LYNX Triathlon recently had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Hap Davis, PhD, RPsych for a discussion titled “Five Points of Better Racing.”
I’ve gotten to know Hap as a lane mate at the SAIT pool. After months of saying “hi” and “enjoy your swim”, I found out that this friendly recreational swimmer (aka retired runner with bad hips) is a psychologist. Not just any psychologist, but an expert in his field with respect to why athletes “choke” and how to help them overcome setbacks. Specifically, he’s done much research in the field of cognitive neuroscience to explore responses to success and failure and address how athletes can regain neural composure after failure.
He worked with the Calgary Flames for 12 years including the years before, during and after they won two Stanley Cups. He also has worked with Canadian National Team athletes and was the lead psychologist for three Olympic teams. Olympic athlete sports included swimming, synchro swimming, equestrian show jumping, gymnastics, downhill skiing, snowboarding and more. When I learned all this I asked if I could book him to do a talk for the club. He said yes, we picked a date and the rest is history. Here we are last Sunday:
I told Hap that most of the age group athletes I work with seem to struggle with a couple of things: race anxiety and dealing with setbacks (disappointing results or injury being the most common). Hap said to me: “I won’t talk brain but will cover the issues that hinge around belief, self, imagery, and management of setback.” Perfect!
For those who missed the talk or as a recap for those who attended, here is Hap’s list of areas of importance for any athlete in any competitive arena:
- Recovery Basics
- Process vs outcome goals
- Visualizing the next & reviewing the past
- Trying out many race prep strategies & sticking with one
At quick glance you might be thinking to yourself “ya, ya, I know all of this” but through some anecdotal stories and research results Hap offered some interesting and unexpected insight which caused most people in the room to take pause and reflect.
When we think about “recovery” we typically consider things like quality nutrition, sleep, and rehydration but Hap included a fourth item on this list: “friends”. Training with friends aids recovery in that it allows for discussion of the good, bad and ugly and contributes to positive feelings about sport. I’ve never thought about training buddies as a component of recovery but now I will! Think about your experiences in group training sessions and/or how you feel when you meet a training buddy for a coffee after those sessions and see if you agree that ‘friends’ aid recovery.
“Hap’s talk really brought things full circle for me. His first point of recovery which included friends really made me appreciate the super supportive environment I’ve found in LYNX.The people I have met have ALWAYS been encouraging – and I saw so many familiar faces at the talk which created a positive spirit.”
Process vs Outcome Goals
I have my athletes write race plans before their events. Within, I allow them to put down some outcome goals with respect to target times but in addition I require process goals. In ANY race or sports event, things don’t go 100% as planned. You might have diligently followed your training plan and be in the best shape ever but something like weather or a bike mechanical can completely derail target times. Excessive heat / cold / wind / rain can destroy time goals despite your near perfect training prep.
In addition to having process goals when racing, Hap emphasized the need for process goals in training. An example here, getting to the pool regularly and swimming as a priority rather than swimming the exact workout on the exact intervals your coach outlined. Note: Hap is NOT saying ‘don’t listen your coach.’ He is suggesting that the process and journey of getting to the start line are more important than a rigid mindset that you must complete every single session as planned…even when you feel on the verge of injury or illness. Happier athletes tend to make more successful athletes.
For example, your plan has you biking for 2 hours and running for 1 hour and your knee is achy. If you have engaged a good coach, they will advise you to ease off and give you a different session. If you are following a plan from a book, this is where you need to be more process oriented. It’s important to recognize that it is ok if you swap out a bike/run brick for a quality swim that won’t aggravate your knee. Better yet, Hap would encourage you to phone a friend and go for a swim and tick off a process goal and the recovery strategy of involving a friend. Better yet, go for a coffee afterwards and talk about our niggling knee and what you are going to do to help it heal.
Visualizing the next & reviewing the past
I think everyone at Hap’s talk would agree that this part of the presentation was extremely insightful. Yes, many of us spend time visualizing ourselves moving successfully through our races. Many write race reports highlighting the good with maybe a brief mention about what didn’t go as planned. But, Hap said what is truly critical for future success is visualizing and processing our failures. He commented that “resilience is lost with unprocessed failures”. His work with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and elite swimmers being forced to watch and process their failures lead him to this conclusion. If you are interested in this research you can read his article: fMRI BOLD Signal Changes in Elite Swimmers While Viewing Videos of Personal Failure.
This point hit home for Connor who said:
“One of the take-home points that Hap’s talk highlighted for me, is that self-reflection and visualization can be powerful training tools. And ones that are likely underutilized by amateur athletes. ‘Visualize the win’ is something we have all heard before, but in Hap’s methodology it is just as beneficial to ‘visualize the loss’… (and try to learn from it). Reflecting on failure is not something that comes naturally to anyone and it is something that is inherently personal to an individual’s athletic journey. Failure comes in many forms and likely more often than our successes. Taking the time to reflect on these moments should pay dividends in those moments where literally it’s sink or swim.”
I was a little surprised that “meditate” made Hap’s top 5 list of ways to race better. Sure, I’ve heard about it know some people who meditate regularly but I’ve always struggled with it. I either fall asleep or just can’t quiet my mind. I never considered meditating to become more focused like Hap described. Marathon swimmer Natalie hit the nail on the head when she made the following comment:
“It is a commonly held misbelief that meditation means totally clearing your head of everything. But I think Hap was able to describe more of practicing it as a tool to be able to get you in a calm, yet prepared “zoned” frame of mind, focusing on the task ahead and getting yourself into an automatic state.”
Hap mentioned most elite athletes have figured out their ideal process before racing that involves meditation to become “still & focused”. And, they have also dialled into the right amount of arousal and alertness required, and when, before they race. He also talked about the importance of meditating in different spaces and different scenarios. Don’t just mediate in a quiet space in your home. Hap suggested the app Insight Timer
Try out many race prep strategies and stick with one
We are all different and different things work for different people. There are no “right or wrong” race prep strategies but there are many options. Hap’s suggestion is to try out different things until you figure out what works best for you. And once you have figured out things like your optimal pre-race dinner and race day breakfast and what your race week sleep schedule needs to be and if you meditate on race morning when it starts and stops…then STICK WITH IT. Make it automatic.
This last item on the list led into a question by triathlete Colleen. She asked how to get through moments of weakness (i.e. physical and mental fatigue) when racing. Hap commented:
” Key words and mantras are good but the “I can do it theory” needs to be specific. What is it about YOU that means you can do it? A mantra like “I am strong” is more powerful (aka convincing) if you can tell yourself WHY it is true. Also, allow your key words to have a cognitive and physiological impact. For example, if you are telling yourself “I am strong” (cognitive statement) then try to FEEL where you are strong (physiological response)”
This hour long chat flew by and was quite thought provoking. I’ve enjoyed follow up dialogue with club members about what they got out of the session and the points that stood out to them. For myself, as a coach, I will debrief race results differently with clients. As an athlete, I’m going to give meditation a chance and see what happens!