My Journey Towards Mental Toughness
Growing up, I was not mentally tough, or, tough by any definition of the word. There were the “tough” kids in middle school who intimidated me. They had swagger and confidence. They were far more physically developed than the rest of us. They had real muscles and armpit hair. Most were either the good athletes or, as we called some of them, “hoods.” You remember, the rough guys who hung out the bathrooms smoking during class breaks? Me? I was not tough. I had no muscles. I was the very skinny preacher’s kid.
I tried wrestling in 8th grade. Had one match. Lost 12-0. Tough guys wrestle. Short-lived career there. I played football in 9th grade.
Fast forward many years. The first time that I lined up at USAT Nationals in Portland, OR, I kind of freaked out! What was I doing here? I recognized some names. A couple of guys were medalists at Worlds! A 5x age-group champ from the Atlanta Marathon was there. A swimming stud who swam at the University of Michigan lined up. I’d taken swim lessons at the YMCA. Sheesh! Mentally, I freaked out.
Fast forward another few years and I found myself in a similar situation only this time it was the ITU World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. 99 of the fastest guys in the world in the 50-54 age group came to Germany to race from over 50 nations. “What the heck am I doing here?”, I asked myself. I just hoped to not embarrass myself and the “USA” on the front of my top. Again, I felt my brain start to melt down.
I could recount many other times when my mental weakness surfaced. Fast forward yet one more time. Last summer I once again was in training for an ITU World Championship tri in Australia. ONLY…THIS TIME…I was training to get on the PODIUM…and maybe, the top spot. Yep, I was training to win the World Championship. What?? What had changed? How could my brain have progressed from a state of intimidation to having the confidence of trying to be the best in the world?
Here are a few things that helped me develop mental toughness and confidence through 25 years of tri training and 300+ triathlons:
- Doing the training. Dedicating six to eight months of very specific training towards a goal and then reaching it downloads mass quantities of confidence into the brain. When you put in the hard work ahead of time, you wake up race day morning with the assurance that you’re ready to roll!
- Having a strategic race schedule. My biggest race each year is usually towards the end of the season. So, I map out my races and set mini-goals for each one and see progress. I know that the races I do are just that…races. But I also know they’re the best workout I’ll do that week. When I’ve recovered from a race, I’m that much faster due to such an intense effort. In reality, I race myself into top shape.
- I mark my successes. “Success breeds success,” someone once said. It’s true. With each mini-goal reached, with each success, confidence grows. Yes, there are some bad races and outcomes each season, but those are great learning experiences. They actually help me towards success.
- I beat people I never thought I could beat. Maybe just in the swim, or maybe on the bike or maybe it’s my run split. Maybe it’s in the overall results, but I started believing more and more in my abilities. When I lived in Phoenix, there was a guy in my age group who beat me time after time. Finally, at the Lake Havasu Tri one year, I found myself running him down. I was slowly closing the gap he had on me ‘til, with about 50 yards to go, I passed him and beat him! Could NOT believe it! Confidence! Mental toughness on the rise!
- The cumulative triathlon experiences. What do I mean? I mean just living the lifestyle. Gaining experience year by year, season by season and race by race. Doing tough workouts where I thought I’d throw up, if not die. Pushing myself. Getting up early. Logging the miles/yards. Doing the strength/resistant work. Reading the articles and books. Watching instructional videos/YouTubes. Attending tri camps. It all adds up. You do that and you’ll get mentally tougher.
- Finally, overcoming tough obstacles that unexpectedly pop up during races has increased my mental toughness. Having my goggle strap break just before the horn went off at my first 70.3. Developing bad blisters during runs. Racing while horribly nauseated. Fighting serious depression during Ironman races. Being hopelessly behind, but trying hard not to give up. Dropping my nutrition on the road during the bike leg of a National Championship. And, many more unplanned issues that popped up to my surprise. Somehow, I learned to fight through them and finish and sometimes finish really well.
That first USAT Nationals race in Portland? The podium went ten deep. After a horrible swim, I fought back and took 9th. The next Nationals I did in Los Angeles, I was first off the bike, but had a calf issue and five guys ran by me during the 5K. But hope had been planted and confidence in what I could
Mental toughness was now growing like corn in July in Nebraska! Winning my first Nationals in ’12, where I had to run down the USAT number one ranked guy in the nation in our age group and catching him with 300 yards to the finish line for the win, well…it was surreal. I started believing. No more intimidation. Then, finishing 6th at Worlds in London out of 95 guys put me over the top. I’d arrived at a point of mental confidence and toughness I never thought I’d achieve. That attempt to actually win worlds last year? Yeah, that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped for. But as they say, “Life happens and you just gotta roll with it.”
It doesn’t take days or months to develop this tough mindset. It takes years. It takes dozens even hundreds of races. It takes failures and things going wrong. But that’s the fun part of this crazy sport – figuring it out. It takes time and patience. My fastest sprint tri ever happened when I was 55 years old, 18 years after I started the sport!
Lastly, the confidence and mental toughness developed in triathlon carries over to all of life. I’m a more confident person in all areas now. Just wish I could race some of those dudes who intimidated me so badly in middle and high s