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
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:
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!