by Jesse Kropelnicki 

Ed. Note—the offseason is your time to work on aspects of your game that are hard to hit during the rest of the year, when you may be tired or time-limited. Setting the habits at this point of the year, when your training load is lighter, can really make a difference in the season to come. Mental skills, in particular your ability to visualize success, can lift your game, and Jesse Kropelnicki, head coach at QT2 Systems, checks in today with ways to apply this useful skill.

Why is Mental Fitness important? Understanding and mastering it can be the key to unlocking proven, and hard-earned, physical fitness. Leaving mental fitness by the wayside can limit an athlete’s ability to access all of the physicality that has been developed. When QT2 Systems’ first four cornerstones have been covered – Training, Nutrition, Pacing, and Fueling – and we are still not seeing race day performances, or training progress, commensurate with the sacrifices that are being made, then it is well worth the time to take a good hard look at mental fitness issues. Strong mental fitness can yield full physical performance potential, while poor mental fitness will leave an athlete settling for some lesser fraction thereof. For this reason, with so many hours and so much effort, being devoted to maximizing physicality, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the mental side of things. It may shed some light on accessing hidden speed potential and race day performances.

Race day performance becomes little more than the fitness that has been built, over the course of the athletes “career”, minus the mental road blocks that will obstruct accessing it. Strong mental fitness does not make the impossible possible. This isn’t the movie Powder, where an athlete will be able to use the power of his or her mind to move tableware. Strong mental fitness does not add to a performance on race day. But, it can/will prevent performance from being taken away. If we envision our fitness as a pie, the goal should be to utilize the entire pie, on race day. Unfortunately, when mental fitness becomes a factor, it is the equivalent of taking slices out of the pie. The number and size of the slices is dependent upon how deeply the mental fitness limiters lie, and the measures that we have taken to ward them off.

An important means of removing these potential mental fitness road blocks, is the use of visualization and imagery. These are not the only tools that can be used to address mental fitness limiters, but they are very effective, and very user friendly, as the athlete is able to practice them day in and day out, during and outside of training sessions. This access and ease of practice makes the task something that the athlete can very easily rely upon, as needed prior to race day. Below, we take a look at three very different kinds of imagery/visualization, as well as when and how they can be most effectively used. Each of these can play an effective role in removing mental road blocks, and allowing fitness to shine through.

Best Performance Imagery
This type of imagery typically references past performances where you excelled. What did it feel like on that day? How smooth did you feel before the race, and on the course? Did you experience flow? What else can you remember about the day? The sights? The sounds? What was it that made that day so special, in your mind and how great did that feel?

More likely, than not, this day will stand out in the mind of an athlete, not because of where he or she placed, or how fast he or she went, but, instead, because of how the effort felt. Reminding yourself that you are able to feel that way, because you have felt that way before, can go a long way in being able to access those feelings again. Does the mind follow the body, or the body follow the mind? Probably a whole bunch of both. So, it becomes increasingly important to prepare both as the independent variable. Create situations where the body can experience involuntary feelings of smoothness and flow. This opens the mind to experience the same. On the flip-side, preparing the mind to recognize, recall, and recreate these involuntary feelings of smoothness and flow, through Best Performance Imagery, puts the body into a prime position to make them tangible. Practice and rehearse what you are good at and have been good at versus dwelling upon those things you are not good at or anxious about. It seems simple, but many athletes spend 90% of this time thinking and worrying about those things they are not good at versus rehearsing those things they know they execute well.

Best Performance Imagery is best used leading into an event, or key training day. It is the first act in developing confidence in the task at hand, because it gives the mind something real to grab onto. The old adage towards soccer and football players, who score a goal or touch down, to “act like you’ve been ‘there’ before”, rings true, because you have. You know what it feels like. In the days and nights leading up to an event you can replay those images in your mind, to constantly remind yourself that they exist, and that you can experience them again.

Success Imagery
This type of imagery is done prior to an upcoming event. It is used to create a mindset of what success would look and feel at the upcoming event. How many times have you been out on a long run, and envisioned yourself hunting down, and passing, your main competitor? How many times have you been on the bike, during an interval, and envisioned yourself breaking away from a group? This is success imagery when now applied to the forthcoming race - the visualizations, the pictures in your mind, are from the course that you will be racing. Everything on the day is going perfectly, in your minds eye, and you can envision the sights, sounds, and how it will feel. If you play this over and over, in your mind, you will eventually begin to believe it. Is it realistic? Likely? If it has never been practiced, how can we EXPECT it to happen that way on race day? This type of imagery can help an athlete who struggles to keep a positive mindset, or lacks confidence, to reach a new of level of positivity and/or self-belief. This new level of self can then lead to a more concrete optimism and conviction. Is there room for significant disappointment, in training and on race day, if everything doesn’t go to plan that you have built? Absolutely! But, effectively using Coping Imagery (discussed below) can offset the negativity that creeps in, when things don’t go according to plan.

Success Imagery is a very effective tool for athletes who struggle with optimism and confidence. It has a bit of a “fake it ‘til you make it” flavor to it, which can really help to jumpstart an athlete’s mindset. But, it can also prove to be a potential hornet’s nest, if on race day, the athlete slips into panic mode, when things are not going exactly as planned. Therefore, its important that the athlete understands it is very unlikely that race day will be a perfect day, and that the athlete has the tools necessary to overcome these imperfections.

Coping Imagery
Arguably the most important imagery, coping imagery trains the athlete to run their mind through any number of scenarios where they are forced to overcome obstacles in the way of success. Oftentimes, athletes will hope that negative things won’t happen. Inevitably, something almost always goes wrong or not exactly to plan. The athlete who has run through the mechanisms of coping imagery will have practiced running the worst case, most anxious scenario(s) through their mind, developed a tool to fix it, practiced using the tool, whatever it may be, and then moving on.

A classic example is the stress and anxiety that is felt at the swim start, much the reason as to why IRONMAN has recently re-engineered them in most full distance races. Most athletes will hope that they are not going to panic, once the cannon sounds. But, if panic is a very real possibility, then there is no more likely time for it to appear than at the beginning of an IRONMAN event, due to the tremendous amount of adrenaline already coarsing through the body, and the fact that they have rehearsed that it will happen on race day! Rather than simply hope that panic is not going to set in, why not assume that it is going to going to occur, and then run through a series of already developed cue words, or phrases, to help to alleviate this stress? These cue words would have been written down long before race day, because the athlete and his/her coach would have foreseen this possibility, and worked to mitigate it. Maybe these words are also combined with a physical plan of deep breathing on the back. All of a sudden we have an athlete who starts to have the panic attack they dread, has tools to control it, and does, rather than panicking and being swim over by the masses, thus creating further panic. The mental fitness issue of panic and anxiety may still exist, but it is managed in a way such that its effect on performance can be minimized, any many times the athlete armed with these tools doesn’t have the panic attacks they used to just because they know they have tools to manage it.

One of the most important aspects of Coping Imagery is an exhaustive self-assessment of the types of things which may cause this earned level of fitness to become inaccessible. Think of everything, and prepare for it. Never be in a position where you are caught flat-footed, because of an unforeseen situation that arises. Like a good Boy Scout, “Be Prepared." I like to prepare my coached athletes to have a toolbox on race day with a tool to deal with every situation they may encounter. This takes time and experience. Likely, none of us is able to sit down and predict all of the possible things that could go wrong, or not quite according to plan. But, we can reflect upon our past experiences, listen to the experiences of others, and remain more aware of our present and future experiences, to compile a pretty comprehensive list. Developing the coping mechanisms is the easy part, once we know and understand what we are overcoming.

Mental Fitness can fast become just as important as the physical fitness that we devote so much time and effort in developing. Therefore, it is very likely that it should demand a commensurate amount of preparation, if we are to maximize the use of that above-mentioned "fitness pie." But, who among us really pays it that level of respect? Few. So far. I expect that we will soon realize that our greatest source of speed potential lies not in interval ladders, nor race pace based simulations, and the like, but in unlocking the speed potential in the minds of athletes. Most triathletes are already doing a pretty good job maximizing their physical engines. Much more effort spent on further developing these physical tools may be better spent on mental fitness. Visualization is just one of the tools that we can use. It’s time to start using it.