BY TAYLOR BROWN
PHOTO BY ED MORAN
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We all know the mind is important for peak performance. When athletes and coaches are asked what proportion of athletic endeavor and success is mental, their answers range from 50 percent to 90 percent.
Hardly surprising. Anyone who has ever competed in a sport knows that the contest is won or lost in the six inches between your ears. What’s revealing, however, is the follow-up question: “What percentage of your training do you dedicate to the mind?” The question usually confounds people because, while they deem mental performance important, most realize that the time they spend training the mind is almost zero.
Clinical psychologists Keith Kaufman, Tim Pineau, and Carol Glass call this “the mental-training paradox.” In their book, Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement, they quote Bruce Beall, a rowing coach and Olympian: “Coaches like to tell athletes that sport is 95 percent mental but do not seem to know how to train the mind.”
Many coaches and athletes believe that training the body will train the mind by default. If you keep training the body, the mind eventually will catch on, right? Wrong.
Chad McGehee, director of meditation training at University of Wisconsin Athletics, works with the women’s rowing team and likens the relationship between mental and physical training to racing in an eight,
“You have eight spots in the boat, and five of those people are training their butts off, working hard. Then those other three people just show up on race day without really training,” McGehee explained. “They’ll figure out some stuff and after a while they’ll get a little bit better, but they’ll have a ton of bad habits that are going to get in the way. This is like training the body without training the mind.”
One reason training the mind is challenging is that we humans are not fond of deferred gratification. When we put in effort, we want to see results immediately. “Measuring the impact of mental training can be hard,” McGehee said. “It’s challenging to see those fractional advantages that add up over time. Motivation can decrease if athletes don’t see benefits in their performance early.”
The erg screen shows how hard you pulled and your seat-racing rank vis-a-vis others, but there’s no objective measure of your mental performance. When it comes to assessing progress in that realm, you’re on your own. McGehee encourages athletes to view their minds and bodies as laboratories for determining how to make performance gains over time. His advice for young athletes: “If we don’t train the mind, then we’re just hoping that it all works out, and hope is not a strategy.”
A Rower’s Journey
Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start. That’s why we look to those who have done it before.
When Michelle Sechser was a 15-year-old novice rower at Capital Crew, she knew where to go for help—Santa Claus. “I was really stoked on rowing and I thought, ‘I’ll ask for a rowing book. This will be great!’”
The Tokyo Olympian and eight-time U.S. national-team member asked Santa for a book about mental performance, and after she read it, her perspective on training changed forever. “That was my first realization that training my mind is as important as training my body and my rowing stroke.”
Over the years, Sechser, in weathering the ups and downs of competition, has had to draw on all she’s learned. “This year, I had to revisit all of the seasons when I managed my headspace well—and also when I was self-destructive—in order to put the most successful season together.”
Over the course of her career, Sechser has come to believe strongly that mental and physical training are inseparable. Every seasoned racer knows that there are pivotal points during races that are extremely hard physically and that demand you respond. Coming into the third 500, you sit up, breathe, and keep the catch sharp because this is when fatigue sets in.
Likewise, there are points in a race that are extremely hard mentally, and Sechser has learned how to deal with those, too. Four seats down with 750 meters to go, for instance, is a moment when doubt can creep in. “I want to be able to rely on my mind being strong and reliable the same way I rely on my core strength and posture.” Sechser said. “They’re parallel.”
Sechser refers to these pivotal points as “sliding-door moments”—times in a race when a momentary response has a huge effect on the outcome. Perhaps you’re down a length early. You can respond by acknowledging that fact and doing something to change it.
“Sit up, blades in, strong push, breathe, sit up, blades in, strong push, breathe.” Sechser said, demonstrating how she responds at such times.
Occasionally, negative thinking has led Sechser down a psychic rabbit hole, she admits. “How did you get down like this? You’ve lost focus! Why aren’t you focused? I need to get my splits back.”
Result: You jack up the rate a couple beats, get tense in the shoulders, and wind up rowing terribly, still a length down. Perhaps you slip into a funk, which compounds the frustration.
At the whim of your thoughts, you’re no longer calling the shots. The origin of both scenarios is how you responded during the sliding-door moment—the moment when mental training is important.
Visualizing the Victory
How does Sechser suggest athletes train their minds? Visualization.
“Two-fifty by two-fifty, here’s my focus. I’m picturing myself rowing. I’m picturing myself executing at the highest level, the way I want to be,” Sechser said. “I see myself making the move, walking through the field. I see myself getting my bow in front because I’m holding good posture. I’m driving my legs hard. I’m staying strong. I’m pushing deep to the absolute bottom of the well. And then for me, most importantly, visualizing the victory. I want to feel the emotion I would experience, and what that would mean to me.”
Visualization can create confidence before the race and also halt negative thoughts that can disrupt your performance during it. “I visualize a stop sign to break negative thought patterns and then replace them with positive thoughts or something to bring my mind back to the moment,” Sechser said.
In talking to herself, Sechser rarely uses the first-person I. Instead, she addresses herself as you and we, as if coaching someone else or a group. “Yeah, you’re strong. Good, good strokes. Good rhythm. Keep this up. Repeat. All right. Dig in. We’re feeling the burn. We’re going to push hard. You can do this. You’re confident. Sit tall and just keep this flowing.”
Research suggests that third-person or distanced self-talk fosters more effective self-control because it allows people to regard the self the way they regard others, thus providing the psychological distance needed to facilitate self-regulation. This type of self-talk serves to ground you squarely in the moment. Every time Sechser launches, she tries to connect with what she’s experiencing. She takes a “mindfulness minute” to center herself by focusing on what she can see, hear, touch. This keeps her from getting sucked into negativity and protects against fear. If you ground yourself squarely in the present, fear has no power.
Staying in the Process
Matt Brown, a former Yale rower, Olympic trials champion, and record holder for fastest Atlantic crossing in a four-man rowboat, has experienced many adventures in mental endurance. His secret for getting through: Fall in love with the process.
“At one point during the Atlantic race, I was rowing with every ounce of energy I had,” Brown recalled “Then one of my teammates comes out of the cabin and tells me that we have gone a thousand meters in the opposite direction. We were being pushed backward, farther away from the world record.”
The way Brown and his teammates dealt with such instances: Focus on the small wins in the journey, not the ultimate goal.
“If you go on a journey like that and the only thing you’re thinking is whether there’s a trophy for you at the finish line, you’re probably going to be disappointed,” Brown said. “It’s all about the process. It’s not about the big moment of competitive triumph but the little mundane things you do every day,” Brown said. “Do you love doing those things?”
Ask and You Shall Receive?
Devising a mental-training strategy can seem daunting, especially when there’s little support from above.
“Colleges spend all this money for the best equipment, for travel to races and European recruits,” Sechser said. “But the ratio of mental training to physical training is 50/50. What a missed opportunity for getting the most out of your athletes.”
Wisconsin’s McGehee says one of the biggest difficulties for athletes interested in developing mental skills is that they don’t know how.
“The access to a sports psychologist or mental-performance coach is important, but beyond access, is the how?” McGehee said. “There’s a million YouTube videos and books and all sorts of resources for strength and conditioning and good scientific research on impactful ways to train the body, yet we’re not at that same place with training the mind.”
Another challenge is the stigma surrounding mental health. People still view attention to mental issues as “something you need to do only when something is wrong, when there’s a pathology,” said McGehee. “There’s lots of stigma in high-performance environments with regard to mental performance.”
At some point, voices such as those of Sechser, Brown, and McGehee will be heard and a shift will occur, bringing new understanding of what it means to train and compete and illuminating just how important the mind really is.