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!


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.





Daring Greatly

As the climax of another four-year summer Olympic cycle is rapidly approaching, intensity levels rise, and emotions are charged as dreams will be made and dreams will be crushed. There is a sense of urgency in the air as the time remaining to make the team or the Olympic standard is running out with each passing day.

As an athlete you may feel as if there is constant pressure – to beat the other(s), to impress, to please your supporters, to win the ultimate prize. With all the hard work you’ve put in there can be the fear of losing, coming up short, or failing to make the goal you’ve been striving towards for so long.

On the other side of fear and pressure is courage. In sport there are no guarantees. But choosing to go for it is to dare greatly. It is choosing to put your self out there, give it everything you’ve got and risk falling on your face, sometimes literally. As I watched the women’s most recent cross-country mountain bike World Cup race this past weekend in Albstadt, Germany, the eventual second place women’s finisher took a huge crash on her face at high-speed early on in the race, before shaking if off, getting going again, and coming back strong. Whether falling down literally or not, such moments can knock the wind out of our sails.

Overcoming the falls takes bravery and courage to get back up with pure grit, determination and resolve to find out what your potential really is? Even though failures are unwanted along the way, they are a time to pause and reflect; a time to embrace the emotional consequences and discomfort. In the moment of racing, it is the time to focus on simply doing the best you can. In the end there is no learning and a lot less self-discovery without accepting failures along the way. It means saying, no matter how far you get or how much you may feel is left undone, you can say, “I am enough”.

While most people spend their life on the couch, be proud to be one of the few that dares to step into the “arena”.

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy course; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

-Thomas Jefferson (epigraph from 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech)

What drives you from the inside out?

Whether it be work, school, sport or any other arena in life where one needs to perform, the prevailing motivation view is typically, “reward me and I’ll work harder.” But is that how motivation really works? Not always, at least for the longer term for motivation sustainability. According to my favourite view of motivation, which is well grounded in science with an abundance of research around the globe, Self Determination Theory has demonstrated well that the psychology of motivation is innate, universal across cultures and evident for any age or developmental period.

When your motivation is self-determined, you have high levels of intrinsic motivation. And why is it important to pay attention and cultivate intrinsic motivation? As opposed to the other end of the motivation spectrum being extrinsic motivators, intrinsic motivation has proven to be associated with higher quality motivation, specifically better learning, more interest, greater effort, higher self-esteem, increased life satisfaction, and enhanced health. In sport, intrinsic motives also correlates to increased persistence and higher performance.

To cultivate your inner motivation, consider the three following types of intrinsic motivation below. If your motivation is wanes from time to time consider getting in touch again with any of these types of intrinsic motivators:

1. Knowledge. In the context of sport, what peaks your curiosity? What do you seek to understand better? (e.g. training science, nutrition, technology, new and innovative techniques?) What kinds of novelties and creative approaches to your life as an athlete keep your motivation fresh?

2. Accomplishment: Do you take pleasure in surpassing your previous self and personal bests in training or competition? Do you enjoy the ongoing challenge of mastering all the skills essential to your chosen sport? Can you take pleasure in the journey of becoming more and more competent at what you do?

3. Stimulation: Anyone who has ever called themselves an athlete, knows sport can be full or highs and lows. Intrinsic motivation for stimulation means focusing on that drive to experience excitement, the adrenaline rush of pushing our comfort zones, the challenge of putting it all together for a peak performance, and experiencing the optimal challenge-skills balance of being in “flow”.

Intrinsic motivation is experienced in those moments when you are simply enjoying the pleasure and satisfaction of doing your sport. Getting in touch with your intrinsic motivation means connecting with those moments of pure enjoyment, embracing the challenge, cultivating what is interesting and exciting, letting go of any fears of failure and doing your sport simply because it feels good!

Ready, Set, Stop? Preparation Beyond Life as an Athlete

What does it really mean for an athlete to “retire”? Does it mean not competing anymore? Does it mean not participating in one’s sport ever again? Can you only retire from something you call an “athletic career” if you’ve been successful at it and/or made financial gains from it? Of course these questions can depend on the sport and competitive level. In any case “retirement” from a sport can be forced (e.g. injury or team cuts) or chosen. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately and how athletes can what I’d prefer to call “transition” successfully, and in stages, for life beyond their sport….Never mind the fact that I’m pushing 40 and starting to move my training and racing goals and little farther down the priority list, or that my college sport psychology class just wrote some fantastic journal entries on athlete transitions, or that I was recently at a social gathering with much joking going on around the subject of athlete retirement.

What follows is a large dose of my personal opinion and a smattering of my interest in and knowledge base of sport psychology. Here are some thoughts on how athletes of any age or level could assess if they are positively set up for an athletic transition, whether forced or chosen:

1. What are you other than a(n) [insert your sport here] athlete? If you haven’t taken time to nurture and invest in other aspects of your identity such as family member, friend, student, mother, father, daughter, son, or any other endless list of interests, hobbies, ways you prefer to spend your time that you identify with etc, then take some time to do so! Recognize that you have many other important aspects of your identity. What other possible sources of achievement and satisfaction do you have in your life if “athlete” were to be taken out of the equation?

2. Don’t wait until your athlete career comes to a halt to think about and ask yourself, what’s next? Always be dabbling in other things to at least explore what else you want and value in life? If you don’t know how you feel about post-secondary education, having a relationship, starting a family, starting a career, or everything else in life that transcends sport by say, right now – then think about it. You can’t set yourself up very well for the things you want most in life if you haven’t at least had a few deep thoughts about where you ideally would like to be 10, 20, 30 years down the road from now.

3. Continually reassess whether you’re continuing in your sport for positive reasons. If you are presently doing your sport simply because you don’t know what else to do, because you feel others (e.g. parents, coaches, teammates) expect you to, or you are scared to experience what might happen to you if you stopped, then refer back to point number 2. Start at least exploring other things, experiences, people, interests, or even other sports and be open to what you might discover.

4. Sport participation has so many positive benefits, but be aware of the line between healthy habits and negative dependency. If you are so dependent on your sport, that a) missing out on your sport disrupts your daily functioning in other areas of you life such as relationships, school, and work, b) that you would do it even when you are injured or sick, or c) that you experience withdrawal symptoms like depression, anxiety, guilt, headaches, loss of sleep or appetite when deprived of your sport then please seek some support to equip you to better handle the possibility of forced time away or even life without your sport. For example, in Canada a program has recently launched for carded athletes called Game Plan with the mission of supporting and empowering high performance athletes to pursue excellence during and beyond their sporting careers.

With all of the above said, it is important to recognize that time away from sport can leave anyone feeling a little lost and down, and that is completely normal. After all, pursuing goals in sport naturally aligns with many positives: structure, discipline, focus, time management, a healthy body, eating and recovering well, camaraderie, persistence, and the highs of overcoming challenges, to name a few. What athletes can fail to realize is that they have developed many skills through athletic pursuits that are transferable to anything else in life. As a reminder, just take a reread of the incredibly popular article from about a year ago on entitled, “Why You Should Fill Your Company With Athletes”

Timeless Mental Tips for Mountain Bike Racing

While cleaning out my office the other day, I came across an excerpt of interview tips from my M.A. thesis. While studying at the University of Ottawa over the summer of 2000, I conducted interviews with ten of the best cross-country mountain bike racers in Canada at the time. The bikes may have evolved big time in the last 14 years, but I believe their advice and mental strategies are timeless. All of the athletes (men and women) were Canadian National Team Members at the time with several years of experience at the international level including World Cup and World Championship races. Four of the athletes are Olympians.Some have moved on from mountain biking, most are still enjoying the sport in one form or another, and one in particular is still racing strong at the top of the sport. Can you guess who? 🙂 To read the full published article, entitled “Focusing for Excellence: Lessons from Elite Mountain Bike Racers” click here.

Plate #23 at the tender age of 23 - Geoff at the 2000 Sydney Olympics where he placed 9th Credit: Tom Hanson (

Plate #23 at the tender age of 23 – Geoff at the 2000 Sydney Olympics where he placed 9th Credit: Tom Hanson (

1. Focus in Mountain Biking

“Focusing to me would mean concentrating upon the race coming up in the immediate future and just picturing yourself having a good performance. For me, positive thinking helps quite a bit”

“Focus to me is pretty general. If you’re focusing on an upcoming mountain bike race, you try to get your rest, you try to eat well, try and check out the course, work on any difficulties you are having with the course”

2. Staying Positive in Races

“I find that to help focus it is good to have key words that you remember. By using them in training it helps you to remember them during the race so you can key on a word that helps you to spin, reminds you to attack, that you are strong, that you love to climb, these kinds of things”

“As the race goes on, in the technical I’m trying to just relax. I talk to myself all the time, ‘relax’, ‘look ahead’, and ‘let it go’. I say these things to myself all the time”

3. Using Mental Imagery

“I visualize whenever I am just sitting around. I think about all the different parts of the course and how I’m going to ride them, go through the feelings I’m going to have before the race and at the start. Like just picturing staying relaxed and not getting upset if things are not going the way I want them to. I try to see how I’m going to start knowing and that its going to be harder at the end of the race and so I get ready for that”

“I visualize the first lap if I know the course, if I know what it looks like, just to visualize myself (doing it) ahead of time so its not like an alien situation that I’m suddenly in and it becomes stressful”

4. Race Focus Plans

“When I’m pre-riding the course usually I decide what areas are good for attacking, standing up, sitting down, doing certain things with the bike, going smooth, all these things. And then it’s just a matter of reminding myself before the race starts and then remembering that during the race. And even different strategies per lap, how hard I’m going to push, deciding what the goal of the first lap is going to be, second, third, fourth, and following through on that”

5. Refocusing

Flat Tire: “What I’ve learned is that you have to start back slowly, not to go crazy right off the bat getting your legs huge and full of lactate. So you just start easy again and try to be relaxed about it. Okay, I’ve lost so many positions but hopefully I can come back. You have to try and look at it in a positive way like I just got a rest, I had something to drink, stretched out, I don’t know. No there’s really no positive way to look at getting a flat tire but you can try”

Crashes: “I think you expect to fall especially in some muddy races and that’s usually not a problem. Its only the unexpected crashes which just kind of catch you by surprise which can kind of knock the wind out of you. But normally I’m so focused on keeping going that you can just bounce back up and get right back into it. Its only if you knock the wind out of yourself, or hurt yourself really badly for the first couple of minutes it’s a little harder to keep pressing forward. You just kind of have to keep your rhythm going until you start feeling normal again. And then you can get back into pushing harder”

6. Post-Race Evaluation

“After the race I think it’s important to look back on your race. If you had a really good race it’s really important to look back and see what you did well. Even if you did do well (had a good result), maybe you performed poorly and everyone else performed even worse. Even if you won, you still may have been able to improve on things. And then if you didn’t do well in the race, (it’s important to think about) your perception that things went badly, why was it that you didn’t do well. Was it your focus? Was it what you ate? Was it the course? Maybe the course wasn’t right. Were you too excited? Things like that. Or maybe it was just that you did have a good ride but your placing was really bad. There are so many things involved. I think it’s important to go back and look at it. But I also think that has to be done quickly and then to move on. Get information from it and use it but move on”

7. Improving Mental Focus/Confidence

“I think you’re always trying to work on your confidence. There’s always a bit of doubt coming into races whether you feel like you’re going to do well or not. I’m not sure how you work on that all the time. Another part you can always work on is just maintaining focus throughout the middle of the race. There’s always a time in the middle of the race where’s there’s a little bit of a lull. You sometimes let down a little bit and start thinking about how much longer the race is and thinking I’m not feeling too well, and working on being able to just focus on pushing through that and being confident right until the end. I don’t think it (confidence) is something you can consciously work on during a race. I think you can work on just getting ready, visualizing, knowing that you’re going to have those kind of feelings during the race. Just recognizing that it is going to happen, and coming into a race with confidence is fairly….confidence can be a very fragile thing. Its just comes with experience, having confidence that you’ve been training well and have taken care of your preparation, and other things”