Getting Your Mental Game On

Mental Preparation, Psychology, Mental Fitness

In the last two years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch professional athletes and amateurs race both short and long-endurance triathlons, such as the Half Ironman and the full Ironman race. Whether its a person’s first sprint distance triathlon at a slow speed or a pro’s long distance triathlon at speeds that  leave observers open-mouthed and astonished, one thing all athletes and sports psychologists agree on is this: a strong mental game is half the battle.

What if your battle field is not the race course, but something else  important to you? What if you are tired of your job and want to leave it to start your own company with a business partner?  What if your child has been diagnosed with a life-threatening food allergy and you know next-to-nothing about how to keep your child safe at home, school, after-school activities, and outings to restaurants? What if your doctor told you that unless you lose 40-50 pounds, you’re on the borderline of becoming an insulin-dependent diabetic? When giving up isn’t an option (or rather, giving up is always an option, only it comes with harsh consequences), how do you develop the mental stamina to endure until you achieve a different outcome?

My Story

Use positive aspects of your life story and direction to propel you forward
Use positive aspects of your life story and direction to propel you forward

A friend and I had agreed to meet up for a 40-minute open water swim mid morning. We discussed which body of water to swim in; I love Beaver Lake for its warm, calm water, and she preferred Lake Washington for its proximity to both of us. I deferred to her choice: Lake Washington, and with it, the possibility that the water could be choppy if there was a breeze. I don’t do “choppy” as much as it typically “does” me.

While summer had arrived, the water temperatures differ greatly from the big lakes like Lake Washington (63F on average) to the smaller lakes, such as Beaver and Pine Lake (67F on average, climbing close to 70F by the end of summer). While that difference sounds small, swimming in those temperatures feels very different! If there is a significant breeze, Lake Washington’s waves create enough current to make open water swimming challenging, and the air temperature can easily be warmer than the water temperature.

As we entered the lake, she mentioned to me that she regretted choosing Lake Washington; the wind was whipping up enough waves to make me nauseated after swimming along the shore against the current. However, I told her that I wanted to keep trying to swim, despite my lack of experience swimming against a current. I said, “I’m going to need to practice in waves like this if I want to swim in Maui next year.”

At that moment, my friend remarked about how I had a strong mental game going for me. In a single phrase, she noticed what I had already identified as key elements to keep me on track, including a plan, rehearsal of a skill, and a goal.

Are you ready to learn about how you can create a strong mental game, one that can be played over and over until it’s time to make your dreams come true?

Ten Tips To Get Your Mental Game On

I’ve listed ten tips to get your mental game on, and this post will cover the first five. Next month’s post will cover the last five, so be sure to come back and read more about this topic in the August 2014 blog post. I welcome your feedback and comments, so be sure to let me know what you think of these tips.

1. Dream, Create Goals, and Share  — when you dream about what you want, you create a direction for a flow of your energy to follow. No dream, no target. Your energy may be dispersed broadly, getting you nowhere in particular. With a target in mind, you can create a stepped plan with short goals that help you get closer to your end goal.

What if I told you that the average dream could be achieved in as little as five years (and in some instances, even a shorter time? The dream could be to get out debt and have three month’s salary in savings, build a company, or lose 100 pounds and keep them off. It could the dream of finding the love of your life and nurturing a satisfying relationship. The most important determiner of whether a person will actually achieve their dream is if they define it, preferably in writing, build a plan with actionable goals (I can them “ideas with feet”), and share that plan with at least three trusted friends

An example of this is a beginner swimmer in a lake. If you tell the swimmer to “just swim”, he or she may stroke along the shore to and fro, spending a lot of time flailing around without purpose. When you develop a focused goal and then achieve that goal, you can experience a nice hit of progress and accomplishment. This hit can be harnessed for your mental game, making each future experience and challenge something to look forward to and not dread.

2. Do and Rehearse – Try out an aspect of a new idea just to see how it goes. Spend time analyzing the action, and rehearse any aspects where you encounter a hiccup in the process. My motto here is, “Less talking” and “More doing”. A great example of this is learning the process of a cigarette smoking cessation program. You can’t quit smoking if you only talk about quitting. At some point, you need to act on your plan and rehearse that plan often.

Have you ever watched a dance company’s rehearsal? They have been training for a performance, and they often have more than one dress rehearsal before the opening performance to the public. They use the time before performances to rehearse in a similar context as the performance. This helps the dancer’s mental game so that the hundreds of movements and expressions they are asked to perform are placed into “body memory”, an experience of such familiarity with the movements that they don’t have to think too hard about what comes next.

Observing others at the top of their game is not only inspiring, it also shows you what the pros do mentally to perform at higher levels of excellence.
Observing others at the top of their game is not only inspiring, it also shows you what the pros do mentally to perform at higher levels of excellence.

3. Observe and Analyze – observation allows you to gather data you’ll need to accomplish just about anything. Analysis of that data allows you to see what needs to be changed in order to successfully reach your goal.

If you are working on something that could use digital recording to help you analyze that data, smartphones, GoPro’s, and yes even Google Glass, can give you that feedback. You can also reveal your actions to a trusted friend or colleague and ask for his or her analysis.

Observation includes watching others who are a little further down the road than you are. You can learn from their successes and failures. Reading biographies about people you admire, visiting other people’s businesses and asking questions about how they handle a specific challenge you are facing, and asking about their failures or regrets are just a few examples of material you can use to improve your mental game.

That's one unhappy kitteh! When you learn from your mistakes, you not only change the next outcome, but you develop a strong mental game that includes overcoming obstacles (or dealing with unhappy kittehs).
That’s one unhappy kitteh! When you learn from your mistakes, you not only change the next outcome, but you develop a strong mental game that includes overcoming obstacles (or dealing with unhappy kittehs).

4. Learn from failure – most of us want to avoid failure. It can be embarrassing. It can be uncomfortable. Failure can get you fired from a job, and it can signal the need for positive change.

It’s a popular motto to declare, “Failure is not an option.” I find that motto too restrictive. It implies that failure is unacceptable or intolerable, when failure can teach you the hard lessons you need to be mentally strong.

Giving up or quitting, in contrast, is a viable option in some cases. Your job is to learn the difference between failing out because you are tired and quitting something because it is the best strategy on the table. Short selling your house and moving into a smaller but more affordable home is not a decision of failure; quitting that home before it swallows the rest of your finances whole could be the most reasonable action.

Bonus: perhaps as its own category, no mental game is effective without a support system. At some point in the pursuit of your dream, you will experience discouragement. You may even second-guess yourself, questioning your own abilities. If you have a support system, these people sing your heart song back to you. They remind you that they have faith in you. They believe in your dreams and delight in your success. These are the first people you talk to when trouble comes and when you reach a benchmark of success. They remind you of your precious dreams and goals when you are tired and want to give up.

Next Month: Part II “Keeping Your Mental Game On”. C’mon back now, ya hear? I’ll share with you more ways to keep your mental game on and working for you.

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