Thursday, 3 March 2011

Building self belief to help endurance performance

In Andy Preston's post last week, he proposed emotion focused coping can help change our responses to the immense mental and physical challenges experienced during races to help develop your resilience to successfully negotiate marathon races and other endurance events.

I wanted to dwell a little further on mental strength as it is both required in endurance and is a much researched subject in Sport Psychology currently (under the title 'mental toughness'). Given that a lot of readers are competing in European spring marathons and will be undertaking some of their longest runs in training at the moment I'm going to explore self belief this week. Next week we'll touch on mental toughness. We'll explore what sport psychologists do to help build improve these characteristic with clients. My colleague Juan Carlos Lorenzo (a former pro cyclist on the Vuelta de Espana) will guest blog on how mental toughness relates to endurance competition.

Self belief (in sport psychology literature most often referred to as self efficacy) relates to the task at hand in performing within your discipline, as opposed to your general overall confidence as a person. As most sport psych students would be taught in year 1 class Self efficacy is defined as “belief in one's own ability to perform a specific task.”

In my MSc research I investigated the psychological skills needed for successful marathon running. As well as excellence in coping, self efficacy/belief was a crucial factor with the runners I interviewed before and reviewing their performance after the race. Of my sample, one runner had unshakeable belief in their abilities for race day, and achieved the time they wanted. The other runners said they had belief before the race and then afterwards said in hindsight, they knew deep down that they would not achieve their target time.

It would seem therefore, that excellence in self-belief is also required to excel in a race. As a psychologist I'm interested in knowing how an athlete can prepare in such a way that as they get to the start-line they know that they will achieve optimum performance (or be able to negate any barrier that may interfere with achieving it). If you'd asked me after my pre-race interviews whether I thought that all runners had self-belief, superficially I'd have said 'yes'. What was most interesting, listening back to the tapes for transcription and analysis, was that after multiple listens, I could make out the doubt in the voices of the runners who didn't hit their targets. You may say, well that was achieved with the benefit of hindsight! but listening closely, I think I can pick out 1 or 2 instances where I can hear their belief wavering prior to running.

So how was self-belief achieved prior to racing by the most successful of my participants? (and by elite athletes). Unsurprisingly, prior performance gives us a very strong indication for potential achievement. Chris Evert Lloyd famously said that having achieved success at an early age built her confidence in her abilities as she progressed in her tennis career into her adulthood. In the case of my runner, he had an ever improving record in races and a healthy way of framing his progress in his running 'career' even though he only started running at 28.

His goals were achievable each time he raced, never trying to take huge chunks off each event. Instead, he had steadily chipped away at his times, so now he is down to a projected finish time of 2 hours 45. In my study, he had previously just missed out on his first sub 3 hour marathon (by a minute). So for London 2009, he 'only' had to take a minute off to achieve his target time. No mean feat, as the margins for that kind of difference are much smaller as race times come down. However, he had assessed his previous race data and performance meticulously and worked with his coach to work out where this difference could best be overcome through his 16 weeks training.

Having a structured plan from the off, he barely missed a run or other training, but really built in rest time as well. He made sure that when he had a rest day, he properly rested. No little 2 or 3 mile runs. But horizontal, relaxed, REST! Its so tempting to always do 'a little bit more'. I find with friends and clients, building in proper rest is a tough challenge. Everyone always wants to cycle, swim or do something when they should be putting their feet up!

The other main point I found was how this runner also framed prior negative results, i.e. those races which had been painful or where they had just missed out on a pre race goal. He hadn't obsessed about what went wrong, or that it would happen again. He carefully rationalised the situation on race day and took steps to ensure the same mistakes or situations didn't occur in the race being prepared for. He put that to bed, focused on the task at hand and given he had trained to the best of his ability on race day, was confident enough 'to know' he'd finish in the desired time. But what worked for him won't work for all. We're not all carbon copies of each other!

Its an inexact science, and if I could give you a formula, I'd be the most successful practitioner! Hopefully this has gone some way to help you. But additionally, if you haven't done all your training and fear you may miss out on a time, don't take that as read! It's all about the quality of the work you do (and life gets in the way!). Ultimately, we sport psychologists can work with you on confidence, but once you're at the line its up to you and how you perform and cope on the day. The training runs are the place to experiment and go through the pain, but through collaborating together, sport psychologists and athletes can work to minimise those naughty distractors and inhibitors. This won't guarantee you'll definitely achieve your desired result, but its more likely you'll be nearer to getting it.

Any tips you care to share about how you build your self-belief, please add in the comments section or get back to me. What I've covered is by no means exhaustive, and it'd be great to hear what has inspired or worked for you.

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