Failing to plan is planning to fail
— Benjamin Franklin

How I mentally prepare for a major championship


The Australian Junior Athletics Championships are taking place later this week and in light of the event I have decided to compose a blog about how I mentally prepare for major championships. I put a lot of time and effort into my mental routines and below I will take a look at the importance of mental preparation and the various methods by which mental practice can be applied. Finally, I am going to take a scientific standpoint on the topic of mental practice, and armed with studies conducted by numerous teams- answer the question: “Does mental practice enhance performance?” 

Although I start preparing mentally for major championships weeks before they are set to take place- in the matter of time I will trace my mental preparation journey starting three days prior to the Championships.

Day 3- Acclimatize and Orientate. “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties” – Harry Truman.

Three days out from a competition is an important time in the preparation cycle. This is because 72 hours before a competition, I am:

  1. In my competition destination
  2. Focused on my diet
  3. Designing my training around the competition

Being in the area of my competition is significant for many aspects of preparation. Firstly, it allows for acclimatization. Whether it is altitude, time difference, or just the fact that you are in a new, unfamiliar area, it is important to be aware of environmental conditions at the location that you are racing. I pay particular attention to the areas that I will be occupying come the day of competition.

  • What is the weather forecast for the day of competition?
  • Where will I have the opportunity to purchase food for race day?
  • What are my options for warm up spaces?
  • How long is it going to take for me to get from my hotel to the track?

All these are important questions that I develop answers to three days out from a competition.

Day 2- Warm up and Mental Rehearsal “I never looked at the consequence of missing a big shot… when you think about the consequences you always think of a negative result” – Michael Jordan

Two days out from the competition is a time concentrated on mental rehearsal and finalizing my last training session before the meet. I am often able to complete my training workout on the competition track. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, the warm up environment provides me with many sensations that I use later in the day when I perform mental rehearsal.

Training on the competition track allows me to gather information about the wind patterns, smells, acoustics, marshaling points, track surface (hard, soft, springy, dull) and lane tightness (how tight are the bends and how am I going to align my starting blocks on race day?). It also gives me an opportunity to inspect the warm up area- is there enough space? Is it likely to be clustered? Will I have access to hurdles? How far away is the warm up area from my team’s tent/medical? Opening my senses to this kind of information yields a lot of confidence in helping me predict what to expect come race day.

In the evening, I dedicate 20min to mental rehearsal. I run my race over and over again in my head. I spend part of the time focused on my race- imagining running through each stage of the 400m, transitioning through my zones and executing my race plan. During other parts of my mental rehearsal routine, I am imagining how things would play out differently under different circumstances. How will my race plan change if it is raining? How will I adapt to a strong headwind down the back straight? How will I manage an unforeseen element- such as a false start, or a relay runner falling in front of me? These are the kind of elements that I spend time on- running through each at ‘real time’ speeds (ie- not slowing down the race- but rather concentrating on replicating performance/race day speeds). 

 

One Day to Race: Rest and Final Preparation – “Failing to plan is planning to fail” – Benjamin Franklin

The day before a major competition, I like to indulge in some mindless rest (reading or watching movies/tv shows—click here for a link to my favorite movies) as well as finalizing my race day plans. The first thing that I do is plan out my race day- from waking up in the morning all the way through to dinner that evening. Below I have provided my Olympic routine for the days of each race. I sent these plans through to Eric Hollingsworth (High performance manager of Athletics Australia) and Brent Kirkbride (Physiotherapist) days before the competition begun. Currently, I send my plans to my Coach (Jody Stewart), Head Coach (Chris Miltenburg), Athletic Trainers (Matt Harrelson and Erin Seeley) and the Director of Operations (Joseph Wagstaffe).

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I plan out my day for several reasons. For one, I have a personality of order and neatness. Although I enjoy surprises, I tend towards structure. Planning my day in advance gives me a large amount of confidence and security in my preparation plans. Just before I go to bed, I line out everything that I am packing in my training bag (see here). I rest comfortably knowing that I have everything that I need.

 

 

Race day: Execute, execute, execute “Ability is what gives you the opportunity, belief is what gets you there” - Apollo

Race day is all business. From start to finish, every movement that I make is tailored towards putting my body in the best position that I can to be successful in my event. I have done all the work over the days, weeks, months… maybe even years to get ready for today. Today is about execution.

I know my routine. I know what I am eating and when I am eating. I know when I am checking in and when I am warming up. I know what I need to do.

To kill time between my schedules, I often watch TV shows and listen to music. I try and not think too much about the race- I find that if I do this, I end up overthinking the race. It is important to balance your thoughts on race day- particularly when in the ‘call room’.

Quickly for those of you not familiar with the Call Room- it is a marshaling time where you report to a designated area (usually a tent) and go through various administration procedures such as uniform check and spike inspection.

The call room at major championships can be up to an hour long. That is a long time- and it is easy to get caught up with the emotion of the event. Intuitively, a lot of athletes buckle down into intense mental preparation. I have done this before, but have often over-psyched myself. This happens when I replay my race plan over and over again in my head so many times that it becomes detrimental. My concentration span does not last 60min. Research shows that 20min is the threshold of human concentration (on average), so to try and triple this is inexpedient. I intertwine my periods of mental rehearsal with other thoughts. Sometimes, I replay a movie in my head and other times, I sing to myself. I have found that these brief ‘distractions’ are requirements for success.

Another method that I use throughout my time in the call room is self-motivation and self-talk. Ralph Emerson once said: “what lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”. In the call room, I constantly remind myself that I am ready to perform. I am ready to execute my race place. I am ready to give every last molecule of energy that I have in my effort. I am ready to win. 


I hope that a trip through my mind leading up to race day has inspired new ways of thinking about mental preparation. There are many facets to a performance, and one must not underestimate the power nor the importance of the correct and thought out preparation of the mind. Tune in next time for an in-depth look at the science behind mental rehearsal as I address the question: “Does mental rehearsal enhance performance?”

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