Having a Mantra Will Make You Better
Nine athletes share the phrases they tell themselves to reach peak performance
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Buddhism, Stoicism, and Taoism all teach adherents to repeat particular chants or mantras to steady the mind. Only recently, though, have researchers begun to look into the power of this practice. A 2015 study published in the journal Brain Behavior described research in which participants were asked to lie down, first with no instruction, and then, after a few minutes, with the instruction to silently repeat a simple mantra to themselves. Throughout the test, their brain activity was observed with a functional MRI machine. While they were repeating the mantra, participants had a marked decrease in brain activity, in what neuroscientists call the default mode network—the part of the brain that is involved in planning and self-focused thinking. When they weren’t repeating the mantra, however, participants’ default mode network had normal levels of activity. In layperson’s terms: repeating a mantra occupies the brain enough so that it doesn’t get caught up in obsessing, planning, and wandering. This, the researchers write, accounts for a significant “calming effect.”
As I’ve written before, calm determination—what I define as a state of relaxed and ardent focus—is critical for peak performance, whether you are climbing a mountain, on the starting line of a marathon, or raising a child. Developing a mantra can help you achieve this state, especially in challenging or emotionally charged situations. I’ve used mantras in everything from the lead-up to big athletic events (“trust your training”) to when my son was an infant and waking up constantly throughout the night (“this is what is happening right now”). So long as they are short, memorable, and meaningful, just about any string of words can be effective.
I reached out to several top outdoor athletes to learn if they used mantras. Most of them did and to great benefit—read on to find out what they are. If you are going to experiment with using a mantra, don’t wait to be in the thick of an intense experience. Like any other mental skill, it’s good to practice in lower-stakes situations first.
“Commit and Figure It Out”
“This was first said to me by Rick Ridgeway, and I believe Doug Tompkins said it to him at some point. It applies to everything.” —Jimmy Chin, mountaineer and photographer
“Those are the words my dad wrote in his letters home from Vietnam. He died over there when I was three, so these words are really the only words I have from him as a father, but they’ve served me well. These words have guided me throughout my life.” —Rebecca Rusch, mountain-bike and adventure racer
“Focus, Focus, Focus”
“I don’t set out with a mantra in mind, they tend to come to me in the moment when I need them most. Last year [in Colorado], at Leadville, when my knee was feeling weak and unstable—it was only about 80 percent recovered from surgery—it was as simple as repeating this, knowing every step could be my last if I let myself daydream.” —Rob Krar, ultramarathon runner
“You Get to Do This”
“I come back to this mantra when I’m dealing with stress, especially prior to or following races.” —Amelia Boone, Spartan Race champion
“Mood Follows Action”
“Applicable in sport and life. Rather than waiting to ‘feel like’ doing something, the surest way to shift out of your discomfort or resistance is to lean into action. It’s in the doing that we alter our perspective and emotional state—not the other way around.” —Rich Roll, ultra-endurance athlete and podcast host
“You Are Strong, You Are Capable, You Are Strong, You Are Capable”
“I was struggling very badly at the beginning of my 2018 Antarctica expedition, so I started to say this to myself first thing every morning as my alarm went off and I needed to face another long, icy day pulling my sled. Sometimes, with how much struggle I was going through, it was hard to believe my own words, but it got me out of bed and moving every morning.” —Colin O’Brady, adventure athlete and explorer
“This Too Shall Pass”
“I use it both in sport and in life when I’m hurting, as a reminder that the pain is temporary. Whether it’s during a period of intentional overreaching in my training, an episode of depression, or feelings of anxiety when I’m in a crowded, confined space, it’s a reminder that the uncomfortable feelings will fade away with time.” —Sarah True, Olympian and professional triathlete
“Don’t Wish It Away”
“It’s particularly powerful because some of my races can be 8-plus hours, so you can just be wishing for it to be over from pure discomfort or, if you’re out front, from just wanting to win. But this is a bad headspace to be in. You’ve got be in the race, not in thoughts about wanting it to be over.” —Sonya Looney, mountain-bike racer
“It Means No Worries for the Rest of Your Days. It’s a Problem-Free Philosophy.”
“I’ve never had a real mantra, but occasionally I get snippets of songs stuck in my head on repeat. I can specifically remember having the refrain from ‘Hakuna Matata’ stuck in my head on a scary aid pitch once upon a time.” —Alex Honnold, climber
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) is a performance coach and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is also a bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance.