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By Shaunie Gwen

NPO & Hyrox World Championship Athlete 

When we think of an athlete, we think of physical performance, their physic and physical output – the effort and dedication they put into their sport day in, day out to uphold the required level and succeed. We acknowledge, unreservedly, all the physical elements they must endure to be the best; the hardship of training, the stress of competition, dieting, discipline and everything in between. Yet investment mindset – the fundamental quality which drives such performance is often over looked by coaches, athletes and spectators. 

Over the years, Ive worked with, heard of, and seen many athletes at the top of their game that remarkably don’t invest in this crucial piece of the puzzle! This could be the answer to those short highs and dramatic lows of success, but more importantly, the key to riding the wave of longevity within a sporting career. 

As Steve Magness (Do Hard Things, 2022) rightly describes, we often mistake resilience for mental toughness. In this notion, we often mistake the extrinsic traits of athletes having it all together”. Let’s face it, they have success, they must have happiness and a wealth of wisdom, focus and fulfilment, right?

Speaking from personal experience and observation, it’s rarely the case, often their minds can be a car crash of emotions – where under the pressures of competition its often a case of just getting through it” – dealing with injuries, personal uncertainly, momentary falls in confidence whilst trying desperately to keep all this under the control of emotional regulation – to achieve the best results, can be incredibly exhausting … 

Reflecting on my first 2 years competing in CrossFit. Id show up, I would put the work in and endeavour to get through it, but there was no growth, no learning from either a failure or success! If it wasnt SUCCESS, it was a hard FAIL, and that could eat me up for weeks – to the point where I succumbed to Imposter Syndrome and couldn’t bring myself to wear the clothing I was sent by fitness companies after the event! 

So, why is an athlete mindset key to unlocking your true potential? Well, a strong, trained and educated mindset helps us to effectively manage our emotions – to overcome challenges and respond better to the unknowns. To control our chimp (the inner part of our mind that reacts to things, rather than processing, reflecting and responding) and focus under pressure and enable us to ‘push our boundaries’ and achieve new limits of success and performance. 

Developing Mindset and reaping the rewards of Mindfulness requires practice, just like conditioning the body or mastering a skill; it requires consistency, time and ‘directed practice’. Whilst meditation is a well-known practice to develop mindset and mindfulness, its not the only way. Other ways to develop the athlete mindset and develop your mindfulness are:

1. Reflection

This can be done daily or weekly, as well as sporadically when needed, pre or post important events/ situations. We may know how” we did something – I pushed my last 1km and broke my reps into x sets”. However, reflection is an important practice to allow you to understandhow you felt” about something: 

  • What was running through your mind during the event? 
  • How did you show up? 
  • Where did you react rather than process and respond? 
  • Did you have negative self talk? Did you control this?
  • What did we learn from this?
  • What can we implement next time to grow? Or improve?

In short, the more we reflect post event, the more we can recognise either the mental or physical triggers that could impact or derail our mindset. Therefore, learning to manage our emotions and control our mindset to support and facilitate better performance outcomes. 

2.  Learning from our failures and celebrating our successes

This is a key part of the reflection process. When things haven’t gone our way or at least the way we envisioned, we can start to develop negative, self-destructive and even traumatic psychological behaviours, known as triggers. Like, for example, the instance above, where I couldn’t bring myself to wear competition clothing! To counter this, rather than latching onto the negatives, we should implement and train our mental (emotional) resilience to learn from this experience and outcome. Take it as an opportunity to reflect, learn and grow! 

In doing so, proactively recognise, document and extract the positives along with the opportunities for future learning and growth, and stay focused on improvement rather than what you think you have lost”. Recognise the gains you have made (perhaps write them down?) due to this experience that will enable and reinforce your mindset to support and facilitate long-term success. Look at it like the construct of resilience, it’s the strength to bounce back and crack on”, to adapt and readjust to overcome a challenge. This, along with strong mental toughness can help us to learn and grow, whilst remaining motivated, focused and in control!

3. Embrace the process, rather than obsessing over the end goal

This can be a common mistake inherent in everyone, not just athletes! We focus on the podium, the PR, the new job:

If I could just get or achieve X” I will be a success and complete”…

This view of fulfilment can be self-destructive on our mindset – leading to disillusionment! There will always be elements that are out of our control. Like for example, our competition, our health and wellbeing on the day of the event, the environments and/or the event set-up and organisation. There are so many things out of our control that can result in different outcomes. Therefore, its important that we control the controllable’s and that’s called ‘managing the process’.

  • Here are the elements we can control (if we focus our attention):
  • How we show up (professionalism)
  • How we train 
  • How we eat, sleep and recover 
  • How we practice mindfulness and build our mindset

We must, therefore, embrace the process – enjoy the journey and the outcome will be a cause for celebration, or an opportunity to learn and grow, according to Jade Skillen (Hyrox Master Trainer 2023). Either way, its a win-win!

4. Breaking down the challenge

Sometimes its easy to allow our mindset to run away with us. We focus on the long road ahead, the complexity or lengthiness of the challenge which can be daunting and often a trigger to derail our mindset and focus. Instead, look to break down your goals or the challenges into smaller, more manageable steps. Focus on executing each step to the best of your ability. This not only makes the goal feel more achievable, but it also helps you stay present and focused on what you need to do in the moment. It helps to manage our mindset, respond to challenges and control our physical responses to mental adversity, such as stress and cortisol responses within the body. 

5. Focus and Be Present 

Similar to the points raised above. Yet, this can also relate to other external factors, as well as internal triggers that can derail our mindset. This could mean focusing and being disciplined to avoid distractions, such as social media or other outside pressures. In todays digital age, its easy to loose ourselves in comparison and sometimes false representations of our perceived ideals. Remaining focused on yourself, your practices, the process and the purpose, are all ways to avoid getting lost in the self-destruction of these [potentially] negative behaviours. Therefore, remain present and engaged in the task at hand, the controllable’s and your own mindset, you’ll then be more likely to perform at your best.

6.  Purpose and Embrace Challenges

I have often had to remind myself to ‘embrace the challenge’ prior to a race or competition. When anxiety, negative self-talk or doubt influences my mindset, I remind myself of my purpose – “I have put myself here!” Now, we may choose or not choose the challenges that we face along the way – some challenges are an inevitable part of any athletic endeavour, but they’re also an opportunity for growth. Instead of shying away from difficult situations, embrace them as a chance to learn and improve. Reflect and practice mindfulness to safeguard and maintain the athletes mindset. 

When faced with a challenge, try to maintain a positive outlook and focus on what you can control. This might mean adjusting your strategy, seeking reassurance by asking for advice from a coach or teammate, or simply implementing the mindfulness you have practiced to flex the strength of your mindset, to push new limits and explore new frontiers of personal capability.

Using the tools above can help you develop your Athlete Mindset and complete the jigsaw, which in turn supports your goals and helps you achieve your full potential as an athlete.