In this episode we are excited to welcome Dr. Jonathan Fader, the highly respected sports psychologist working with many elite athletes. Firstly, Jonathan explores two challenging mental training topics: getting in the zone and improving our approach to ‘self-talk’. Then we have a Q & A to dig deeper into how the techniques discussed can be applied to help runners improve their performance.
Although Yogi Berra’s math was flawed, his insight into the game was 100% correct: one’s mentality really is a huge component of sports performance. “Thinking is horrible,” one of my athletes once jokingly told me—and he was absolutely right. The more we can help athletes not think, the better they perform.
Ever since then, I’ve realized that part of my job as a sport psychologist is helping athletes not think, or as many like to call it, getting them “into the zone.” This is the state when an athlete is relaxed and focused solely on the present moment, and thus better enabled to achieve peak performance. I often teach my athletes helpful techniques to reach “the zone” like relaxation exercises. One example is this breathing exercise. Give it a try:
Rather than breathing through your chest,
dig just a little bit deeper and focus on
taking breaths start from your belly. Breathe
in and out through your belly six times trying
to measure your breaths into 10 seconds each.
Others find great success with mindfulness meditation propose that mindfulness and meditation practices have shown to enhance sensory focus on particular areas of the body and can help overcome persistent negative thoughts or pain.
Many of the athletes I work with think that mental skills training is something you do just once and forget. I tell them, “Developing mental focus is like working out… if you stop exercising you’ll be out of shape!” In other words, practicing the skills mentioned above once won’t boost performance. The brain is a muscle, and you have to work it like one. It takes disciplined, routine practice with these mental skills before they translate into an increase in performance. The best athletes understand this: it’s what separates the stellar athletes from the mediocre ones, the household names from the also-rans.
Remember that at the professional level, every athlete is capable of performing well. But many of them simply fail to reach their potential because they lack confidence in their abilities and because they overthink their performance. Many people aren’t born with confidence; they have to work at it. Like anybody else, athletes have to practice confidence in order to embody it.
Another common obstacle to getting in the zone is fixating on failure. When athletes experience a failure, they can often ruminate on their shortcomings when they should be breaking it down. A more helpful measure is retraining the thought process to think adaptively. Psychologists like to call this process self-talk. We might think “I’m a failure,” or “I’m not good enough,” but practice replacing those with thoughts like “ I am making progress in ________,” or using it as inspiration to try even harder. It can be something as simple as replacing “I’m a failure” with “I’ll get em next try.”—and use it as incentive to rise above it, as you know you can. There is also interesting research that suggests that using your own name rather than, “you” or “I” when practicing self-talk is most powerful. In other words, “Jonathan, you are trying your best, and you’ve made progress in writing this article” will hit home in a more useful way than, “I’m doing well”.
Practicing this style of self-talk will make you more resilient to slumps in the future and more adaptive to those high-pressure moments where a lack of proper mental skills conditioning might lead to “choking.” Everyone is going to have unwanted results at some point; it is how we view those moments, either as shortcomings or room for improvements that matters.
But above all else, just remember for your next big game: work on not thinking!
Dr. Jonathan Fader
Interview: Dr. Jonathan Fader
How do you see ‘Not Thinking’ applying to runners?
Answer: Dr. Jonathan Fader
Unlike explosive events, endurance running involves a lot of time ‘on your own’. Alone with your thoughts it is easy to drift into a negative frame of mind. Even if you do succeed in ‘getting in the zone’… it is probably unrealistic to stay in this state for hours. My advice is to practice getting there first and then explore ways to help you sustain the zone state.
Many runners tend to be tough on themselves. How can the third person self-talk method help?
A: Dr. Jonathan Fader
It is easy to ignore your own advice…by switching to the third person approach you more naturally respond to the feedback as if a coach was speaking to you. But remember this must be positive ‘coaching’ and ideally specific: “Kevin you ran strongly and held your form in that last interval” sends the right signal…“Kevin you suck!” clearly will have a negative impact.
Can mental techniques work for injured runners?
A: Dr. Jonathan Fader
Mental toughness training is a vital component of recovery for any injured athlete. As well as ‘self-talk’ to help you remain positive, visualization is proven to yield excellent results. Some athletes can literally imagine their body healing, significantly reducing the time to full recovery. Runners could also imagine themselves training and racing…playing mental videos. Some sportspeople I have worked with, record GoPro videos of themselves training when they are healthy and benefit from watching these as part of the healing process.
You mention that mental training is not a ‘one off’ event and the brain needs to be trained like a muscle…how should runners approach this?
A: Dr. Jonathan Fader
Every athlete is different and with a broad range of mental techniques available my advice is to experiment and explore what works for you. The next step is to make mental training a habit…a natural element of your regular routine. Ideally keep a training log and record not just your mileage but all of the components that lead to success as a runner: cross-training, strength workouts, conditioning, diet…and of course your mental drills.
Any final thoughts?
A: Dr. Jonathan Fader
Endurance athletes have a tendency to make ‘surviving torture’ part of the game…the ‘no pain…no gain’ mindset. Whilst this might be routed in our traditional sense of the term ‘toughness’….mental techniques in my mind should be more focused on positivity. If you are: positive, resilient and confident…results improve and so does your enjoyment of your sport.
Finally, Jonathan described himself as an ‘experience junkie’ rather than an endurance sportsman- however he confided that running the NYC Marathon is on his ‘bucket list’. If you are out training in Central Park….watch out for zoned out guy talking to himself in a positive coaching style.
“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”