For triathletes out there, that don’t know much about Greek mythology, Pandora was created by the gods and placed on earth, along with her box, that was never to be opened. Inside the box were all manner of ills that filled the earth once Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her and the box had been opened.
Sometimes as athletes, we carry around the burden of all manner of ills in relation to our training – fatigue, injury, physical and psychological limiters. It’s the Pandora’s box of psychological limiters that I’d like to discuss today.
As a triathlon coach, I frequently have cause to venture into the field of sports psychology in order to support my athletes. The problem for a coach dealing with psychological issues is that one can find the outer limits of one’s competence very quickly. Nevertheless, personal experience counts for a lot and when facing circumstances, fears and doubts that I’ve experienced myself this helps to avoid or resolve these issues for others.
I have over the years suffered from a variety of psychological limiters to my training, and for one of them, I even sought the help from a hypnotherapist (who happened to occupy the offices upstairs from my own at the time) in order to overcome it.
I was facing what a few of us have come to label ‘the running demons’, which manifest themselves as a sensation or even self-talk that would cause my run to break down into a walk, after about six miles or so, no matter how often I tried to tell myself to stay in an easy rhythm. These negative voices would overcome me and I would indeed, within a few strides, slow to a walk being convinced I didn’t have the stamina to continue running.
I’m not entirely convinced that the hypnotherapy worked directly, as in parallel, I chose to take a break from running. But I do know, that when I returned to running some months later, the issue had gone… though I was disappointed to find there was no addition speed in its place!
I coach an athlete who when we first worked together, couldn’t complete even a short run, not because they were unfit, but because they felt that they were not enjoying it. The consequence was, if they managed to get out of the door in the first place, that they would walk home, without completing the session. In that case, we implemented a short break from any running, followed by a steady re-build, not on the old routes but on new routes through woods, with the smell of earth and trees, birdsong, breaking twigs under foot and light that came through branches to create contrasting patterns on the path. The sheer joy of running. It brought about a new paradigm and one that prevails to this day.
I’m currently working with multiple athletes that find it difficult to get out of their comfort zone in training. Each time they sense their heart rate rising to around or above threshold, they tend to back off to the comfort of zone three, or lower. Certainly, in at least one case, this resulted in a below-par performance on race day, with the athlete backing off, rather than pushing on and achieving their potential. I’m working on a number of techniques to overcome this apparent fear of the sensation experienced when the body is working hard – most involve the athlete undertaking interval efforts and recovery ratios that become gradually more demanding. This will allow the athlete to become familiar with the sensation of hard work and gain the assurance that everything will be ok at this level and that once they are working on that slightly higher plateau, it will feel normal and better performances will result. This ties in with the approach that training slow produces slow races and conversely, making fast seem ‘normal’ (in any of the disciplines) will allow the athlete to realise their best performances.
So, back to Greek mythology. The final gift from the gods to emerge from Pandora’s box was hope. Hope was included to help combat all the other ills of the world.
If you’ve opened your own box of psychological limiters, don’t be afraid to share them with your coach. Work through them jointly, so that sessions can be adapted and coping mechanisms introduced to help you perform at your best, rather than missing sessions, walking home, or having sub-par race results.
There’s a lot of the off season still left and lots and lots of hope!
GI Tri Coach