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Coach's Column with Eric Orton

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |June 2, 2010 6:44 AM

This week we hear from Eric Orton of Eric is an elite-level coach who trains some of the top MTB racers in the U.S. Eric is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, a certified Functional Training Specialist, a Certified Sports Hypnotist, and holds coaching certifications from both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling.

Question: When I have a bad training session or race I have a tendency to have negative thoughts about my abilities as a racer. How do I combat these negative thoughts and keep them from affecting my performance in competition?

Answer: I tell my athletes, everyone has negative thoughts; it is what we do with the negative thoughts that separate the elite thinkers from the average thinkers in sport.  This is important to understand.  We all have negative thoughts, no one is immune.  The first step is to understand this and realize avoidance is not the target.  And, when we do have these thoughts it doesn’t mean we are not mentally strong.  The mentally strong have trained and perfected how to respond to challenging times, which inevitably produce negative feelings.  So the take home here is do not beat yourself up if you have bad thoughts during your performance, EXPECT IT and then MODIFY IT.

Modifying or changing the meaning of this negative self-talk is the key. When you are feeling tired or challenged in training or a race, this inner voice can be very negative. It can question what you are doing, talk you out of keeping going, and become a general nuisance. Positive self-talk is needed when feeling challenged.

Endurance racing and training involves coping with fatigue, which can be learned; you can turn the voice off and you can turn from negative to positive. First, think back to those challenging times when you felt tired and had bad legs. Think of what you said to yourself. Write it down. The next step is to change the negative self-statements into positive self-statements.

For example, consider the negative self-statement, ‘My legs have gone. I will have to slow down’. This relationship between feeling tired and what to do about these feelings is clearly terminal for performance. We need to change both parts of this self-statement. Rather than saying ‘my legs have gone’ we need to change this to a transient statement such as ‘my legs are tired’. This is more likely to be true in any case. Tiredness tends to come in waves during endurance events and intense feelings of physical tiredness can pass.

It is also important to change the strategy for dealing with challenging times. I suggest that cyclists should focus on their technique and riding relaxed when feeling tired. Focusing on technique and relaxation is a good strategy as it is largely under the control of the athlete. If the cyclist focuses all of their attention on relaxed technique, this can detract attention from sensations of fatigue. The outcome is a much more positive self-statement: ‘My legs are feeling tired, so I will concentrate on relaxed technique to make them more efficient.’

A good way of using self-talk is to try to anticipate difficult moments in competition or in training. Develop self-talk scripts to change negative scenarios to positive ones. Use a combination of imagery (See my May Column) and self-talk to create situations in which you experience unpleasant emotions, and see yourself deal successfully with these situations, using positive self-talk to control the inner voice in your head that can be negative.

We must also not confuse difficulty with failure.  I see this all the time when workouts are challenging or difficult for a cyclist.  Because the workout or race is challenging, the thought process immediately goes to, "I am not good” or "I failed”.  The workout or race should be challenging and difficult.  So again, EXPECT IT and MODIFY IT.  I coach my athletes to look forward to negative talk because this allows them the opportunity to perform to the fullest.  You need to be challenged to be at your best. If you can view negative self talk as a positive opportunity and something NECESSARY for peak performance, a funny thing happens.  Once you have the awareness that negative talk is necessary, you expect it, you are ready for it, you will embrace it, and you will not back down  to the challenge.  Sounds funny, but it works!

Remember that psychological toughness is built on a firm platform of physical fitness. To enjoy racing, athletes need to have experienced repeated training bouts of specific race intensity and hard efforts. In the same way you train your body to cope with these demands of training, you also train your mind to think positively about difficult times and hard efforts.  The body follows the mind, and this must be trained.

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