Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk: Ultrarunner shares her strategies
Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk-
This inaugural column’s focus will be on the psychology of sports. As a sports psychologist, I know a thing or two about this subject. Not only will I share my knowledge about mental strategies for sport, I will also be asking others about theirs. In order to highlight specific techniques, I will interview local athletes including a few of my clients.
This weekend a well known 50K ultra run called Way Too Cool took place in the Sierras. Each year, Marin County always has a strong contingent of runners participating. One of this year’s Marin runners was Jeri Howland. Jeri is a highly competitive runner and triathlete with a passionate and energetic personality who ran Way Too Cool for the 11th time. While sharing her mental plan in an interview for my book on female athletes, she was both reflective and thoughtful. She considers the support of her husband, Jerry Edelstein, a mainstay for her mental game.
“Jerry has a high tolerance for the time it takes to train and participate in the race,” she said.
They are a solid athletic couple, oft nicknamed “The Jerrys.” Each supporting the others’ sport. Her husband Jerry has won multiple black shirts in Marin’s DIPSEA race. This strong relationship greatly assists Jeri in her success in triathlon and long distance running. The intimacy and connectedness of emotionally supportive relationships is a critical element for female athletes in achieving athletic success.
So what are the mental strategies that Jeri used for Way Too Cool this Saturday? First, Jeri starts by approaching the race in a positive way. She thinks positive thoughts such as “I’ve chosen this and I love it!” or “I love to train and race.” Each race, she sets a series of goals for herself. This is a helpful method for approaching athletic events. I always suggest to my athletes that they set up at least five goals for each competition so even by achieving just one, they have succeeded in some form. If goal setting is difficult, I try to explore with them what blocks they might have about establishing specific goals. As the stakes go higher, the goals get bigger. Jeri provides a good example of this.
Jeri decided on four main goals:
(1) Win her age group.
(2) A time goal equivalent to her 2nd or 3rd Way Too Cool.
(3) To not go out too fast.
(4) Finish the race.
In setting her goals, she keeps in mind three different scenarios for the day of racing. She imagines an ideal day, a good day, and the wheels coming off but still finishing. This thought process allows her to be prepared for anything. Other techniques Jeri uses include meditation, confidence building, and positive self talk. Meditation might be done both pre- and post- competition, or even on a daily basis. There are numerous ways to meditate. Each athlete has to discover what type works for them. Confidence building includes such techniques as reviewing past successful performances and looking at one’s strengths such as having an extra ability for endurance. Finally, the use of positive self talk early in an event enables an athlete to set the tone for the rest of the competition. Applying thoughts such as focusing on relaxation of shoulders or imagining strong and relaxed legs can assist an athlete to put in a focused performance that is both relaxed and strong. At this point, Jeri had prepared mentally, physically, and nutritionally to compete in yet another Way Too Cool.
Way Too Cool for 2010 has now been run. Despite extremely muddy and slippery conditions and a 2.5 mile lengthened course, Jeri managed to “flow” through the day. She met all of her goals except the time one due to the difficult conditions. For the 11th year in a row, she won her age group, did not go out too fast, and finished the race. She described her entire race experience in the following way-
This “flow” described by Jeri is what I call being in the “Power Zone.” When everything just clicks and is easy. The body and mind work in full cooperation which enables athletes in sport and life to achieve peak performances.
Dr. Joan Steidinger is a sports and clinical psychologist with offices in Mill Valley and San Francisco. She has been practicing sports psychology with clients ranging from recreational to pro athletes for the past 17 years.
As an athlete herself, she has been a competitive ultrarunner, Ride & Tie competitor, and ultradistance cyclist.