The Champion Mindset

Sprinting to a substantial PR and a third place finish at the Canton Fall Classic 10K
Sprinting to a substantial PR and a third place finish at the Canton Fall Classic 10K

A few weeks ago, I ran the Canton Fall Classic 10K and ran as well as I’ve ever run in my life. Though my time was a significant PR, and I am proud of that, the biggest breakthrough was a mental one. You see, for the first time ever in a race I “went there.” You know that place, the impossible, painful, air-sucking, muscle-burning place of exhaustion.

I went there, and I DID NOT LET UP.

I realize how limited I was by my mental state during races. This is a huge breakthrough for me and I want to share with you what I realized it takes to have the mind of a champion.

I’ve always considered myself to be a person with a strong will. I go after what I want, I persist if I need to, I don’t let others push me around and I get things done. But running hard has proven to be more than a match for my purportedly strong will. The self-protective drive kicks in, and most of the time I cannot will myself to push through it. Time and time again, I am left feeling that I could have done more, could have run faster, if only I would have willed myself to do so. As it turns out, I might be more of a wimp than I care to admit.

The mental victory at the Canton 10K was a first for me – I hope the first of many. So this got me to wondering, how is it that some athletes go to that place repeatedly without blinking an eye? These athletes are the “greats” – blessed with natural talent, of course, but also replete with those intangible qualities that separate them as champions. As the journalist Erik Brady describes in his article on the subject in USA Today, these athletes have the Soul of a Champion. Competitive drive, confidence, composure and focus. These are the traits common to all athletic greats. Soccer player Mia Hamm, quoted in the same article, says it takes courage – the practice of not even considering failure as an option.

JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychologist who works with Olympians, maintains the “Olympic Gold Medal” mindset can be cultivated by anyone with a desire to excel, be it in sports, business or life. What characterizes that mindset? Enthusiasm, desire, courage, self-motivation, discipline, consistancy, and focus. Steve Siebold, a mental toughness coach, cites a “whatever-it-takes” attitude common to these individuals. They learn from adversity, rather than shirking it. Some other interesting observations made by Siebold: Olympians can compartmentalize their emotions, focusing with singular attention on the task at hand. They are unusually open to being coached, checking their egos at the door to heed the guidance and advice of those striving to help bring out their greatness. They are extraordinary committed to winning

Most importantly, as cited by Siebold, they dream big. Salty told us in her “Fake It Until You Make It” post to visualize ourselves not as we are currently but as what we hope to be. This is hard to do. It takes confidence and bravado. But believing it and acting the part puts us that much closer to what is possible. You never know!

Salty Readers, what mental breakthroughs have you had in races or workouts, and how have you achieved them? What do you think sets apart the good from the great?


Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. I was around mile 22 in my marathon last summer when I realized that I would easily achieve my goal of BQing. For a second, I considered easing my pace (and therefore easing the pain!), but ultimately decided to push through to the end. My final miles were some of my fastest. I’m proud that I didn’t give in to that wimpy voice in my ear; I would have certainly regretted not giving 100%. While that race was a good one, I know that often I rein it in, if only a bit, when the going gets tough. I really need to work on that mental stuff so that I can reach my new goals. Great post, Garlic, and way to go on your PR!

  2. My breakthrough was the “run till you feel like you’re going to puke”. I never have, but I’ve been at that point you mention. Gasping for air, sore, tired, legs are shot. But you keep going.
    I looked at my Garmin for my last 5K and I averaged 95% of heart rate capacity and peaked at 99%. I know I could have done better. My average should have been 99%.
    This only works for shorter races. You can’t run a marathon like that.

  3. I recently made a huge mental breakthrough in my last marathon. I often have a cruel negative tape running in my head, and during my training cycle I actively worked on changing the tape — even if the run was going well. I wanted to make positive thinking more automatic.

    One thing I’ve considered about many of these mentally strong athletes is that a lot of them have been doing sports since they were young. My husband, for instance, has been competing in swimming since he was 7. He’s used to pushing himself since before he knew better to doubt himself. So, I think I I try to remember what it was like to be a kid, when pushing yourself was fun, it helps me get past the fear a bit more.

    1. Great points, and good for you for working to skew your thoughts in a more positive direction. I’ve just finished reading a neat little book called “The Art of Mental Training,” by DC Gonzalez, and he has a whole chapter on that very thing, concluding with this take-home message: “Especially when things are at their worst, your self-talk must be positive, encouraging and empowering. Shut down the Internal Critic.”