Today I had an epiphany. I was walking my dogs and listening to the Brute Strength Podcast featuring Justin Su’a and it blew my mind. Justin Su’a is an accomplished sport psychologist/mentor and much of what he expressed in the podcast falls right in line with what I’ve been trying to convey to my athletes through my own writing. Since my ideas have been kind of chaotic lately, this podcast helped me tie in some lose thoughts quite cohesively.
I’ve been coaching competitive athletes for about a year and I’ve come to the realization that most athletes don’t necessarily need my help with their technique or their strategies. For the most part those are simple questions to answer through trial and error. When you train, you take note of results and make sure you either repeat its effectiveness or you can try a new approach to see if you can improve on previous results.
That’s the easy part of being an athlete: You need to get stronger? Do more strength. You need to get faster? Work on sprint intervals and speed of execution, etc. What happens however, when you do all the right things, but it still doesn’t go the way you want it to? What happens when you wake up and try to brush off yesterday’s bad session only to have another bad session come up again? What do you do?
After listening to the podcast I realized one thing: When things didn’t go my way during training, I found ways to keep moving. In my case, my focus fell to technique. I have always loved technique, so when I felt things were getting out of hand or I felt performance was not up to my standards, I focused on pulling the bar into my hips or keeping my feet together in a bar muscle up or keeping my shoulders low and relaxed when I ran. It didn’t always come so easily, sometimes I would have a fit first, but in order for me to stay focused and not get overwhelmed I anchored myself with my technique. Anchor, that was the word I was missing when I was trying to explain to athletes to stay focused. In the podcast, Justin talks about breath as an anchor. He encourages the use of breathing in tough situations because it is always there with you no matter what and is a constant reminder to re-focus.
This brought him to speaking about negative thoughts and how mindfulness becomes an essential tool to the athlete and is a skill worth practicing. During meditations, when your mind wanders, you are gently reminded to recognize that your mind had wandered and thus reset your focus back to your breath. According to Su’a, the same should be done when you find yourself in a negative spiral during what is probably a very high intensity and emotional training session. You need to acknowledge those negative thoughts (and be OK with them as they are normal and human) and then re-focus on your breathing, your technique or whatever it is that keeps you anchored and moving.
This brings me to another point I find crucial for focus. Negative thoughts are NORMAL, and should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Understanding this is critical. Not only is it normal but you are not the only person to think them and thinking them will not make you less of a champion or an athlete. Everyone struggles, even the best athletes, probably more than we think. It is how you manage that struggle that will increase your ability to progress and much like everything else in training, it requires practice. This means that some days you’ll get it and some days you won’t. It is part of training, just like recovery, nutrition and technique.
Being mindful of who you are as a person will, in my opinion, help you understand what your anchor is. Ask yourself, what makes you tic? Are you creative, analytical, methodical? Where do you find the most amount of focus? Is it when you’re listening to music? Watching others move? Reading? What is it you like most about competing? Do you like to win or do you find achievement in learning new skills? Are you a grinder or a technician? All of those things help you know yourself and how you cope. Coping is an essential part of being an athlete because it means that you can compete or train at your very best no matter what the circumstances. A great athlete finds ways to adapt and cope with negativity both from external and internal factors. With anchoring in mind, every athlete’s definition of success in training is unique. A successful training day can be a day in which you had negative thoughts and regained focus to finish the day to the best of your capacities or simply finishing a training session altogether.
All of these skills are not exclusively athletic skills but rather life skills that are applicable in everything that you do. Understanding who you are is vital to becoming the best athlete, mother, father, doctor police officer or whatever is it that you want to be.
I realized many things about myself as an athlete and as a coach while listening to this podcast so I strongly recommend it. You can listen to it here:
Thank you Brute Strength for the insightful interview and happy training!