Teaching Your Body To Follow Your Mind
As published on www.triathletemag.com. (NOTE: I am available, subject to my racing calendar, for speaking engagements/appearances. You can contact me through this website. This article is adapted from a recent presentation I made.)
By Melanie McQuaid
Feb. 26, 2008 — I really admire exceptional ability. Being a professional athlete, it’s easy for me to quantify my ability based on medals, titles and racing achievements. In life, there are exceptional achievers all around us, some of whom get recognized and others who don’t. Bill Gates is recognized as an exceptional achiever in business and now as an ambassador of philanthropy. David Suzuki is a scientist who has been recognized for his efforts with regards to the environment. Clint Eastwood is recognized for his achievements as an actor and as a director. The general public recognizes such individuals for displaying exceptional abilities in their field. What is interesting about high achievers is the attributes that make them exceptional is consistent regardless of their vocation.
So what does this mean to us as competitive triathletes? I think many athletes in both the pro and the amateur ranks share the same attitude much of the time. It is more a difference in priorities than in talent that separates the top pros from the ranks of the field. Often our potential is determined by our own vision. Yes, it takes a certain amount of talent to be an exceptional athlete, but I also believe it takes a lot of elite attitude to make something of that talent.
I think there are five qualities that really separate the best from the rest: Accountability, Goal Orientation, Fearlessness, Discipline and Vision. With them, you can plan your journey in sport, as well as in your career, to find your best potential.
The best performers will accept all responsibility for their actions and will consider their responsibilities before springing to action. For instance, deciding whom you are responsible to helps you to set your goals. A pro athlete would consider their own values, their family responsibilities, sponsor agreements and their country. An amateur athlete would balance personal wants and needs with family responsibility, work commitments, and community involvement. All of these must be balanced with overall sporting goals in order to service all of these commitments. It is very common for career goals to conflict with sports goals and create a situation where a compromise needs to be made. Many age group competitors at the top of their field may have been top professionals if a passion for their career or family commitments did not ask them to make a choice. They have an elite attitude and have fostered their need for high performance in an arena other than sport.
With accountability you shoulder the responsibility for all of your decisions and actions. In this way, you can learn quickly from your mistakes to ensure they are not repeated. Being accountable for all of your actions will boost your integrity and your trustworthiness. These qualities are hugely valuable, particularly in a team environment. The important facet of accountability is the absence of blame and the presence of dependability. All high performers fail at some point. The best performers move past it quicker.
2. Goal Orientation
Goals are your road map to find your shortest distance to success. They can be broken down into outcome-oriented goals and process-oriented goals.
Outcome goals are the light at the end of the tunnel. They represent an ultimate achievement. I like to think of outcome goals that are just within the realm of possibility. If the achievement is too likely, it is not challenging enough. If it is completely unlikely, it is either too challenging, or I need to reevaluate my mindset if I don’t believe in myself enough. When setting an outcome goal it’s useful to talk to someone you trust about it, because sometimes we can limit ourselves unnecessarily. With some feedback and positive reinforcement you can help big dreams become a reality.
The process goals are the breadcrumbs on the trail to our outcome goal. They tend to have short-term objectives and must be specifically defined. I also believe process goals keep you in the moment and keep the fun in what you do. I find it most beneficial to ensure that the completion of these goals is only affected by my own improvement. They must be highly objective, measureable and attainable.
My main goal this season is the reclaim the XTERRA World Championships title. In an effort to make this happen, I have resolved to commit to the following:
- Swim a minimum of 15km every week, with at least one technique workout (as a mental challenge).
- Build my maximum aerobic power on the bike for a full 10 weeks before the season starts (physically challenging).
- Ride my mountain bike a minimum 2 days/week off road (not a hard task to follow).
- Spend at least three sessions each week focusing on mental training.
- Pay special attention to physical markers to monitor fatigue (I was over-trained in 2007).
The ideal outcome of completing these tasks is successful completion of your outcome goal. However, very often external factors can influence that result. A combination of external factors, like mother nature, other people’s better races, or equipment malfunction can derail the best of plans. If I complete the process goals I can still feel good about whether or not I made my best effort and I can continually stay on track right up to the day of my key race.
Elite performers are constantly pushing their comfort zone to find new challenges. This is often what inspires children when they see athletes performing nearly super-human feats of athletic ability. They got to that level by constantly pushing back self-imposed boundaries.
An elite performer sees failure as a speed bump on the road to success. While searching for new and better performances there will inevitably be some failures. Resilience in the face of adversity is the hallmark of an elite performer.
It seems like it’s easier to learn from failure than it is to learn from success. You are more motivated to make changes. I have found both failures and successes have shaped my career, but a lot of failures were experienced before my first major win at the XTERRA World Championships. It’s funny how so often a person is unrecognizable before a major achievement and is viewed as an “overnight success”. In my experience, this never happens. There is always a history that led to that success. Physical talent at the top level is rarely enough to win – experience counts.
I don’t think fearlessness is necessarily recklessness. All risk is calculated with an assessed chance of success. It may appear to be reckless from the outside, but the elite approach is there is a “pretty good” chance of success. Riding this edge is the key to pushing boundaries and achieving greater success in the face of risk.
It’s like riding a sketchy line when mountain biking on single track. Depending on your ability, a certain trail may be completely impossible, or just a bit scary. Some people may have the skills and confidence to ride it. The key is to find the appropriate level of risk to challenge your limits without going too far beyond them. Every time you test the limit with success you will move that boundary a bit further out. I ride things that I think I have a decent chance of success making and avoid riding off cliffs that are beyond my ability. A balance of risk versus reward determines my level of fearlessness when I set challenges for myself.
When I talk about discipline you may be imagining all of the physical aspects of training, which are required to perform well on the course – nutrition, sleep and exercise. I think these are very important to athletes, but may not be as important in the workplace. I believe that an overall healthy lifestyle is important to maximize our potential but really, these aspects of physical discipline are truly secondary to anyone in their pursuit of excellence. The most important thing anyone can control is their mindset.
Only a small percentage of our actual physical ability is ever achieved in sports. Our brains limit our capability to ensure physical homeostasis and to prevent us from actually killing ourselves en route to an exceptional performance. Images of athletes crawling to an Ironman finish are proof of this. Even while in “the zone”, most of us finish races with gas in the tank. Given how important our mind is to our performance, it’s clear that training our minds is equal to, or perhaps even more important, than training our bodies.
I still to this day do not remember finishing the 2003 World Championship. I remember going to that race confident in my own ability. I went to Hawaii with intent to finish with nothing left. I remember seeing a manta ray swimming beneath us in the swim. I remember passing people on the bike and I remember the longest beach section of the run course, but I don’t remember the final two kilometers of the race. I don’t remember finishing. There is a gap up to where I remember waking up frightened because I didn’t know where I was. I remember thinking that I never want to wake up freaked out in a medical tent again and I think there was a fleeting second where I thought about quitting the sport! I asked whether I had won the race and the thought of quitting was shelved when I got the information that I had won.
The collapse at the finish line in Maui was embarassing after the fact.
Since that day I find it amazing that your body will continue to do whatever your mind tells it to do. I got exactly to the line, grabbed the tape and went unconscious. My mind told my body just to get to the line – no further. I collapsed unconscious as soon as the task I had set for myself was complete. It’s a powerful tool and when you use it properly, it can ensure great performances regardless of physical circumstances.
Winners choose winning thoughts. They tend to be optimistic, positive and objective. They also tend to be more focused on task. An elite athlete is almost always thinking about how they can be better, or is always thinking about their ultimate goals. Making mental discipline part of your process goals can make a big impact on your progress.
Elite athletes see themselves as successful well before they ever achieve that success. The difference between a pro athlete and an excellent amateur is the vision and decision to take their career as far as possible. We limit ourselves by what we can see of ourselves. I remember thinking that I could become a professional cyclist before I knew any professional cyclists, or knew of any opportunities to become one. I just kept setting my goals a little higher every year – from local success, to national and then to international – chipping away at the necessary steps to finally be offered a professional contract. I then applied the same strategy to my career as a triathlete, working my way up to a level where I would eliminate weakness and be strong at more than just the bike. Yearly goals with yearly progress lead to a lifetime of improvements and successes.
I built my career one year at a time. Throughout my career I always believed that without measureable improvement I could not continue along this path. It was not enough just to live the lifestyle of an athlete, I wanted to see myself progressing and improving as well. I still assess my improvement yearly to keep myself moving forward and evolving as an athlete.
Vision without measurable progress is only a fantasy. This is why each attribute – accountability, goal orientation, fearlessness, discipline and vision are important. They help to ensure that you are pursuing an achievement that is measurable, challenging, realistic and meaningful. Good luck with your journey!