Playing the mental game

There were more than 18,000 people who ran the streets of Miami with me on Jan. 31. About 65 percent were running the half marathon while the rest were tackling the entire 26.2-mile course. Few of us were there to win — overall, age group or otherwise. We all had goals and desired outcomes, but at the end of the day, the sun would set and rest of the world would keep on ticking whether or not we ran well.

With absolutely zero expectations or demands, there still were distractions. There was the expo and vendors and samples of new energy bars and drinks. There was eating out at restaurants as opposed to the normal sense of control we had over our food. There were travel concerns. There were noisy hotel neighbors. There were bright lights and shiny objects and unexpected guests who kept our heads on swivel sticks.

When our race was finished in Miami the spectacle of Super Bowl week was just beginning. And with the plethora of people — of media commitments and charity parities and practices and friends and family — well, if we, lowly mediocre (at best) distance runners felt the impact of distractions, how did the professional football players cope with it?

I know, they’re pro athletes. It’s part of the job they signed on for. NBA players must make good decisions amid loud crowds and annoying musical outbursts and a fan-centered atmosphere that brings out the ADD in everyone. And all pro athletes need to face cameras and interviews and reporters and demands on their time. Yes, it’s part of the job. It doesn’t mean, however, that it’s an easy part of the job.

Focusing amid chaos — it’s one of the overlooked talents of elite-level athletes. And one that I’m finding a growing respect for.

It’s something the Olympic athletes will have to face for two weeks and to handle the pressure, the demands, the expectations, many teams and individuals use the advice of sports psychologists in order to get that podium edge.

“Many will tell you that the difference between the person at the top of the podium and fourth place is who was most mentally tough that day,” University of Utah sports psychologist Nicole Detling Miller said in a story on NPR. “Who could handle the distractions and not get freaked out, not allow it to affect their performance [and] not allow it to prevent them from trusting themselves?”

The key piece of advice from former athletes in the NPR piece is not to try and make the Olympics like any other day — because it’s not. It’s different. It’s special. It’s, well, the Olympics. Instead, some athletes try to make every day like the Olympics — to imagine the crush of fans and media and invite a bit of chaos into their training. While they can’t quite prepare for the chaos of the Olympics, even if they’ve been there and have some experience with it, they can become comfortable with making it a special day, a meaningful day, without added stress.

But even with all the tactical tips in the world, perhaps the most telling part of the NPR story came with an observation from Miller. Mental training, like physical training, is a process. Confidence is gained, but to keep at a competitive level, it must continue to be worked on and valued.

“The self-doubt is going to come back in,” Miller said in the NPR story. “I don’t care how mentally tough you are. I don’t care how good you are. It will happen. Absolutely it will happen for everyone.”

There’s some comfort in that thought for me. As I struggle from time to time with doubts and a drop in confidence, there’s a tendency to make it worse — by being upset with myself for having the doubts and drop in confidence in the first place. That’s a circle that gets broken. Right  now.

Because the aim is not to erase doubt. The aim is not to have the perfect race. The real triumph is in how you react to doubt. How you overcome the imperfections of the day.

Distractions and doubt happen. How do you move through and past them?

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~ by amymoritz on February 11, 2010.

One Response to “Playing the mental game”

  1. Amy —

    I really enjoyed this post (and also look forward to running with you tomorrow w/ Valites).

    I got into this whole triathlon thing because of the mental aspect of it. I’m fairly certain I can make my body to whatever I need it to do. I’ve done that throughout my athletic career.

    For me, this is a mental struggle. I want to know that when the chips are down, I can fight through whatever mental block I have and come out the winner in my own mind, which is where most of the struggles are in our lives.

    We can truly do whatever we want, but we stop and pause because of our own limitations we think we have deep inside.

    Pushing myself to do one more mile or two more laps when you don’t have the capacity to do so is what I want to accomplish.

    I’ll probably never win a race (though I do hope maybe one day) but each time I finish when others quit will give me the strength to go on.

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