Why The Pros Are Pros and How YOU Can Learn to Think Like One

English: Molly Huddle at the first annual Bay ...
The pressure is real but the pros know how to handle it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Professional athletes have to handle immense amounts of pressure and stress. In fact, at the most recent Track and Field World Championships in Beijing, many American athletes with high expectations didn’t fair as well as they had originally planned. In particular, Molly Huddle had arguably the biggest heartbreak in the 10,000 meters after she failed to run through the finish line thus allowing fellow American Emily Infeld to nab the bronze.

The chatter among fans on the interwebs was loud and clear: Always run through the line! Leave it to Letsrun’s message board to have the boldest statement of all in this thread, “Molly Huddle has done everything right for the past 10 years, One stupid mistake will define her legacy“.

Excuse me?

To be a professional athlete one must be able to turn down the volume on self-defeating thoughts. Maybe Molly initially thought this could be the end of her career. It’s normal to automatically think in such terms directly after a traumatic event. However, a professional well versed in both physical and mental training will likely have acknowledged such a thought and then refuted it. Case in point?  A few weeks later Molly showed up in New Haven, CT to win the USATF 20K Championships and then went on to win the USA 5K Road Championships this past weekend in Providence, RI.

A strong body in addition to a strong mind is key to sustaining a career as a professional athlete. But what about training the mind as a recreational runner? How often do we actually find ourselves turning into LetRun trolls admonishing ourselves for our own failures? For me personally? Quite often. That is why I am in recovery for anxiety and depression. Part of my recovery involves staying up to date on research as well as reading self-help books for fun. Ok, it is also part of my career as a licensed mental health counselor, too.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading How To Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You by the legendary psychotherapist, Albert Ellis. Ellis is the founder of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, or REBT. REBT paved the way for what is now considered the most evidenced based approach in psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. He focuses on recognizing and changing irrational beliefs and thoughts to overcome anxiety and depression. Let’s explore three of the primary irrational beliefs we face as runners and as human beings.

The “Musts” That Hold Us Back.

According to REBT there are 3 “musts” that hold us back:

1) I must always do well;

2) you must always treat me well; and

3) the world must always be easy. 

Ellis argues that these three musts are at the center of our irrational beliefs. No matter what irrational belief you may hold, at the core of that belief is a must. Ellis calls this the practice of musterbation. For example, let’s say you have a belief that you are not going to hit a certain pace in your workout this week. Beneath that belief is an even deeper belief that I must always hit my paces in my workouts. Over time, if you continue to ignore or dismiss that underlying belief, you, well, run the risk of running yourself into the ground.

Black and White Thinking.

To an extent, we all engage in black and white thinking. After all, our media feeds us polar opposites on a daily basis. If it’s not healthy, it will give you cancer. If she isn’t gorgeous, she’s butt-ugly. If it’s not a win, it’s a loss.  Black and White thinking makes every thing into an either-or scenario. It helps to switch the focus of our thinking and behaving from this either-or approach to a both-and approach. For instance, instead of thinking, either I do my workout tonight or my entire week is ruined, slowly change that voice to say, I’ll have to skip my workout tonight and move forward for the remainder of the week, trusting that the process will work itself out.

So small, yet so powerful. Image via aboutmodafinil.com on Flickr.
So small, yet so powerful. Image via aboutmodafinil.com on Flickr.

Awful! Terrible! A Catastrophe!

Another form of irrational beliefs is awfulizing and catastrophizing; making an unfortunate situation even more unfortunate. Feelings of disappointment, sadness, and even shame are a normal part of the human experience, but because these emotions are undesirable, we tend to overblow them. In running, we tend to awfulize after a string of less than ideal race performances. After a while, it becomes easier to tell ourselves, I must just be an awful runner. Notice the must in there first. It’s not a coincidence! Underneath that irrational belief is the core belief that I must always be a good runner. A better thought would be, I haven’t been hitting any of my goals lately. It may be time to reassess. At the worst, I may need to take some time off from hard training. I trust that I will regain my energy. And if I don’t, well, it’s still not the end of the world.

As we dive head first into the fall racing season, let us aim to be more kind to ourselves via our mind so that are bodies can perform their best. It is important to remember that we do not want to entirely get rid of all irrational thoughts as that implies, I must never have an irrational thought. Rather, we can shoot for better recognition of the alarming thoughts and work to change them at a pace that is comfortable to us.

Do irrational beliefs interfere with your training and racing? What types of mental training are you inclined to use?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. Oh I COMPLETELY get in my head about stuff. I am constantly slowing myself down by thinking I cant run fast and can only run slow. and then I run fast and shock myself, and think well no, that was a one off, you still are slow. So mean to myself!!