Endurance Athletes Should Work on Their Mental Skills
Whether you’re striving for peak performance or coming back from injury, psychological techniques can help
Partway through her talk on mental toughness at the Endurance Coaching Summit in Boulder last week, Joanna Zeiger, the former Olympic triathlete and 2008 Ironman 70.3 world champion, paused for an aside about terminology. “I call it ‘mental skills training’ instead of ‘sports psychology,’” she said. “People think, ‘I’m not sick, I don’t need a psychologist.’ But they’re receptive to thinking about it as a skill they can improve.”
I wrote about some of my key takeaways from the summit a few days ago, but there’s one more theme that caught my attention at the gathering. Both Zeiger and sports psychologist (a.k.a. mental skills training expert, as her website puts it) Carrie Jackson Cheadle gave talks that explored different aspects of developing mental skills for endurance athletes. I’m one of those people who tended to shy away from sports psychologists during my competitive career, so the shift in terminology makes sense to me. Here’s what I took away from their talks.
Build Your Mental Toughness
Last year, Zeiger, who is now a Boulder-based coach, published the results of a mental toughness survey in the journal PLOS One. Mental toughness is hard to define, but it’s sometimes summed up as the ability to produce consistently high levels of performance despite both everyday challenges and significant adversity. Drilling down a little further, researchers have identified eight distinct sub-elements: confidence, constancy, control, determination, visualization, positive cognition, self-belief, and self-esteem. More than 1,200 endurance athletes, mostly triathletes and runners, filled out Zeiger’s online survey, which attempted to measure these eight elements.
Zeiger then used a statistical technique called latent profile analysis to sort the data into clusters of athletes with similar characteristics. The result was three distinct groups with either low, medium, or high mental toughness. The best predictors of which group a given athlete would fall into were self-belief, positive cognition, and confidence, but all eight elements were significantly different between the groups. Men were about twice as likely to be classified as high on mental toughness than women, which fits with previous findings that women tend to show lower levels of self-esteem and confidence (and thus, perhaps, have more to gain from mental skills work). Athletes over 55 were also more likely to be in the top group, as were those who typically placed highly in races.
There are limits to how much we can learn from a self-selected online survey like this. For example, we can’t tell whether high mental toughness scores lead to placing well in races, or whether placing well in races leads to high levels of confidence and self-belief, which in turn lead to high mental toughness scores. But one solid conclusion we can draw is that there are huge differences in the mental toughness ratings self-reported by endurance athletes—and we can then make an educated guess that working to improve them, particularly for those in the lowest group, might be useful.
How do you increase your mental toughness? It’s like the directions for getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Zeiger (who also published a book on mental toughness for athletes in 2017) has developed a simplified test of the concept that she calls the Sisu Quiz. Once you’ve assessed where you stand and which elements you need to improve, you work on specific exercises for those areas. Is perfectionism undermining your confidence? Maybe you need to go watch some videos of Serena Williams double-faulting or Simone Biles falling off the balance beam. That’s a great reminder that you can’t be perfect because nobody’s perfect, Zeiger says: “It’s very liberating.”
The missing element, for me, is the demonstration that these techniques don’t just change your survey responses but also improve your athletic performance. It’s a hard thing to test, because a properly randomized test will involve giving some athletes fake help or no help at all. That’s what a few different research groups have started doing with traditional sports psych (er, mental skills) techniques like motivational self-talk. It’s important work, and I hope we’ll see more of it for other elements of mental skills training.
Rebound from Injury
When I was 22, my running career was thrown off track by a knee injury that lingered for more than two years. Partway through that ordeal, as I wallowed in self-pity, I was chatting with an old friend who was then working on his doctorate in sports psychology. The injury was out of my control, my friend told me, but I had three choices in how I faced it: I could be a gainer; a maintainer; or—well, I can’t remember what the third choice was, but it was basically a synonym for loser. In other words, even though I couldn’t run, there were a lot of other things I could still be doing to ensure that, when I eventually returned to running, I’d find that I hadn’t lost much ground, and perhaps in some ways had even gained ground.
That lesson hit home. Not only did it light a fire under me to start taking cross-training and strengthening exercises more seriously; it also made me feel more optimistic and in control of the whole situation. That sort of insight was at the heart of Carrie Jackson Cheadle’s presentation at the Endurance Research Summit, titled: “Sidelined: Help Your Athletes Come Back Mentally Stronger From Injury.” It’s also the topic of her forthcoming book (out on October 15), written with longtime running journalist Cindy Kuzma, Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries.
Cheadle’s inspiration for the book was a pair of knee injuries during her days as a snowboarder and climber. After a torn meniscus, she noticed that even once the injury was gone she still hesitated to put all her weight on the formerly injured leg while climbing. It was a trust issue: “I know it was all in my head,” she recalls, “but I didn’t know anything about sports psychology.” The situation was very different a few years later, during her graduate studies in sports psychology, when she tore a medial collateral ligament in the same knee. This time, harnessing her newfound knowledge, she made a rapid return to full form.
Of course, she acknowledges, there’s no getting away from the unavoidable fact that injuries suck. And there’s a lot going on during injury beyond the obvious physical problems: you may also be losing your outlet for managing stress, your athletic identity, your social support system, and so on. But Cheadle makes the case that those with superior mental skills—resilience under stress, psychological flexibility—are better able to deal with these challenges, and often come back from injuries both physically and mentally stronger. In fact, there’s even evidence that mental skills like self-monitoring and reflection can affect your likelihood of getting injured in the first place.
As with Zeiger’s work, the eternal doubter in me wishes there was more robust research on the effectiveness of the techniques Cheadle describes. But for now, here’s where we’re at: the existing research is making it increasingly clear that mindset and mental skills have measurable effects on performance. The research has less to say on how we can actually change those outcomes, so we’re left to either do nothing, or trust the insights of mental skills coaches who’ve spent years in the trenches working with athletes. On the physical side, it’s well accepted that physiologists are still playing catch-up with what coaches figured out decades ago. It won’t be all that surprising if the same thing ends up playing out with mental skills.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.