV basketball at Burke High School, but was intimidated by the varsity guys who were so big, strong and fast. Looking back, my greatest liability as an athlete was my mental weakness and lack of confidence.

Fast forward many years. The first time that I lined up at USAT Nationals in Portland, OR, I kind of freaked out! What was I doing here? I recognized some names. A couple of guys were medalists at Worlds! A 5x age-group champ from the Atlanta Marathon was there. A swimming stud who swam at the University of Michigan lined up. I’d taken swim lessons at the YMCA. Sheesh! Mentally, I freaked out.

Fast forward another few years and I found myself in a similar situation only this time it was the ITU World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. 99 of the fastest guys in the world in the 50-54 age group came to Germany to race from over 50 nations. “What the heck am I doing here?”, I asked myself. I just hoped to not embarrass myself and the “USA” on the front of my top. Again, I felt my brain start to melt down.

I could recount many other times when my mental weakness surfaced. Fast forward yet one more time. Last summer I once again was in training for an ITU World Championship tri in Australia. ONLY…THIS TIME…I was training to get on the PODIUM…and maybe, the top spot. Yep, I was training to win the World Championship. What?? What had changed? How could my brain have progressed from a state of intimidation to having the confidence of trying to be the best in the world?

Here are a few things that helped me develop mental toughness and confidence through 25 years of tri training and 300+ triathlons:
  1. Doing the training. Dedicating six to eight months of very specific training towards a goal and then reaching it downloads mass quantities of confidence into the brain. When you put in the hard work ahead of time, you wake up race day morning with the assurance that you’re ready to roll!
  2. Having a strategic race schedule. My biggest race each year is usually towards the end of the season. So, I map out my races and set mini-goals for each one and see progress. I know that the races I do are just that…races. But I also know they’re the best workout I’ll do that week. When I’ve recovered from a race, I’m that much faster due to such an intense effort. In reality, I race myself into top shape.
  3. I mark my successes. “Success breeds success,” someone once said. It’s true. With each mini-goal reached, with each success, confidence grows. Yes, there are some bad races and outcomes each season, but those are great learning experiences. They actually help me towards success.
  4. I beat people I never thought I could beat. Maybe just in the swim, or maybe on the bike or maybe it’s my run split. Maybe it’s in the overall results, but I started believing more and more in my abilities. When I lived in Phoenix, there was a guy in my age group who beat me time after time. Finally, at the Lake Havasu Tri one year, I found myself running him down. I was slowly closing the gap he had on me ‘til, with about 50 yards to go, I passed him and beat him! Could NOT believe it! Confidence! Mental toughness on the rise!
  5. The cumulative triathlon experiences. What do I mean? I mean just living the lifestyle. Gaining experience year by year, season by season and race by race. Doing tough workouts where I thought I’d throw up, if not die. Pushing myself. Getting up early. Logging the miles/yards. Doing the strength/resistant work. Reading the articles and books. Watching instructional videos/YouTubes. Attending tri camps. It all adds up. You do that and you’ll get mentally tougher.
  6. Finally, overcoming tough obstacles that unexpectedly pop up during races has increased my mental toughness. Having my goggle strap break just before the horn went off at my first 70.3. Developing bad blisters during runs. Racing while horribly nauseated. Fighting serious depression during Ironman races. Being hopelessly behind, but trying hard not to give up. Dropping my nutrition on the road during the bike leg of a National Championship. And, many more unplanned issues that popped up to my surprise. Somehow, I learned to fight through them and finish and sometimes finish really well.
That first USAT Nationals race in Portland? The podium went ten deep. After a horrible swim, I fought back and took 9th. The next Nationals I did in Los Angeles, I was first off the bike, but had a calf issue and five guys ran by me during the 5K. But hope had been planted and confidence in what I could do, grew. That first Worlds? The 5th fastest bike split helped me to 20th place out of 99.
Mental toughness was now growing like corn in July in Nebraska! Winning my first Nationals in ’12, where I had to run down the USAT number one ranked guy in the nation in our age group and catching him with 300 yards to the finish line for the win, well…it was surreal. I started believing. No more intimidation. Then, finishing 6th at Worlds in London out of 95 guys put me over the top. I’d arrived at a point of mental confidence and toughness I never thought I’d achieve. That attempt to actually win worlds last year? Yeah, that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped for. But as they say, “Life happens and you just gotta roll with it.”

It doesn’t take days or months to develop this tough mindset. It takes years. It takes dozens even hundreds of races. It takes failures and things going wrong. But that’s the fun part of this crazy sport – figuring it out. It takes time and patience. My fastest sprint tri ever happened when I was 55 years old, 18 years after I started the sport!

Lastly, the confidence and mental toughness developed in triathlon carries over to all of life. I’m a more confident person in all areas now. Just wish I could race some of those dudes who intimidated me so badly in middle and high school. Every blue moon I run into one of them around town. I walk up to them and shove them in the chest and say, “Sup now dude?” Ha. No, I don’t. I just try to race fast…with confidence and mental toughness. You ever feel intimidated doing this sport? I get it. Just keep after it and believe in yourself! Put in the work. Confidence will grow and you can achieve what you NEVER thought you could!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

What Kind Of Athlete Are You??
How would you answer the question, “What kind of an athlete are you?”  Your answer might be, “Not a very good one.” Or, “Well, I’m learning and getting better.” Or, “I’ve been racing for 10 years and I’ve improved every year. I qualified for Nationals this year!”

A key component in choosing your goals for this upcoming season is that very question, “What kind of athlete are you?” What do I mean? Well, there are different “kinds” of athletes. As mentioned, fast, kind-a fast, middle-of-the-packer or, “I pick up the orange cones coming down the finish line shoot.” So there are many different kinds and levels of endurance athletes…newbies, somewhat advanced, super-experienced…male/female…$10K bike athletes and Walmart bike athletes.

But, we’re not talking about any of those kinds. We’re talking about an athlete’s outlook. Your “why.” What’s your reason for getting up at 4:30am, driving for at least an hour, carrying 1,000 lbs. of gear to a fenced-in corral, waiting in long lines to use a port-a-potty that might smell like a pig farm, have someone write on your body with a thick magic marker and then jump into a dark, cold lake amidst hundreds of others splashing all around you?? The answer depends on the kind of athlete you are. Let’s consider three and their goals. Can you find yourself?

ONE - The “Not-Without-My-Friend” Athlete. This athlete loves to train and race…as long as it’s with his/her friends. Almost every workout is with someone. The joy doesn’t come from time spent pounding the pavement, in the saddle, 100m repeats or the starter’s airhorn, but WHO is going along. Skip a workout? If it’s solo, sure. No problem. If with friends, no way! Same for a race. If certain friends are doing it, then this athlete is IN no matter what the registration fee or travel distance. This athlete’s primary goal is simply - to enjoy others…to enjoy the experience socially. The side benefits are increased fitness and health but those things don’t drive them. Friendships, relationships and the social component is the primary reason they’re an athlete.

If this is you…?  Good! Enjoy! Socialize! Your friends enlarge your heart and fill you up. Awesome. Keep racing for that reason and you’ll stay in the game a long time! (As long as, well, you’re not a jerk and have no friends.)
TWO – The “Fitness Freak” Athlete. This person LOVES working out. They do endurance races, but the reason is because they know they’ll be more fit after they race and recover. They race almost solely for the fitness and respiratory/cardio improvement. BTW, they also do CrossFit, Pilates, hot yoga, spin classes, weight lifting, group exercise classes, have all aerobic torture contraptions known to man and anything else that will get their heartrate up or build muscle. And, of course they have a one-on-one personal trainer.

They monitor everything they do and eat, keeping track of every aspect of life’s activities including total steps, time spent sitting, caloric intake and their heart rate 20x/day. They are often techno-geeks owning everything “smart” that’s been invented. Their goal? Well, they really don’t care who else shows up on race day or how they place in their age group, they just can’t wait to download every ounce of data when they home, analyze it and then decide how to get, yes, more fit.

If this is you…? Lighten up for Pete sake! Ha. Just kidding. Go for it. Enjoy the endless numbers, math and strategy. Get that next FTP test done along with your new BMI test. Be encouraged when your power is up 2 watts or you really nail that WOD! If improved fitness is your main “Why,” then go for it. Just try to look up from your Garmin every now and then so you don’t trip and fall on that next run! 
THREE – The “Get-Outta-My-Way-Or-I’ll-Run-You-Over” Athlete. This person…well, I really don’t need to tell you much about THIS athlete. They arrive race morning and their game-face is ON, with that killer, focused look in their eyes. They arrive at least 30 min. before transition opens in the dark, first in line so they can get the best spot in transition and have at least two hours to warm up.

If you try to engage this athlete in a pre-race conversation, don’t expect much. One-word answers might be what you get. Why? Cause they’re rude? Cause they’re unfriendly? Cause they don’t like you? No, not at all. It’s because of the “kind” of athlete they are. They’re the I-will-kill-myself-to-win kind. They race at 120%, not 100%. They hate, and I mean HATE losing…in anything. Their will to win is immeasurable and unstoppable. IF they don’t win or accomplish their race goal, they’ll pack up and be outta there because their day is ruined. Out of anger, race-day afternoon, they’ll do a full workout (or two) to let out their frustrations.

If this is you, I get it. I’ve always been very competitive, though I do enjoy improved fitness and the endurance sports family. We need to learn to take what our body gives us on race day. We need to smile more during the race. We need to encourage others more before, during and after the race. It IS possible to have a killer instinct and still be a nice guy. I think. Ha.

Enjoy your competitive nature and of course, go for it, but enjoy the journey. I’ve had to learn to be satisfied with race outcomes even when my very competitive goals fall short.

What “kind” of athlete are you? Did you easily find yourself above? Yes, there are combinations of the above and yes, you can evolve from one kind to another over time. Know your “Why.” Know the kind of athlete you are. Know what drives you. Then, enjoy the journey towards reaching your particular goals.