Interview: Forget 'win or lose', think 'win or learn'

Jim Afremow, Ph.D.; eminent sports psychologist and author of the Amazon best seller: ‘ The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive (Rodale, 2014)’ has agreed to share his insights and expertise with Rundamentalists readers. You might not possess the physical capabilities of an elite runner (yet!) but Jim explains the mental strategies the elites use to help you run your best and reach your goals.

Question: Rundamentalists
What led you to the field of sports psychology?

Answer: Jim Afremow
As a licensed counselor, I am trained to understand how people think and what makes them ‘tick’. As a huge sports enthusiast, I therefore have the dream job: the marriage of athletics and psychology.

As well as working with individual sportspeople and teams, my clients include: performers, actors, musicians and business leaders. The common theme is that I enjoy helping people with demanding goals to achieve Peak Performance

One of my key roles is to understand and help each client manage and minimize what I call: Interference. Off-field issues for example with relationships will naturally impact on-field performance.

Q: Rundamentalists
Given the evidence that sports psychology works for elite athletes why do so few amateur runners embrace the science?

A: Jim Afremow
The underlying theme of my book is that we all have the capacity to think like champions. My observation is that champions are always striving to improve even when they appear to be at the top of their game. In my experience non-elite athletes will only seek out sports psychology if they have a specific problem they are trying to fix, for example: performance anxiety.

There is also a misconception that it is time-consuming, however just three 10-15 minute sessions a week practicing mental toughness techniques will make a fundamental difference.

Also many mental routines can be applied in parallel with other activities. For example, you could practice visualization or deep breathing, positive body language, etc.....whilst standing in line at the grocery store.

Of course many athletes are also unconsciously practicing many of the techniques needed to be mentally tough. Ideally we want to make it automatic – just as a novice driver starts off overly conscious of braking and using gears they eventually manage these factors on auto-pilot and can then concentrate 100% on the road ahead.

I do a lot of work with golfers who are often overly concerned [even obsessed] with the mechanics, even whilst playing in a tournament. For runners avoid becoming preoccupied about running form or worrying about the end result..... Focus on sound of your feet… Feel the sweat... Smell the freshly mowed grass….. Use all of your senses.

Try to think softer rather than harder. Relaxation is vital - we need to avoid muscle tension - it will slow you down and leads to a sensation of pain. Try to experience: Effortless effort.

Check in periodically while running to make sure you are maintaining proper form, but you also need to train yourself not to think… Just let it happen… And get out of your own way. I like to use a phrase: feel the now….. runners often call this the zone. Become a Nowist!

Q: Rundamentalists
In the book you indicate that it is rare for an athlete to be 100% physically or mentally?

A: Jim Afremow
Athletes need to find powerful sources of motivation. To succeed you must love your sport and be what I call ‘Vitally Engaged’…to go all out to maximize your talent towards getting as close as possible to your Potential. However, don’t forget that performance is only relative. If the maximum you can achieve today is 85%....then you must recalibrate and realize that 85% is actually today’s gold medal. Therefore always strive for a PTB…a Personal Today Best.

Rundamentalists comment
If for example weather conditions mean that your original target race goal is now unmanageable – think positively and reframe a new target based on what is realistic rather than risk your safety or suffer an injury. You will often have to do this mid-race – a key mental toughness technique is to be able to deal with adversity. For example in the last few miles of the 2013 Chicago Marathon I began to feel the early warnings of cramp (a now familiar foe) and I faced the choice of heroically sticking with the pace group (but risk blowing up) or alternatively slowing to a point where I could manage the situation. A quick mental calculation allowed me to drop by 90 seconds a mile and still gain a Boston Qualification time. Even though I did not achieve my original starting line goal…a BQ was a positive outcome.

A: Jim Afremow
The champion’s mindset is to embrace issues….and transform them into a positive. It is easy to forget that our heroes actually lose more than they win……but it makes them stronger and the best performers see hurdles as a challenge to master rather than a threat to avoid.

My philosophy is that failing is merely a stepping stone and you should always ask yourself: “What did I learn today?”

Rundamentalists comment
Jim gave me a great idea that I have used extensively since we met…Don’t think ‘Win or Lose’….instead reframe to: “Win or Learn”. Try it for size…it immediately changes your mindset in any aspect of your life.

In our next episode Jim explains how to set smart goals, how to prepare for race day and the power of mantras…..Jim confirms they actually work.

My philosophy is that failing is merely a stepping stone and you should always ask yourself: 'What did I learn today?'

Jim Afremow Ph.D

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