Eyes on the Prize
by Gail Waesche Kislevitz
Kate Fonshell stood at the start of the most important race of her life and felt a sense of doom. As she looked down the line of the other elite women toeing the start, Fonshell allowed negative thoughts to creep in and distort her focus. “I felt like I didn’t belong there. Everyone else was so much better, faster, more deserving than me,” recalls Fonshell. “I wanted to quit and go home.” Right before the gun sounded, Fonshell snapped back to thinking like a winner and ran to first place to win the 1996 Olympic Trials 10,000m in 32:37, earning a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.
That moment was an epiphany for Fonshell, and she has turned that experience into a career as a sports psychology consultant, lecturing athletes on the importance, and power, of positive thinking. “We’re all human, and these negative thoughts happen to everyone. But they can be reversed,” says Fonshell. Sports psychology has been around since the 1950s but is just beginning to come into its own after being considered too touchy-feely and abstract to have any measured results. Nowadays, even the Olympic teams travel with their own sports psychologist to help the athletes deal with nervous energy, negative thoughts, self-doubt, and pre-race jitters.
Fonshell is quick to point out that sports psychology is not just for Olympians or elites. “It doesn’t matter what your level of competition is. Everyone feels the same at the start of a race.” Another reason to get hip to sports psychology is that results can be seen in a short period of time, and you’ll enjoy running even more with a positive outlook rather than the old bugaboos we carry around with us.
Whether you are training for the Olympics or a local race, getting ready for competition includes physical conditioning, strategy analysis, and mental preparation. This is where sports psychology fits into the mix. Fonshell admits that the premise behind sports psychology is no big mystery. We all have the skills, but it is recognizing how to use those skills and actually putting them into practice where most athletes fall short. Fonshell refers to her work as refresher courses in what we all know but don’t do.
A major focus of sports psychology is psychological skills training, which includes motivation and goal setting, stress management, imagery, and self-talk. Fonshell believes these are the key tools to use when mentally preparing for competition, insuring that you will come to the start of the race with a fresh outlook and positive thoughts.
Motivation and Goal Setting
Motivation involves two components, direction and intensity. Direction deals with choosing a goal, and intensity refers to how much effort one is willing to put out to reach the desired goal. It’s the “I’m in a rut and don’t know why I am running anymore” situation. Your desired goal could be to run a 10K in 40 minutes. Your next step is to decide how you will do this. Now you have both direction and intensity in the form of a measurable goal accompanied by specific strategies. The perfect formula for motivation. Goals should also be realistic so unless you have run a few 5Ks at a similar pace and are willing to put out the effort to reach the goal, don’t set yourself up for failure. And goals should always be stated in a positive manner. During training, keep telling yourself you are doing a great job and the goal is within reach instead of “Oh no, what if I choke?”
Goals should also have a target date for completion, so pick a race and mark the date in a log or calendar. Fonshell is big on recording and keeping logs or journals. “Start with your long-term goal, write the strategies to reach that goal, how you plan to measure that goal, and the final outcome. Keeping a log turns the event into a daily activity. It is something you can refer to every day and use it to set future goals,” says Fonshell, who has kept a journal of her running since high school. Since taking her doctoral program, she records her mental feelings as well as the physical workout. “By keeping a record of how I am feeling both physically and mentally, I can see trends in my training and racing, and I am able to make better decisions.”
Stress can negatively affect an athlete’s performance. Most of us have experienced the physiological symptoms of stress (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension) as well as the psychological (worry, anxiety, inability to concentrate) and the physical (nail biting, fidgeting, nervous chatter). Fonshell offers a few tips on how to deal with the pre-race jitters:
Imagery: You’ve heard it before—kind of a Zen thing—but it works. Imagery is seeing with the mind’s eye. But you can also use other senses as well, such as hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. The expression “tasting victory” doesn’t refer to the finish line banquet; it refers to the overall feeling of euphoria when you are in the zone and have the sense that nothing can stop you from reaching your goal. When creating an image, use as many senses as possible. Does the race end in a park? Imagine the way the trees look and the grass smells and the encouraging words of the crowds. See the last half-mile in your mind (try to run it prior to the race). Imagery can especially help when you are feeling pain and fatigue and don’t think you can take another step. Focusing on your positive images will improve concentration. During Fonshell’s Olympic Trials race, she calmed herself at the start by imagining doing her strides, taking in the stadium, the finish line, and reviewing the entire race, lap by lap.
Self-Talk: What sounds better: “I feel strong today, and I’m going to have a great race,” or “I feel like crap, and I’ll be lucky to finish”? Engaging in negative talk may well result in a negative outcome, while positive self-talk may help to achieve a better performance. Be nice to yourself. You’ve worked hard to get to the start line, and you deserve some positive feedback. And don’t hold back. Self-talk is just that. Talk to yourself at the start, during, and at the finish of the event. No one will think you are crazy, and even if they do and try to avoid you, they might open up a space around you, which is always a positive at the start of a race.
The Focus is on YOU
Don’t waste energy worrying about other runners or things you can’t control, like the weather. You can only control what you are doing, not the person next to or in front of you. Concentrate on your strategy, training and goal—the process, not the outcome.
The bottom line in using sports psychology techniques is that there is a limit to the amount of physical training the body can endure, but there is no limit to the mental training. The take-home message Fonshell gives all her clients is to use the mental skills we all know and have. The next time you find yourself in a fight or flight mode at the start of a race, just remember Fonshell’s 1996 Olympic Trials race. Don’t be the one who thinks like a loser. Be the one who turns on the positive switch and focuses on running your heart out just for you.
Gail Waesche Kislevitz is the author of First Marathons and, more recently, The Spirit of the Marathon. Kate Fonshell holds a masters degree in counseling and is a certified counselor and sports psychology consultant. She can be reached at Kfon@earthlink.net.