How improving your mental toughness will improve your overall performance as an athlete

Improving your mental strength is as important as improving for fitness and technique

sports psychologyA friend was in a cancer ward and his treatment involved going without food and water for eight weeks. He survived on a drip and lost three stone in weight. Around him other patients frequently died. It was a depressing period. Asked how he coped with tubes into and out of his stomach and down his throat he, replied: ‘I start each day by saying ‘I’m going to enjoy this day’ and then I ask myself ‘Whom can I help today?” This is a good philosophy for all sportspeople to adopt. Nearly 40 years ago the great Australian runner Ron Clarke broke world records for two miles, three miles and six miles, and 3000 and 5000m, as well as the distance run in one hour. The 10,000m world record, however, had eluded him many times, and on one of his training runs by the sea, he was pondering why this was so when, in the distance, he heard much squealing and splashing coming from a rocky alcove. Out of curiosity he ran towards the scene and discovered a group of children lying on their backs in the shallow water and throwing a ball to each other. Then he noticed a row of collapsible wheel chairs. The children were all paralysed. He turned away from the scene and muttered to himself: ‘What am I bothering about the 10,000m world record for?’ Sporting performance should always be put into perspective.

The word ‘recreation’ literally means recreating our mind and body. Because we can, we should. If we enjoy sport we will enjoy it more if we get better at it. Improving involves the allocation of time. Our lives revolve around the three eights – eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours free time. Some of the free time is required for taking meals and for travelling to and from work. At the very least we can find one hour a day to practise our sport. When we choose that hour is our prerogative.The world’s first sub-four-minute miler, Roger Bannister, was a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. He chose to use his lunch hour for a 10-minute jog to Paddington track. There he ran 10 x 440yds in about 60secs with two minutes rest, then he ran back to work. The whole procedure took exactly 48 minutes, leaving him time for lunch. If you want to train for sport you can always fit it in somehow.

We are at our physical peak in sport for about five years, although we may compete in one way or another for 25 years. This means that you should regard every training session – like every day – as a precious piece of your time. Regard it as an investment which will pay dividends in the future. The more we invest, the better our return.

Start small – and then grow

Training must have a point. It is a journey towards a destination, a fixed point in our minds. The terminus must be both reachable and challenging. Let’s suppose it is to run a mile in under four minutes. What will it take to do this? First of all you have to become familiar with the pace: 59secs per 400m, not 60secs per lap, which is only a 4:04 result. You can achieve this by taking segments of the distance and running them at the appropriate speed. You may have to start with very small sections such as 200m until you can do twice the actual distance, i.e. 16 x 200m in 29.5secs. You want to get them all done on time but with some difficulty; a recovery time of double the time of the effort will suffice (59secs). When you can handle that, extend the segment a further 100m to 300m at the same speed with the same rest as before (59secs). In so doing, you are getting used to sustained running. Eventually you reach the point where you can run 1200m non-stop in 2:57 and you are on your way!

In order to help the body’s acceptance of 59secs per 400m you need to train faster than that: say, 55secs per 400m. For this you will have to do fewer (but better) efforts, with more recovery, e.g. 4 x 400m in 55secs with 3-4mins rest. When you can handle that comfortably, you can consider reducing the recovery time in blocks of 15 seconds until you may eventually repeat the session with only half of the original rest time. This may take several weeks, months or even years. But the point is that you are still travelling towards your destination; it may be long and difficult, but you must stick to the route.

Though the feat itself may be beyond most if us – and I have, of course, simplified for effect – you have just witnessed a classic piece of progressive training: starting small, then growing.

Do more of what you dislike

Whatever distance a race is, that distance assumes major, and often exaggerated, proportions in the mind. To a predominantly 400m runner, the 800m event looks like a marathon! Athletes have to conquer that fear of the distance. Roger Bannister did it by running 3 x 1.5 miles but slower per lap than his intended sub-four-minute mile. If the mile seems formidable, it will be less so if you regularly run two miles. You can start cautiously by running eight consecutive laps of the track at 10secs per lap slower than in your target mile, i.e. 69secs per 400m. You should keep practising this until you get major reductions.

This is not just theory: as a novice, Glen Cunningham (USA) was ignorant of training methods. He repeatedly ran the mile distance in training and racing and tried to reduce the time for each race. He got used to the distance all right, but he reached a plateau of performance. Then he met a coach who encouraged him to race 880yds and two miles and then the mile; he also encouraged him to train at these different speeds. He broke the world mile record within a year. There are many 800m runners who shun the 1500m event, and many 1500m runners who avoid 3000 and 5000m races. Similarly, they do not entertain running under-distance. Like Cunningham, they stick to one distance and stagnate. They are scared of not looking as good as they do in their main event. This brings me to a very important maxim for fortifying the mind: whatever you most dislike in training and racing, do more of it!Derek Ibbotson disliked sprinting, and consequently he was outsprinted in many races. He decided to spend a winter with his club’s sprint group in addition to maintaining his normal cross-country training. He became one of the fastest finishers ever in mile races. He also broke the world record for the mile.

Training the will-power

Professor McDougall, a famous psychological writer some 40 years ago, stated that the seemingly useless practice of each day taking all the matches out of a matchbox and, one by one, arranging them in a line on a table, was an exercise that would strengthen will-power. We don’t hear much about will-power training in sport. We often hear about ‘the will to win’ but where does this will come from? Are we born with it or can we acquire it? Oscar Wilde aptly summed up the weak-willed when he said: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’.

Athletes have to resist certain excessive social behaviour patterns, which are accepted as the norm elsewhere in society. This is defensive use of the will. Can we go on the offensive? We can – and in doing so, improve our performance. A middle-aged female took up running for the marathon. She had not participated in sport of any kind for 25 years. She was told to run for one minute and each successive day to add a minute. Because she had such a short stride, her leg strength was tested by making her hop 25 metres. She took 22 hops to cover the distance (world-class middle-distance runners can do it in nine). She was told to do hopping exercises every other day. After 100 days this woman was running for 100 minutes and had reduced her total hops to 15.

The secret of her success was to start with a very minor challenge and to build on it. Many start too ambitiously and break down, giving the will a severe dent in the process.

Nine top fortifying tips

In summary, here are my nine top tips for fortifying the mind:

  1. Start each day with a declaration of intent: ‘I am going to enjoy this day’.
  2. You can run; many cannot and will not run. Some have never known what it is like to run. Make the most of it while you can.
  3. You can train every day for at least one hour. There is no excuse not to. * Train with a goal in mind.
  4. The method of achieving this goal must involve rehearsing the activity and aids to that activity.
  5. Competition must not only include the specific event but other events which will test endurance and speed.
  6. Exercise your will specifically by daily devoting time to the task you dislike most in training, or to a known weakness
  7. When it comes to competition, if you have trained diligently and intelligently and done your best, you have succeeded. You are only a failure if you have not done these things.
  8. Start small and progress.

Frank Horwill

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