How to Practice the Skill of Riding with Resilience


In life or in sport, your resilience grows stronger every time you bounce back and get back in the saddle after a fall. Each time you work on pushing a harder gear, or on increasing your flexibility and adaptability, you become more resilient. Resilience also comes from recognizing strengths you never knew you had until you’ve had to use them.

Like learning to ride a bike, the skill of resiliency can be regularly practiced. And it isn’t always about just “toughing it out”. More often, resilience-building is about finding ways to keep moving forward, to tackle challenges creatively, and to adopt a positive attitude. Here are some ways to practice resilience on the ride of life and sport:

  1. Widen your perspective by taking time to look around at the bigger views. Sometimes it feels easiest to just stay focused on what is immediately in front of you, to just drive forward harder when feeling overwhelmed. But when a setback occurs, take a pause and stop pedaling for a moment. Take in the beauty of your surroundings without becoming overly preoccupied with the outcome you’re striving towards. Take time to breathe, to appreciate the full spectrum of your experiences, and to connect others who are riding alongside you.


  1. Recognize that you are fully responsible for steering your bicycle. You can’t control the conditions, unexpected flat tires, or how fast or well others are riding around you. But you can choose how to respond to changes and setbacks. You can choose to steer toward positivity and hope and away from negativity and hopelessness. Where you look is where you will go!


  1. Accept changes in the terrain. As in life, changes along the road and the trail are to be expected. When you accept the uncertainties and unknowns, you’ll be better able to change your approach, your line, your equipment, or your position with ease and flexibility.


  1. Anticipate challenges up ahead. When the journey becomes long, difficult or extremely uncomfortable, focus on the positive ways that you can embrace and meet such challenges. Meeting anticipated challenges with a positive plan will help you feel more confident and in control of your ride and less prone to dwell on possible negative outcomes.


  1. Smooth out your pedal strokes when you feel them getting choppy. When you feel yourself reacting to a challenge with escalating stress and anxiety, recognize your emotions, physical symptoms or behaviors/habits that increase the tension and choppiness in your pedal stroke. Practice calming techniques that work for you to smooth out your pedal stroke again, things like relaxation, meditation, yoga, visualization, stretching, and deep breathing.


  1. Ride through your fears. Don’t let fear hold you back from the opportunities for growth that came come from changing direction or exploring a new route. Start with the simplest thing you can do that will take you in the direction you want to go. Once you’ve studied a new map, a new way of looking at things, and the route you want to take, go ride it!


  1. Let go of the anger brakes. Difficult obstacles like logs, rocks, and slick roots can cause us to feel frustrated, impatient or even angry. While such feelings are normal, they won’t help us move forward and flow over or through the obstacles in our path. Negative emotions only cause us to stiffen up, to tighten our grip on the handle bars, and to attempt to force the bike to go where we want it to. When we learn how to ride through our negative feelings and to let go of them, we can move forward with fluidity, openness and the ability to absorb the obstacles in our path instead of fighting them.


  1. Take action and change gears. Avoid dwelling on setbacks that can temporary sideline you or blaming things like your bike, external circumstances or other people. Focus on what you can do and on solutions. Figure out how you can fix your bike and get back on. Then do it and take it one step, one pedal stroke at a time.


  1. Laugh. On days when you can’t seem to ride in a straight line or you keep or falling off your bike, find time to smile and laugh, even if it’s at yourself. Watch something funny, or spend time pedaling with friends who can always find the humour in life.


  1. Focus on the parts that are working well. Be thankful for each bike ride you have the opportunity to go on, and your body that gives you the ability to pedal your bike anywhere you want to go. Try to appreciate the day-to-day good things with a spirit of gratitude. The more time you spend looking for the positives, the quicker you will see them and enjoy them fully.



Value and joy in the journey


If you were told that if you took a road trip across the country a million dollars would be waiting for you at the end of it, would you do it? Who wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity, right?!

Now think about how you would plan that trip. Would you find the fastest car with the best engine and take the fastest route to get there as fast as you could? Or would you take the smaller roads and choose a larger camper van with all the amenities? Maybe you would choose to use a bicycle for parts of the trip or even hike off the beaten path at times on your own two feet? What would you do if you broke down along the way, or ran out of funds or resources to finish the trip? How would you prepare in advance to be able to get back up and running if needed? Who would you turn to for support?

Would you plan key stops along the way, at places you’d always wanted to visit? How long would you stay in each place? Would you take time to visit friends and family? Who, if anyone, would you bring with you on the trip?


After carefully considering the above questions, imagine yourself halfway through your cross-country road trip. What if at the halfway mark, you were told that there would be no guarantee that of any monetary reward being there at the end of your trip? You might only receive as little as 10$ for your trip.

As we head into 2017, perhaps you’re planning some exciting trips, have set some New Year’s resolutions, personal challenges, or competitive goals. As exciting as new intentions feel, many resolutions fail because we focus to much on the final destination, and/or choose them because we feel it is something we should do, the classics like drink less alcohol or watch less TV, eat healthier, exercise more etc.

However, no matter what all the external forces in our lives say as to why we should pursue any health, wellness or performance goals, we still need to find and connect with the intrinsic values in our goals in order to truly enjoy the journey and ultimately be successful at reaching them. Like the road trip metaphor, achieving our goals means taking as much stock in planning the journey as we do in reaching the destination. The desired destination is only reached by regularly focusing our attention on the present journey.

In the athletic world, we are drawn to our chosen sports most often because we experience some initial success. Positive reasons we stay involved are because of enjoyment, social connection, lifestyle, and the intrinsic challenge of continued self-improvement.

When we think of New Year’s resolutions or other goals we’d like to strive towards, as athletes we can recognize and reflect on the journey’s we’ve taken to get in reaching previous goals. Maybe you’d continue to take a similar approach in 2017 or maybe you’d do some things differently. Either way, consider reflecting on the following for any new challenges you’re setting for yourself in 2017:

  1. What will it take? Like any goal worth pursuing, a degree of discipline, time management and commitment will be needed on a regular basis. Without a plan for when, where, how and how often, it won’t happen. What environment works best to focus on the task and be free from distractions?
  1. What will make it enjoyable? Let’s face it, even the most challenging goals need to include fun and enjoyment to make them worth pursuing. Can you do it alone, or will you seek need to increase the joy in the pursuit by seeking out others for motivation, support, encouragement and accountability?
  1. What will be the cost? What will I need to give up to pursue this goal? In our time warped New Year’s optimism it can be easy to forget that pursuing new goals likely means giving up time we normally devote to other activities. Whether it be leisure time, social/family time, sleep time, or work time, it’s important to consider what, if anything needs to be lessened, stopped, or sacrificed to make room for the new goal.
  1. When and how will I evaluate whether to keep pursuing this goal? As an athlete, you likely have experienced those feelings of satisfaction from increased strength, endurance, or improved skills that comes after several weeks, months or even years of training, with all its highs and lows. Whether an initial commitment to a new goal lasts several weeks, months, or a full year, it is important to take time to ask yourself every so often – is this still worth it? What criteria you use evaluating the pursuit? It will depend on your life stage and your values; your current definitions of success, quality of life, overall enjoyment and life balance.
  1. What do I value about this goal that is separate from any performance related outcomes that may result? In other words, if you never reached your ultimate outcome goal, would you still pursue it? This also relates to self-compassion and not beating ourselves up when we fall short – can you commit to unconditional self-acceptance and to be kind to yourself even if you don’t reach your ultimate goal? Like the road trip, if you never reach your ultimate destination will the trip still be worth it?


How to Make Friends with Performance Anxiety?

Performance anxiety. It can roll through you in unexpected waves of nausea and self-doubt. It can threaten your appetite, your sleep, and leave your mind racing on high alert for any and every potential threat to your competitive readiness. A physical taper coupled with excess nervous energy can lead the best prepared athletes to over think, change regular pre-race routines, and even over train in the last few days before a race, when more rest would be best.

Symptoms of performance anxiety are unpleasant and uncomfortable and sometimes our first instincts are to judge it, attempt to control it, avoid it or make it go away. After all, our brain senses the anxious threat but doesn’t know the difference between an upcoming race we really care about and an approaching lion who hasn’t eaten for days.

So before you start to lament and ask, “WHY is this happening to me?!, decide to curl up in tense ball of nerves, or attempt to run away in a rush of panic, could a more welcoming approach to anxiety be considered? Can you let it in the door, make it your friend, and learn to harness it as positive performance fuel? Try these steps to make friends with performance anxiety.

Acknowledge its presence. Performance anxiety is normal and to be expected. We experience it because we care about an upcoming race or competition. If your anxiety level was zero, you’d likely be in a deep sleep, completely bored, and not invested to any degree in your sport or performance. View anxiety as the reminder that you care, you’re motivated, and that you’re ready to race, to compete, to push your limits and showcase your potential.

Your training has prepared you to handle it. Remember if you’ve trained seriously you’ve likely had some practice with managing anxiety before in your workouts. I know I’ve had workouts on the track as a runner, power tests on the trainer as a cyclist, or sets in the pool swimming that have made me nervous, with degrees of doubts as to whether I would be capable of handling the effort needed or simply completing the goals of the workout. But I also remember how good it feels to come out the other side, with that YES, I DID IT feeling. Sometimes looking forward to the other side of the workout or race, is enough to commit to pushing through the jitters and butterflies that come beforehand.

Calm your body and your mind will follow. IF you feel your pre-race anxiety levels to be so high that you can’t sleep, eat, or think straight, it may be time to practice using some specific calming techniques. For example, the use of deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation. Learning and regularly practicing taking deep, slow, complete breaths from the belly will usually trigger a relaxation response. Momentary muscle relaxation exercises can also help such as a quick body scan to consciously focus on releasing tension in muscles where it’s too high. It is also very common to carry excess tension in the neck and shoulders so releasing tension in these muscles tends to spread relaxation to the rest of the body. More specifically if you’re not sleeping because of anxiety, instead of fighting it, what is another calming activity you can focus on until you are able to sleep? If you’re having trouble with eating, what can you get down that will digest easily and contribute to your energy to perform? Making these contingency plans ahead of time is proactive preparation to manage anxiety with confidence. In turn, you will use up less excess mental and physical energy as a result of over reacting or over thinking when feeling anxious.

Harness the power of thoughts. A mental technique to gain control over our anxiety is by cognitive restructuring, that is, interpreting our anxiety symptoms (both mental and physical) as beneficial and positive for performing optimally. Focus on the conscious process of identifying and replacing negative interpretations of anxiety symptoms with positives. Ask yourself one simple question: “Is my interpretation of my anxious symptoms helping me to feel positive about my upcoming race? If the answer is no, work to replace such thoughts with more helpful and positive ones. For example, choosing to view your physical anxiety symptoms as an indication that you are prepared, physically ready to perform, and motivated to compete is a calming perspective when anxiety ridden thoughts strike. To illustrate, when I first started racing mountain bikes, I experienced my fair share of pre-race anxiety due to the newness of the sport, and the technical aspects that changed with every race course. I remember one specific race as a newbie to the sport, when I noticed my hands shaking before lining up to race. When I showed my hands to my brother his response, was “Good! It means all your systems are firing and you’re ready to go!” That was a great perspective shift that changed my mindset and confidence in a moment’s time. It was a great experience of the power of our ability to consciously change our interpretations of pre-race anxiety from a negative place to a positive, energized, and performance enhancing place.

Do one thing at a time. When your mind starts to race, or jump from thought to thought, and turns into a “monkey mind” slow it down with the purposeful intention to focus on only one thing at a time; only on what you have immediate control over in the moment. That is why pre-race routines, schedules, checklists and race plans that also include mental focus points are excellent tools for calming the mind and grounding our focus. Be proactive with strategies for moving confidently through the natural waves of anxiety.

Leading up to a race or competition, it can take some conscious effort and work to face anxiety thought acceptance, releasing tension through deeper breathing, reframing negative thoughts to positives, or routine behaviors. With practice, these strategies free you to focus on what you can control, and arrive at the start line with the confident, energized calmness that you’ve done everything possible to do your best on the day.

Re-discovering athlete-identity beyond the competitive stage

We all go through major transitions in life that can initially leave us with mixed emotions, high school and college graduations, leaving home for the first time, relationships and career changes, or starting a family to name a few. However, for athletes who retire from competitive sport, the struggle to adjust to “normal” life is very real and thankfully it is discussed more and more openly by athletes themselves. For example, Michael Phelps has talked publicly about his post-London Olympics struggles. After making a return to swimming for the Rio Olympics, he insists he will be retiring for good after ending his career the way he wanted to. And I’m sure after the mistakes he admittedly made in transitioning out of sport the first time, he’ll have a better plan and approach in the coming months and years this time around.

Of course, not all athletes can decide to retire on their own terms, especially with the ultimate high of Olympic Gold. Team deselection, injury, financial stress, and motivational burnout are all reasons athletes struggle with or ultimately walk away from a competitive driven life.

Perhaps shedding “athlete” as your primary identity is one of the most difficult because it is so all-consuming. You don’t have to be an Olympic or Professional athlete to experience the many, mostly positive, influences that purposeful and clear daily goals, and constantly pushing one’s physical capabilities can bring to one’s life. In the name of performance sleep and nutrition are prioritized and discipline is cultivated. The immediate gratification of accomplishing optimally challenging training sessions provide regular endorphin highs. Social ties can run deep as teammates and training partners forge strong social bonds through the highs and lows or training, traveling and competing together.

When all of the above is taken away by choice or involuntarily, after a win or a loss, a period of withdrawal and grieving is to be expected, and every athlete will experience the intensity of this process differently. It is important to have a plan, with non-sport goals to move forward, and the social support to do so.

As a result of a debrief report after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Canada it was concluded that life-sport balance and post-sport career planning needed to be better addressed with athletes. Of course this has also been done in the name of optimizing performance prior to retirement as well. As a result Canadian athletes now have access to program called Game Plan which was founded to support athletes with their transitions throughout their sport and non-sport careers.

A Canadian paddler, and Olympic medalist, Thomas Hall, recently wrote in his blog titled,  When the Games are Over:

My “live your dream” speech to students has evolved. I tell them now that I have learned that though having a goal is important, having multiple things that excite you, multiple goals, is crucial for happiness. If I could, I’d offer the same advice to most athletes I know.

Multiple goals are certainly important. Over a year ago when I began the transition from life as professional athlete as part of the LUNA Pro team, travelling and racing Xterra triathlons for the most recent decade of my athlete life. Well before athlete retirement, I had a PhD, a husband and two kids, my ongoing part-time career as a mental performance consultant and college instructor, as well as continuing to work towards clinical counsellor certification. These were all things that I was sure would make the transition away from a jam-packed training and racing schedule, and a dwindling competitive fire, as seamless as possible.

As much as I was looking forward to the break from the structured athlete-life – working out as often or little as I wanted to, worrying less about what and when I ate, not fretting as much about lost sleep, having more time for work, social nights and drinks with friends, planning family vacations that didn’t revolve around races, as well as more time to just go with the flow of kids and family life – I was still surprised at how lost and listless I felt at times without purposeful training goals at the core of my daily schedule.

Although most athlete retirement advice is centered around pursuing other goals, and thinking and planning for what’s next, I personally believe it is also important to stay connected to your athlete-self in important ways that will help manage the transition away from competition. Here’s my bit of advice from personal and vicarious experience:

Keep moving. Yes, it is important to give yourself a few days or weeks to be lazy after a hard season of training and competing to recharge the mind and body. However, don’t be surprised when you start feeling grumpy and irritable within days. Since your body has been accustomed to working out every day, it is important to avoid the bodily withdrawal and ensuing potential downward mental/emotional spiral from stopping cold turkey for too long. Be sure to prioritize the time to still do something active, whether it is your sport or something completely different. Staying active and committing to a minimum level of exercise will give you the energy and clarity to find your new path as you start to focus more on your non-sport goals. While you don’t need to train at the level you once did, all the discipline and positive habits you’ve cultivated so well over time don’t need to go out the window either. If you need reasons and motivation to keep moving without a competitive focus you’ll certainly find them in the book:  Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain.


Find your happy place when it comes to exercise. As competitive athletes the bar of expectations are set high when it comes to working out. If you’ve been used to training hours per day, getting out for 30 minutes can feel almost pointless and like a fail. Start somewhere. Everything counts. Experiment with how much and what type of exercise is enough to burn off stress yet leave you feeling rejuvenated; enjoy the change from previous training that may have left you feeling more often grouchy and tired than re-energized. Some athletes retire and never want to do their sport again, and choose alternative active pursuits. Others realize how much they truly love and enjoy their sport and continue to participate in it, even if at a much lower key level. Is exercising socially or solo, indoors or out-of-doors in nature most important to you? If you miss pushing the pace, go hard once in a while but don’t bother comparing with your old self or previous times and benchmarks, just enjoy the endorphins of a hard push now and then. Most importantly give yourself time to find out what brings out the best version of you when it comes to a new relationship with exercise, and maybe even competition, if you’re so inclined at any point down the road.

Let go of your old athlete self and be where you’re at today. I often hear athletes say, I wouldn’t do a race/event (insert previous sport) because then everyone would expect me to do well and I’d be disappointed. Let go of your old self, and your previous glory days, as they don’t define you today. Be where you’re at, train or participate at the level that is ideal for you now. This is one of the joys of non-structured athlete life. For example, these days, I sometimes miss swims with my master’s group for several weeks but I always go back because I truly enjoy swimming and I like the social aspect of the group. Each time I miss a significant chunk of time in the pool, the transition back is tough as I feel clumsy and out of shape for a week or two, but it always comes back and the feelings are worth it! I know I still enjoy running and love mountain biking, but if I don’t get to do one of them for periods of time I’ve learned not to sweat it. Psychologically, so much of an athlete’s identity and self-esteem can come from completing training consistently and successfully. In post-athlete retirement one of the biggest challenges is learning to let go of rigid all-or-nothing training goals, to be okay with doing less to feel good, to find new meanings and (social) connections, and truly enjoy what our bodies are still capable of doing, partly in thanks to the years of hard work put in!


Why Get Organized for Optimal Performance?

“Camping is so much work! All we’re doing is organizing, cleaning up and putting stuff away” was a recent observation of my husband’s. My family and I spent the B.C. long weekend camping. While it was lots of fun, deciding what to pack, and how to set up camp was also a challenge in order to develop a system to keep things organized and not lose stuff. Of course, not being expert campers like many of our campsite neighbors, we forgot plenty of things like a rope to hang our wet towels between trees, and noted what we should bring, and leave behind next time. With more practice, the potential countless decisions around something like a weekend of camping get easier and more efficient. What are the top priorities and which things are less significant in the decision-making tree? Furthermore, the better we get at organizing anything in our lives, the less stress we’ll experience and the more mental capacity we have to focus on other things around us.


As athletes, countless decisions go into pursuing potential, and optimizing performance.There are the more significant choices like what races to do or what coach to work with down to smaller decisions around the daily details around training, nutrition, and recovery.  While constantly juggling the work-life-sport balancing act, ranking the importance of each decision can be easier for some than others. Either way, when we waste too much time on trivial decisions or on decisions that don’t really matter (e.g. should I wear my smurf or my superhero underwear today?) then the result can be neural fatigue, depleting our energy and leaving less energy for the more important decisions and for what really matters to us in terms overall and daily priorities.

In this age of information overload, the processing of every decision we make such as what to pay attention to and what to ignore comes at a cost to our brain. Neurons are living cells so when they’ve been working hard we experience fatigue.

Attention is a limited resource. With brains that evolved to focus on one thing at a time we often have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle. This is also why optimal performance often happens in sport with an in the moment, simple focus, with a well-rehearsed and practiced mantras or cue words. These types of mental tools leave no room for analyzing the past or fretting about the future. Perhaps this is why many of us enjoy the pureness of the single-minded focus we experience while training, playing, and competing in sport. The rest of the time we are often in a multitasking state demanding our attentional system to focus on several things at once – we read email and talk on the phone, or watch TV while social networking or studying for an exam.

When our brains attention constantly flips from one thing to another, there is a neurobiological switching cost. For example, ever wonder why scrolling through your social media feeds can leave you feeling more fatigued than recharged afterwards? It can be a process of constantly deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Since our attention is a limited-capacity resource, our brains function best when we start a task and stick to it. So how does all of this relate to performance? Here are a few points to consider as you organize your life around sport in the name of maximizing your brains attentional capacities, and optimizing your overall energy and performance.

  1. Organize your physical environment to take the burden off your brain. While we all have varying degrees of cleanliness, home organization and tolerance for messiness, it is hard to disagree with how frustrating it can be when we misplace our keys, wallet or goggles for swim training on the way out the door in a hurry. And of course, we often misplace things, even if we have a regular keeping place for them, when our attention has been distracted elsewhere. While this may be a work in progress for most of us, the more we can organize, keep our belongings together in functional categories and have a regular place for them in our physical environment (e.g. camping gear, workout gear, keys, glasses, phone or even files on a computer), the less energy we’ll waste looking for things. This also applies to being on the road for athletes. As someone who has traveled to many races with a bike on planes, it is essential to develop an organization system for finding things, packing, and not losing things while away. Good organization of time and things reduces anxiety and stress, and allows more time to focus on performance and what matters most!


  1. Clear your mind by writing things down as often as needed. As I wrote about in a recent post, writing things down can be an excellent way to process ideas, plans, and reflections and literally take the mental load off your brain. For example when I progressed from a runner to a mountain biker to an Xterra triathlete, the list of gear and equipment to maintain went up substantially for each sport. Making of list of what not to forget or what routine to follow on race day was and still can be a simple example of getting it off your mind so you can relax, sleep well and know you won’t forget anything as long as you go over the checklist again on the way out the door. The same goes for organizing your race plan into manageable mental chunks and focus segments. The less conscious decision-making you need to do during a competition, the more your brain can focus on auto-pilot and more energy can be put into performing. Keep in mind this is a practiced and continually refined process with time, patience and experience.


  1. Focus or daydream while minimizing multitasking. As already mentioned, it takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task than it does to focus. If you’re able to organize your time in a way allows you to focus for extended chunks of time, you’ll not only get more done, but you’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted afterwards. The challenge is that our brain’s attention is easily distracted by something new called the “novelty bias”. Multitasking is like an addiction loop as our brain becomes rewarded with dopamine bursts for processing new stimuli that grab our attention; think of constantly attending to notifications on your smartphone. I also remember the short period of time when I decided to work on my French comprehension by listening to the radio while riding my bike on an indoor trainer. An already boring task coupled with a challenging cognitive task did not work out well for my ability to stay focused on what I was hearing, my motivation to keep pedaling or my overall energy management! Neither, in my opinion, does reading or checking your phone while working out at the gym. This also relates to the fact that daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking. I often enjoy the time I have to daydream while out on an easy bike ride or run without the constant interruptions that are hard to avoid at home or work. It is a great time to be creative, make new connections and naturally problem solve things that have been on our minds. Focusing and daydreaming both help to recalibrate and restore our brains while multitasking does not. Staying organized in order to focus on one thing at a time while ignoring all the potential distractions certainly takes awareness and discipline, but it will pay off in terms of brain power potential and ability to focus in your sport as well! I know I’m still working on it!




Earn your Confidence

In my work as a mental performance consultant with athletes, struggles with confidence is one of the issues that comes up most frequently. Think of the most confident people or athletes you know. Were they born confident or did they develop the confidence you see in them over time? Nature versus nurture debates aside, when it comes to sports I think most of us have observed or experienced personally how fleeting confidence can be. One moment you’re feeling on top of the world, ready to take on anything and anyone, and the next moment you may be going through an existential crisis questioning what in the world you are doing on the competitive stage in the first place? Passing thoughts like ‘why am I doing this?’ certainly don’t contribute enhancing your sport confidence.

So where does confidence come from and how do we nurture it and build it over time?

Like physical training, confidence builds in increments. Rock solid confidence doesn’t come over night and like any other aspects of an athletes training, it will have setbacks and temporary slumps. How we work through setbacks and what we look to for sources of confidence can make a big difference in building and keeping confidence more consistent over time.

Look beyond competitive results. Don’t buy into the common misconception or cliché that “you are only as good as your last result.” We can’t deny that a great or peak competitive performance certainly adds momentum to confidence. But we also can’t let one disappointing day override the confidence earned to that point from months or years of practice and competitive experience. If you let your last competition, race, workout, or training session determine your daily confidence you’ll be in for a real roller coaster ride emotionally; not a good way to balance your emotional energy or perform optimally over time! Furthermore looking beyond results also helps you to focus on the bigger picture perspective of all the reasons why you enjoy pursuing your sport in the first place.

Create a confidence plan. Sometimes when the normal waves of pre-competition nerves and anxiety hit in the weeks and days before an event, our brain says hey this a threat and we need to prepare for it. That is when negative thoughts and doubts creep in and it becomes easy to question our preparedness and readiness to compete. Many athletes I’ve worked with have found it helpful to write down all the things that have contributed to their confidence over time – things they’ve accomplished, overcome, positive feedback and encouragement they’ve received: all and any reasons they have to be and remain confident. Reading over this list when pre-competition nerves strike can be a calming and centering routine which also helps to shift the focus back to an eager and excited pre-competition state.

Focus on your own plan. If there is one thing that undermines confidence more than anything else it is constant comparison with others and rigid expectations with those comparisons (e.g. I should be ahead of him/her). While competitive rivalries are there to optimally challenge us and bring out our competitive best, if you’re focused on others or constantly comparing yourself against others in training or in racing, it will only erode your own confidence over time since what others are doing (or what you think they are doing) is out of your control. Put your focus and energy into your plan, what works for you and what you need to focus on pre-, during and post-competition to do your best. For example, the late Al Oerter, an American athlete, was incredibly a four-time Olympic Champion in the discus throw. In an interview he said one of the secrets of his success was practicing in absolutely every kind of weather condition, an example of focusing on your own plan and preparation for anything!

To grow confidence it needs to be challenged. Like the title of this blog, confidence needs to be earned. If confidence was something that was given to us or that we could buy it wouldn’t mean much. Confidence grows from those moments of pushing through fears, anxieties, challenges, setbacks, workouts, races, competitions and coming out mentally and/or physically stronger from them on the other side. When we embrace training and competitive days as opportunities to push our current comfort zones when it comes to effort, focus, and overcoming adversities we can appreciate how they help to build confidence and belief over time. When viewed this way, successes and setbacks can both equally contribute to building consistent sport confidence.


Write it down in the name of mental performance

When I look through a diary I had started writing at 10 years old, it is a little amusing and terribly boring (insert YAWN). It is full of simple facts about what I had done each day and who I was with, but hey I was only ten then. That was my first lesson in what not to write when it comes to keeping a journal.

When it comes to keeping a training journal, these days we can track anything and everything we do; there are smartphone apps, software, training tools and all sorts of gadgets. When I started training for mountain biking at the turn of the century I used a heart rate monitor, a trainer that measured power in watts and a blood lactate monitor to track my changes in fitness over time. It was also satisfying to know my distance covered and cadence (pedal strokes per minute) maintained after rides on the road. But when it comes to my first sport, running, I had to laugh when I recently saw this cartoon as I have to confess I’m still stuck in 1994.


Since I’ve worked as mental performance consultant, many if not all of the athletes and coaches use some sort of tools to track and record training data as well as to monitor recovery. Unfortunately though, many coaches struggle with motivating athletes to enter such data regularly or in a timely manner.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the potential to become so consumed with data and numbers, that as athletes, it can become easy to feel like a workout doesn’t count if we don’t have some sort of numeric proof or even public record of it such as on Strava *ahem – you know who you are!

Finding the best way to track and monitor any data around your training and competitive performances is individual. It will likely take some experimentation to make it meaningful enough for you to find worthwhile. See what approach suits you best somewhere between recording zero information and becoming obsessed with writing every single detail down that relates to your life as an athlete.

To find the right balance consider the following positives for writing and recording things, particularly when it comes to mental performance and maintaining emotional consistency through the ups and downs of performances:

  1. Plan for automaticity. I remember reading a study as a graduate student about how the best students studied. They wrote things down over and over again until pages of learning could be condensed on a single flashcard. Planning mentally for performances is similar to studying for a test. The hard thinking and analyzing should be done ahead of time. Peak athletic performances happen when we don’t have to think about what we’re doing at a conscious level. Once the gun goes off, you can be ready to respond automatically with simple cues that trigger your best response to each segment of a race or to any circumstance (a.k.a. test question) that could be thrown your way! In my experience, athletes that have a solid pre-race routine and race plan written down often are able to stick to it well through distractions and physical discomfort.keep-calm-and-follow-the-race-plan.png
  2. Purposeful mental training. In my opinion anytime that you take time to plan, analyze, strategize or reflect on your training and competitive performances, you are engaging in purposeful mental training. Give yourself space to thoughtfully answer pre-performance questions like: “What do I need to focus on to get the most out of myself today?” and post-performance questions such as, “What went well today and why?” and “What did I learn and will improve upon next time?” If you write down your responses to such questions it will help you commit to do what you need to and to solidify what you’ve learned. In other words you’ll accelerate your athlete self-awareness. Taking time to plan and reflect can translate into more consistent performances as you pay close attention to what works for you in terms of your combined mental and physical approach. Writing things down can also be an effective way to deal with pre-race anxiety in a solution-focused way: write it down, put it aside, relax and come back to review the plan as needed.


  3. Let go and move on. I was surprised to learn that if you’re having trouble getting a song out of your head the best thing to do is listen to the song in its entirety. This is termed the Zeignarnik effect, referring to how when we ignore unfinished tasks, our unconscious mind will keep fretting about them. For athletes who race and compete often, writing down some reflections after each performance can be an effective way to debrief, reflect on the highest highs, lowest lows and everything in between. Getting things out in a conversation with a coach/trusted confidante, or down in writing can be an excellent way to offload thoughts and feelings in the name of emotional energy management, and move on to whatever is next.

Finally, at the end of a season, when your memories of specific training periods or competitions can seem like a blur, you will have a record of your reflections. Such notes can be useful to look back in order to help you and the team around you plan your next season. You may also see it as a personal souvenir of your athletic career one day.

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.

The Pros and Cons of Olympianism

An athlete who has qualified and is a medal contender chooses not to go to the Olympics. Another athlete who has worked so hard for the chance to go to the Olympics cannot compete due to injury or has an off-year and is deselected from the team.

Life isn’t logical. Sport is not fair. What something means to you may have a different meaning to someone else. I just read this blog titled “Olympic sportsmanship or not!” that got me thinking…

The blog I mention brings up many questions: Because a qualified athlete makes the choice to not to go to the Olympics does it diminish its meaningfulness? Is opting out an insult to those who work so hard for that chance? Should only sports that revolve around the Olympics as the pinnacle of achievement be allowed at the Games? Indirectly – if an athlete is already making millions from their sport does that mean they will automatically feel indifferent to competing at the Olympic Games? On the flip side, does competing and winning a medal at the Olympic Games instantly guarantee stardom and financial success for the struggling amateur athlete?

These days you can be a “professional” athlete competing in an amateur sport. Cycling is one example but I’m not going to get into the what defines amateur versus professional debate here.

I have an old book I love called, “On the Run: In Search of the Perfect Race”. When the book was published in 1979, to give you and an idea of who is speaking below, the co-author, a runner,  Marty Liquori had been ranked 1st in the world in the 1500m and 5000m on the track. He was also the American record holder at two miles and 5000m, while also having run the fifth-fastest mile of all time. When it comes to the Olympics, at 19 years of age, Marty was the youngest to reach the Olympic final in the 1500m. Read the book for the full story. I love it for the insights on the psychological and physical setbacks of a runner, or any athlete who is constantly pushing their limits.

On the run

When it comes to perspectives on a career and the Olympics the following two excerpts, one from a competitor, and one from the author, point out two very contrasting perspectives on the meaning of the Olympics:

“I know the expectations of people in my country. Every day they’d like a new world record. But I don’t care. I’m running only for the Olympic Games. There are runners and there are runners. Some do well in other races, some run fast times, but they cannot do well in the ultimate, the Olympics. The value of the Olympics remains. If you win, you’re lasting. And the Games include all the best runners, they are the true world championships. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. All runners want to run against the very best. The question is not why I run this way, but why so many others cannot.” (Lasse Viren, Finland, Munich Games 5000 & 10 000m champion, p. 41)

“This isn’t track to me, it’s something else – call it Olympianism. It represents the opposite end of my philosophy, which is to run many races and try to win them all. To me, a champion is measured by his durability over a number of years, not just by two races, every four years. I think his way insults the fans and his competitors. I don’t want you to come out and run against me when you’re in the same kind of shape as the jogger on my block. I don’t need that thrill, and you’re probably doing it just for money….I believe kids should go out and get the most they can from every race, they should go out and enjoy every meet for what it is. I don’t think you should always be thinking of the future. I don’t think you should be satisfied with a bunch of fourths and fifths, thinking always that it’s someday going to pay off. That’s not necessarily true. It doesn’t always work out that way. I know. I’m a living example of the fickle nature of sport.” (Marty Liquori, p. 41)

Regardless of philosophy, it isn’t lost on me that where I live in Canada many careers in sport depend on the Olympics. Funding goes to the sports with the most medal potential, which creates jobs that support those athletes and in turn provides more opportunity for athletes to reach their potential. Athletes who have no other sources of sport income (e.g. sponsorship) depend on it. Even in my field, the need for applied sport psychology consultants has grown because of the recognition of the importance of the mental game, especially when preparing for the high stakes, pressure cooker of the Olympic Games: those two weeks every four years when the non-loyal fans actually pay attention.

However, I will not define my career as a consultant by how many Olympians I have worked with, I’m not in that game. Nor do I believe athletes should define the worth of their athletic career based on four-year intervals. Not all sports are in the Olympics that “should” be. Not all athletes who “deserve” to compete get the opportunity to do so. More comes down to luck than most of us would like to admit.

I will always remember what my brother’s coach said when he qualified for his first Olympics in 2000 in Sydney, “Remember, it’s just another race.” And I get the common rebuttal, “Just another competition/tournament/race? It is but is isn’t!” From the outside it isn’t but perhaps the athletes who can remember and practice like it is on the inside can avoid the potential disillusionment of “Olympianism”.They can focus on celebrating every step of their career and ironically be most ready to seize the opportunity to perform their best when it “counts the most”, if that is your thinking…




C’mon lets race!

When playing with my kids at a school park near our house the other night, we spotted the white outlined track on the grassy field. Zoé and Nico immediately got excited about racing each other and myself around the lap as well as several times down the 100m straight away. They were quite the challenge to my dinner filled stomach – whew! Kids love to run!

Then yesterday was Zoé’s first school track meet. In the morning she grumbled and whined about not wanting to go. However, when she got off the bus at the end of the day she was beaming with pride. She couldn’t wait to show off her two blue ribbons, give the play by-play of her races and recount the day she spent at the track with her school friends. It also brought back fond memories of my first and early days racing around the track in late elementary school.

When I see my kids eyes light up and race around the field with complete abandon, it reminds me of the true spirit of racing, of going as fast as you can while having fun doing it. Unfortunately, sometimes as we grow older our self-consciousness, performance anxieties and fears get in the way of that total abandon.

I was reminded this past weekend of that ‘I can’t wait, let’s get going already!’ spirit while watching the replay of the UCI cross-country women’s mountain bike world cup race in La Bresse, France. And that the childlike excitement of racing doesn’t need to disappear when we’re all grown up. The 2015 world champion, Jolanda Neff, a 23-year-old from Switzerland had missed the first two world cups of the season. While most others on the start line were doing some deep breathing with their serious game faces on, Jolanda could be seen in the second row, literally bouncing up and down with a smile that said ‘I can’t wait to get started!’ (pictured in centre below – as if its not obvious, ha!)

jolanda la bresse

And once she was out of the gate, as she always does, she raced full-out, charging up and down every hill with sheer confidence pushing the limits of control, along with a spectacular crash midway through the race on one of the narly, rocky descents. After a flat tire change on the last lap and some excitement battling our amazing Canadians Catharine Pendrel and Emily Batty, she won the race.

Of course we could argue that’s its easier to have fun, and go for it full of confidence when you’re the current world champion and you’re at the front of the race most of the day. But we also know that winning, being the one everyone is chasing after, and staying on top consistently is often harder and can feel more pressure filled than being the underdog!

My high school friend, Kiara Bisaro, a 2004 Olympian, who also competed for Canada in mountain biking, was known for her constant smile while racing (and off the bike as well). Whenever I have felt fearful or nervous on the bike I still think of Kiara and her smile. When I remember to smile, it relaxes me and reminds me to just have fun and let things roll. As grown ups sometimes we mistakenly believe that to perform our best we need to be super serious or hyper focused.


However,  when I think of my kids saying, ‘c’mon lets race!’ its a great reminder to get out of our over thinking, often stressed out and pressure filled adult heads, to just go for it and have fun going as fast as we possibly can for as long as we can. No matter how we feel on the day or where we find ourselves in the pack, a race is a race! It can be that simple.