When I raced at the 2010 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, T1 looked something like the scene in Airplane! when the cabin was in chaos and the passengers panicking. Although age-groupers, these were nonetheless age-groupers good enough to qualify for the 2010 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. I was surprised they were not more focused, had not visualized their transition as they finished their swim, and could not remain calm.
All of panicked athletes in T1 would have benefited from working with a sports psychologist. Most would agree that coaching, be it for swimming, cycling, running, powerlifting, or other sports, is extremely beneficial. You can learn a lot from friends, books, and the Internet, but the right coach will almost always be more effective. Even then, a good coach is just one part of an athlete’s support team. In addition to a coach, athletes have a whole network or professional support – strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, massage therapists, ART-trained chiropractors, and, increasingly, sports psychologists. The US Olympic Training Center has a dedicated team of sport psychologists and so do many professional athletes, professional sports teams, and collegiate teams. My wife Gloria, a.k.a. “Dr. G,” was a sports psychologist for the rowing team and track team during her clinical psychology internship at Wichita State University. During rowing season she was out in the boat working with the athletes almost every morning.
There is a lot about sport psychology you can learn on your own. My wife often recommends Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence, by Gary Mack and In Pursuit of Excellence, by Terry Orlick. These books, though good, are just the tip of the iceberg and are probably best read when you start working with a sport psychologist. I am sure that every one of those athletes in T1 at Clearwater thought they knew something about visualization and focus, but these are just two of many sports psychology tools and concepts that are complex and extensive. My wife’s blog about mindfulness training is just one example of how complex these tools and principles can be. Sports psychologists have extensive training not just in the concepts and tools of sports psychology, but also in evaluating and assessing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In states such as California, psychologists must accrue thousands of hours of supervision (similar to a residency) before they become licensed. A sport psychologist also offers an external, objective viewpoint for athletes who often have difficulty seeing past their own egos, fears, biases, and insecurities.
Many coaches have a basic understanding of sport psychology principles and a few are even well-versed in the area, but few can offer the highly specialized knowledge of a sports professional (our friend TriMarni, who is a registered dietician, is a rare exception), which is why athletes have a support network of nutritionists, chiropractors, and, increasingly, sport psychologists. Consulting with a sports psychologist not a sign of weakness. After all, hiring a coach is not a sign that an athlete lacks the knowledge or discipline for self-training. Rather, consulting with a sports psychologist is an affirmative step towards improving performance. Even those who are already mentally strong or who have some basic understanding of applying the tools and concepts of sports psychology can improve their mental toughness, focus, and other mental attributes to improve their performance. To say otherwise is like saying that improving your FTP will not make you a better cyclist, even if you are already a good cyclist.
So the next time you are looking for the next way to improve your performance, before you upgrade your disc wheel with a newer disc wheel or before you buy the top-end time trial bike instead of the mid-range time trial bike, consider consulting with a sport psychologist. Yes, this is a plug for Life With No Limits Coaching, but it will improve your performance and the skills developed will apply to other areas of your life as well. Try doing that with your disc wheel. Plus, you will be less likely to look like a cast member from Airplane!