Mental forces: which ones for taking a step?

Forget the idea that champions don’t doubt. It’s a fake. When the English Olympic distance triathlon coach, a few years ago, went to the challenge between the recordman of miles and the best performers on this distance, and remarked to the champion’s coach how fantastic he was, he got the answer: “You’d be surprised but just an hour ago, he was scared like a kitten at the sight of the performances of other athletes! I had to remind him how good he was…”

Common scenario, especially for very long distance events (and triathlon in particular) where reality shows the athletes’ lack of self-confidence. Training in these disciplines is so engaging that the athlete’s eventual serenity is completely offset by the sacrifices made and the rarity of the event. Especially in age groups due to the low number of annual competitions that limit the experience. There may also be a certain part of a perfectionist personality trait… In this context, reassurance comes from the race plan. A millimetric plan, a controlled plan (sometimes in excess). But a plan is “ideal” when a race is authentic. A race is first and foremost a test: the self-test. In this it imposes us a certain degree of adaptation.


Imperfect. This is the plan that is advised to adopt, or at least agree to have. But it is not easy… “Imperfect” because it will not resemble that of others, better or worse. “Imperfect” because it won’t fit 100% to the reality of the race, its predictable events (weather, changes in slope) as unpredictable (falls, forgetfulness). Champions like Alistair Brownlee, for example, don’t have a pre-determined nutritional scenario in the race – a point on which the athlete agrees a certain spontaneity.

When we deviate from the plan, it can then be in terms of time, nutritional timing, expected sensations, level of satisfaction… This planned / realized gap is a source of anxiety often proportional to the mastery of the initial plan: “the more I deviate from what I thought I would master, the less reassuring it is”. It is within this framework of the unknown that mental skills take on their meaning.

Mental skills are all those resources/leviers that allow you to fully exploit a potential AND that happen in the head: trust, motivation, focus, emotional control, resilience, goal setting… are part of them. They make it possible to perform under pressure, to surpass yourself in spite of the pain, to be rigorous in your training… in short, to pass from the state of anxiety in the face of unpredictability, to that of excitement to be able to stick back to the initial goal.

These forces do not work in the “all-or-nothing” mode: they are capabilities, so they have to be worked on – even if we do not know exactly how long it takes to develop them (from one ‘click’ to several months). On the other hand, they are known to develop on the basis of listening to oneself – for example, to establish your own “imperfect plan”, or to target effective race tactics in accordance with your physical strengths and weaknesses. “Know yourself.”

1. So build a ‘red wire’ rather than a plan. The plan must remain vague while wrapped around the wire: target areas of intensity rather than a fixed intensity, target the parts where you can change your rhythm and those to respect, those where you can dream and those where you have to focus, target your energy needs without locking yourself in a timed timing, target a level of pain/effort per race portion… but always leave space for unexpected events. This is the first and often the only necessary step. It involves goal setting.

2. When the red thread doesn’t fit you anymore (because things are going really well, or bad), bet on an initiative. The relevance of this initiative will be important, it will be to bring close the notions of clairvoyance, lucidity, correctness, which are unfortunately put at risk during effort (see Choose or suffer during effort). As a result, remember that there will be 2 forces to invoke to make sure you don’t get lost when choosing: emotional control and resilience. These mental skills will act as guarantors by allowing maximum efficiency in the calculation of the probability of success of your choices. Note, however, that these skills will be harder to exploit if you are a competitor i. e., inclined to let yourself be carried away by the behaviour of others.

3. Then there’s the implementation skills: your motivation and focus forces will now make a difference. In other words, after the cognitive, place is made for (mental) energy. The more motivating factors you are able to mobilize while remaining focused on them, the faster and further you will go. Several techniques exist in this regard. One particularly effective is that of the 3Ps:

  • Visualize Positive images (at effort, the brain blends in),
  • Speak to yourself with Powerful words (“John, your power is awesome!”),
  • Stay focused in the Present (rythmate your cadence, breathing…).

The stakes involved in these approaches are not vital, since some athletes do without and advance at their own pace, intuitively and effectively despite everything. On the other hand, for everyone, the work of mental skills, if it can allow the punctual realisation of a “personal best”, guarantees at least always a factor of satisfaction: regularity.

Below is an example of the questioning to be carried out in order to situate yourself and direct the axes of work: