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  • Michelle Howell

Mental strategies to improve performance


There are winners and there are losers. That's the nature of sports, right?

The losing team or person is incapable of producing the same performance as their competitors on that given day. In a team setting Johnny football might be having a bad day catching or Sam soccer might have twisted her ankle trying to get the ball from another player. A teams success or failure is based on the contributions or failings of the individuals involved, arguably making winning sweeter and losing more tolerable. In individual sports, it's a different story.


You're performance is solely based on your own abilities. This was the reason I fell in love with running. I love knowing that my accomplishments are a reflection of the work I've put in, the fact that I don't have to rely on waiting for someone else to pass me the ball to score, and the feeling of crossing a finish line or finishing a workout knowing I've given it my all. While I love running for what it is, in my opinion being on your own is part of what makes competing all the more difficult.


We've all heard the phrase running is a mental sport. It's you verses your opponents just as much as it's you verses yourself. It's as aspect of competing that doesn't change much no matter how many years, you've spent competing. These days I feel like I'm more likely to get race day jitters than ever before. The difference though is how I've learned to channel my nerves and mentally tackle race day.


Control the Controllable

In a world of uncontrollables, race day is no exception. There might be poor weather (causing a three hour rain delay #southfloridaproblems) or an unexpected change to who's competing in your heat. Whatever the circumstances these kinds of things are outside of your own doing. You can't change what's happening, anymore than anyone else getting ready to step on that start line, but you can control your actions and reactions.


The controllable's are the things that are entirely linked to your own actions, reactions, and perceptions. Putting your energy into these rather than wasting it on worrying about the things you can't control will save you from a lot of unnecessary stress.


Create a Routine

Part of controlling the controllable's is creating a routine. A routine is the way by which we mentally and physically prepare for competition, signaling to our bodies what's coming ahead.


Having a pre-race routine in place is the best way to avoid unnecessary stress the day of a big race. It provides structure and certainty by knowing exactly what you should be doing even if you are in a new environment, competing against new people. It's a strategy that all top level athletes utilize, because it's been proven to work. Routines can encompass anything from the food you choose to eat, how you spend your time before warm up, what you do during your warm up to the clothes you wear.


Before every race I eat basically the same meal, follow the same warm up, wear the same jewelry that I've chosen for competition that year and cap off the routine with tapping the toe of my shoe onto the track track, once to make sure the spike is nice and snug and once more for an even number. It's so apart of my routine that it's second nature.


Mental Gymnastics

If you know me, you know I'm a sucker for a good podcast. I listen regularly on my commutes in and out of the city and during my cross training. One of my favorites being the Freakonomics series. This past week I've been enjoying re-listening to their series focused on sports and performance. My personal favorite, Here's Why You're Not an Elite Athlete covers the gamut of what it takes to compete at the highest level.


In the series there's a point when Shawn Johnson discusses, mental gymnastics, what she believes allowed her to secure her gold medal.


You've probably heard of visualization, key words and phrases as tricks to help performance on race day. Visualization and mental imagery lets you channel your nerves by essentially rehearsing how you want your race to play out. Mental gymnastics is the practice of going through these sequences in practice and on race day. My personal favorite is the use of positive talk:

"Let's have a day"

"Get after it"

"How bad do you want it?"


These are short phrases and idea's that I directly relate to how I want to walk away from a race and hold value as they've previously come from coaches I've worked with.


Like any other skill, improving your race day mentality can be learned and improved. You can call it mental toughness, grit, optimism whatever it is, it's part of what sets the bar between being good and being great.