Psychological Dissection: Why can’t I race as well as I train?

This is a common conversation I have with athletes who might start by stating, “I’ve been training really well but I just can’t seem to make it come together in races?!”


When working on this problem the first thing I like to note, is that it is not a bad problem to have for a few reasons: 1) You know you’re fit, 2) You likely not over training if you’re consistently completing your training successfully, and 3) Perhaps this means there are a few mental aspects and strategies that need to be tweaked or implemented to translate your training success into racing success.

So where to begin? First, if there is a disconnect between training and racing success, lets first define training success properly. Obviously this is easier in some sports that others. For example, swimming in the pool and running on the track are pretty straight forward. Once you’ve been training and racing long enough, you (and a good coach) will know with almost 100% certainty that when you’re hitting certain workout/interval times in training that you are capable of racing under a certain time – I know this was certainly true for me in my 1500 metre running days on the track. However, with other sports I know and work with such as cycling and rowing, hitting certain watts on the trainer or on the erg play a smaller part of the race/result prediction equation. On the other hand, when it comes to triathlon, particularly longer events like half and full Ironmans, training for them rarely, if ever requires any the full simulation of the effort over time required on race day – let alone the unknowns and fickleness of putting three sports together well on one day.

Either way, if you, your coach and perhaps other in your circle feel you are under performing in races in comparison to training, what could be some psychological factors? Here are a few psychological considerations to be aware of that can be strategically worked on:

  1. Results only focused. You’re focused so much on the result you’d like to achieve that you don’t take time to break down HOW you will do it. Training is a process and so is racing. Race result goals are motivating but to get the most out of yourself, think about and plan out how you’ll achieve it; things like a well-practiced pre-race routine and warm-up, where will be the key mental focus points of the race – for example the start line, various time or distance intervals, laps, physical landmarks etc. What are the most important cues for you to remember for each segment? Having a mental race plan also helps override the normal negative thoughts that come up when our brain is on high alert wondering why we are pushing our body so hard – thoughts like “Why am I doing this again?” and “This hurts!” – not performing enhancing thoughts if you get stuck on them for too long!
  2. Managing anxiety. When pre-race anxiety hits, you react with panic and let doubts overwhelm you. The first step is recognizing that pre-race jitters are normal. Second, is accepting your individual physical and mental signs of the jitters and not overreacting to them. Third is having a plan (as in point number one) that you can stick to more or less no matter what; a detailed plan that centers you and gives you a focus as the waves of butterflies naturally come and go as they please.
  3. Viewing racing as an ongoing developing skill. Perhaps you need to grow some patience with developing the skill of racing, a separate skill from training well. Most athletes spend approximately 90% of their sport life training and 10% of it racing. Depending on your sport, you may have more or less opportunities to learn from and fine tune you’re racing skills. If you’re an 800m runner you may be capable of racing many times in a season whereas if you do half or full-distance Ironman triathlons you may only have the chance to race only once or just a few times per season. Often “older” athletes still win races over younger, potentially fitter athletes, because they have so much experience with race strategy, particularly in high pressure situations. They know how to stay calm and carry on.
  4. Permission to Fail. Related to point number three is learning to be okay with “failing” in racing many times in order to succeed. As a Buddhist saying states, “The arrow that hits the bull’s-eye is the result of a hundred misses.” When you are disappointed and don’t get the result you wanted or expected, can you still recognize the parts that went well? And find motivation from the challenging learning moments that you will build on next time?
  5. Permission to Succeed. Belief and perceptions are powerful. Just as setting expectations too high or too rigidly can become a mental barrier, so can setting expectations too low. Sometimes the perceived stress of achieving their ultimate goal causes some athletes to subconsciously sabotage their own performance, and chances of succeeding. Ask yourself: Can I commit myself fully to the work it will take to be successful? Can you say, “Why not me? I’ve worked hard and deserve to succeed as much as anyone else” And on the flip side can you commit to accepting yourself regardless of whether you ever reach your dream goal(s)?
  6. Success is not Permanent.Sometimes after a breakthrough performance or achievement such as turning professional, making a team, or competing on the world stage, athletes or teams may have the illusion that they’ve somehow “arrived” – and in turn put undue stress on themselves of having to constantly defend their position at the top. Just as we shouldn’t dwell on the times the big “win” didn’t happen, we shouldn’t dwell on victories for too long either. If there’s any guarantee in the world of competitive sport it is that cycles of change are constant – performances are transient. Sometimes you’re on top, sometimes you’re not. Remember that everyone has successes AND setbacks at some time or other along the way. When success comes it doesn’t need to add more stress or stop the constant learning process.

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