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How to Begin Training the Mental Side of Sport in the Off-Season

You work hard. You train your body. You’re disciplined and committed to improving your fitness. You follow a plan for getting stronger and faster and you push yourself towards goals that matter. In your life of being an athlete, one important element may be getting left behind, however. Your mind. Sure, we’ve all been hearing so much about sports psychology and how important things like “mental toughness” and “grit” are in reaching peak performance. But has anyone ever structured a training plan for your mind in a similar fashion for how you train your body? I’m here to change that. Here’s how we get started.

How to Begin Training the Mental Side of Sport in the Offseason:

Whatever you call this time of year—the offseason, winter training, or the base-building phase—it’s an excellent opportunity to develop a strong foundation for a high-performance mindset that will carry you through the entire upcoming season. With winter's focus on building a strong aerobic foundation physiologically, it also can be an amazing time of year to lay a similarly strong foundation for your psychological development, recognizing this as a critical factor in your ability to train and race well. After all, mental strength sits at the very center of the Leadville credo that we’ve all come to love and appreciate: “Guts, Grit, and Determination,” each being a highly trainable skill. You have to earn the right to say to yourself, “I can do hard things” by how you show up daily in training. There’s no better time to begin this process than right now.

The ideal start to training your mind is to recognize the thoughts, self-talk and narrative that occur before, during, and after your training sessions. In order to get to a place where you can make adjustments and deliberately develop the advanced mental skills of attentional control, motivational and instructional self-talk, enhancing your chance for flow, or deliberately entering clutch state, you need to first develop an awareness platform for how your mind is processing information and what stories are being told about your experience as its happening in real time. This is the first exercise in your mental training plan, and it comes from one of my favorite tag lines as a performance psychologist: “You cannot change what you are not aware of.”

Start by recognizing that every workout has 3 timeline components:

  1. Pre-training. The thoughts and stories that float through your mind as you think about your upcoming training session. For many workouts these thoughts are likely brief and relatively benign, occurring only in the moments you’re lacing up your shoes or loading your bottles on your bike. But winter offers a unique advantage for your psychological development, given that many of your base training seasons may involve grumbling about the darkness, or dealing with wavering motivation with inclement weather, or contemplating another set of mind-numbing intervals indoors. Winter weather can offer you a glimpse for how your mind processes anxiety, concern, or doubt, at a time of year when performance outcomes are usually not on the line. You may notice that you start thinking about your session hours earlier, while you're tied up in work or family responsibilities. Your assignment is to notice when you start to think about your workout, paying close attention not only to the thoughts themselves, but also to the quality of those thoughts; are they positive or negative? Excited or dreadful? Encouraging or questioning? Full of doubt or confidence?

  2. During training. The meat and potatoes of any sports psychology framework is to be aware of the thoughts and cognitive appraisals that occur while you’re out training, paying keen attention to the qualitative differences between easier and more challenging efforts. What thoughts pop up when you’re tired? How would you describe your use of self-talk? Do you convince yourself you’re strong, courageous and curious and lean into challenge or discomfort? Or, do you tell yourself you’re unable to continue, that you’re weak and will fail? Begin to notice how the effort, intensity, or quality of your sessions might be impacted by your attitude, thoughts, and ability to regulate your mind and emotions. If you change how you’re speaking to yourself mid workout, what happens?

  3. Post-training. How you mentally put your training away is a vastly underutilized exercise in developing a durable athletic mindset. Every time you complete a workout you have a chance to enhance your athletic belief system, simply by what you say to yourself in reviewing what you just did. As you hit stop on your watch or bike computer what do you say to yourself? Do you congratulate yourself for staying with harder efforts, and remind yourself of how you stayed mentally tough through your intervals? Or do you blame yourself for cutting off the last rep and reinforce the idea that you’re not as mentally strong or physically fit as you think you should be?

Pay close attention to the psychological aspects of your training. After each session write some notes about what you noticed in your training log. If you’re already working with a Boundless coach, the Post-Activity Comments section in Training Peaks is a great place to begin tracking and working on your mental game. Consider what you observed, what worked well, what you learned about yourself, and what you can enhance moving forward. Believe it or not, the foundation for Mental Toughness (MT) and having the right to say you have Guts, Grits, and Determination starts right here, with this exercise.

About the Author:

Dr Justin Ross is a performance psychologist as well as a certified running and cycling coach for Boundless Coaching. He is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels break through perceived barriers to accomplish their goals. As a recreational athlete, Dr Ross is a 6 time Boston Marathon qualifier and sub 3-hour marathon finisher, who also completed the Leadville Trail MTB in 2022 and is eyeing up some big goals of his own for 2024. Learn more about Dr Ross, including his online sport psychology training plans. Fill out this Training Application to start your endurance journey training with Dr Ross.