A sports psychologist on... mid-race tactics

7 tips for optimizing your mental game

Welcome to our third installment of A Sports Psychologist On... For this new series, running during the month of March, we'll bring you insight from top sports psychologists each week on various psychological issues athletes face. Here, how stay positive during the pressure and pain of competition.

When you’re running a race and you have a good pace and rhythm, you want to stay there. Thus, your mid-race mental plan should be focused on the ways to maintain that positive experience and, if you veer from it, include strategies to get yourself back there.

The effectiveness of these strategies all depends on how committed you are to your mental training beforehand. Once you know what it feels like to be at an optimal level of performance, as well as what cues are helpful for you, then it’s easier to get there or refocus during competition.

Be Mindful of Recurring Problems
Maybe you find it hard to get down gels beyond mile 12, or get anxious about where the next bathroom opportunity will arise, or your feet always start to hurt at mile 11. Whatever it is, take note of any regular aches or worries during your training and devise strategies to deal with them during your race or event. For example, I work with runners who have side stitches, but because they get them regularly during practice runs, they’ve already learned how to handle them for a competition. Now, when they recognize the feeling, that cues them to pay attention to the breath as a way to relieve that pain.

Write Your Mantra on Your Hand
Many athletes pick a motivational saying, theme, or word that they associate with good performance. Typically, cues relate to controllable behavior dynamics. For example, swimmers might use “glide” or “strong kick,” runners might choose “easy turnover” or “pace,” weightlifters may think of the word “explode” or “power.” A few other commonly used cue words: flow, confident, focused, easy. Whatever the word, I like to have athletes write it on their hands so they can have a visual reference point mid-competition; I’ve had basketball players who write cue words on their shoes so during timeouts or while they’re sitting on the bench, they can look down and see that inspirational prompt. Tennis players can put cue words on their racket stem; golfers can put cue words on their golf bag. Use whatever placement works best for you.

Create a Hype and Chill Playlist
Another version of having a cue word is to have a cue song. I have athletes with lists called “hype” for when they need energy, and then another called “chill” for when they’re too nervous and want to be more relaxed. I suggest you create two playlists during your training as well. Then, during a race when you’re feeling tired or unmotivated, cue up a powerful, fast song; if you’re getting inside your head, listen to something that will ground you. Music can be a positive distraction, pulling you away from any physical aches or concerns.

Visualize Breaking Barriers
When you’re feeling low in motivation or high in pain, turn to a visual cue that you identify with your optimal performance. For example, marathon runners talk about hitting a wall towards the end of the race. If you start to feel that wall coming on (during a training run), visualize yourself literally breaking through it. It's best to practice this before the race so you create a sense of confidence in your own ability to perform at a point in the race where you might be feeling the most discomfort. Then, when you get to mile 20 or 21 in the actual course, you can quickly engage that image.

Press the Reset Button
Athletes can have paralysis by analysis where they overthink to the point where they feel they can’t accomplish their goals, they lose their energy, and almost come to a dead stop. For these instances, you need some kind of reset button. For some, it’s simply reevaluating your goals. Maybe your goal at the start was to PR, but now it’s simply to finish the race. If you can focus on what you can control (rather than what has already happened thus far), this helps you to become calmer, loosen up, and ultimately perform better.

Focus on Internal Motivation
Everyone needs to have perspective on what competition is about for them. This ranges from external reasons (to show others they can, to impress or please a certain individual) to deeply internal ones (they do it because they love it, because they want to be proud of themselves). External factors are most likely the things you can’t control, like someone else’s approval. When you're really connected to your internal motivation, though, you reduce a lot of the external stressors that can disrupt your performance.

Chris Carr, Ph.D., is a sports and performance psychologist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis.