How an athlete's mindset can help you achieve personal success


As an athlete, "the zone" is a state (not a low carb diet!) that is experienced only a few times in a lifetime. Its occurence can usually be counted on the fingers of one hand only... but it is this rarity that makes it so special and to be cherished forever. It is one of those moments when everything just flows perfectly. Nothing seems to be affecting you, you feel invincible. You don't even seem to feel pain or can push through it without much effort.

Iron War

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In 1989, in the last miles of an epic dual that will later be named "Iron War", legendary triathlete Mark Allen experienced one of those moments. Him and his rival, Dave Scott, had been racing side by side since the first lights of the morning, when they jumped off the pier of the Kailua-Kona Bay for the 2.4 miles (3.8km) open water swim, first leg of the legendary Ironman World Championships. They never were far from each other either for the whole duration of the 112 miles (180km) bike ride through the lava fields. Well into the marathon, they were still shoulder to shoulder. The heat and humidity were starting to take its toll on Allen and for a moment, he thought he was going to have to once more concede victory to the already six times Ironman World Champion Scott. All of a sudden, in a state close to delirium, a clear image came into Mark Allen's head:

Of this 110-yeard-old Huichol Indian shaman I’d seen in a magazine two days before the race, a gentleman named Don José Matsuwa. He had this look on his face that was of utter peace and tremendous power at the same time, like he was just so happy to be alive. And somehow, from that image, I started to feel some of that joy coming into me. I looked around and I thought, Wow: I’m actually happy to be here. We’re out here on this…we’re running on lava, and we’re holding this race, the two of us. Not Dave, not me, but the two of us, together, and look what we’re doing. I’m right here with the best in the world, and no one else is, so that’s pretty cool. And as the possibility came back, from that point on I could feel myself getting stronger and stronger.
— Mark Allen

And the rest is history: at the bottom of Palani Hill, which is a bit more than a mile from the finish, Mark made his move. He quickly ran away from Dave and won his first of six Ironman Championships. 

My "moment"

One of my own "In the Zone" moments happened in my short track speed skating days, in December 2002 during the Canadian Junior Selections that were taking place in Chicoutimi, Quebec. This two day meet was to select the three women and three men under 19 to represent Canada at the 2003 ISU World Junior Championships that would be held in Budapest, Hungary. The season had started really well for me and I was totally smashing it in training. I arrived in Chicoutimi as a clear favourite to win the competition and easily make it to Junior Worlds.

On the first day however, everything that could go wrong did indeed go wrong. A fall in 1500m final and missing the 500m A final had me in 6th place at the end of the day. I was devastated and thought that my weekend was already over. My dad did not really know what to tell me to cheer me up because I think he had given up as well. After dinner, I decided to call my then boyfriend, Derek, a speed skater on the American team, to brief him on the day and have a shoulder to cry on. As a speed skater, Derek was not the most talented. But what he lacked in talent he made up one hundred times in heart and will. To this day, I do not believe I have met anyone else who could push himself as much as he could. It is with this warrior mindset that he proceeded to bring my hope back and when I hung up the phone, I truly believed I might still have a chance to make the team.

I woke up the next day feeling amazing and better than anything: not stressed AT ALL! I remember arriving at the rink and laughing with everyone. Before the first race, I recall warming up with my friend Valerie Gauthier and thinking: "I am going to Hungary, there is no doubt about it." I was feeling as confident as ever, I knew I was going to get it done!

I then won the 1000m final with an inside pass on two girls in the last lap. Such a gutsy move that was so not my style! My coaches were blown away! I was happy but not surprised at all. I was now in 4th place. For the 1500m super final, the last race of the day, I needed to finish first or second. Sitting on the bench before the race, the tension was palpable. Points were really tight and five out of the six girls in the race still had a shot on the top three. I however felt so calm and relaxed because I was so certain. The race started and I quickly positioned myself in second place. All throughout the race, I could hear a lot of action behind me, but Anouk (Leblanc-Boucher) and I pretty much time trialled the whole distance and with one lap to go, we had almost 20 metres on third place. And that was it. We finished in that order and both made the team, along with Crystal Philips who got third. A month after, I had what would be my best Junior World Championships (I participated in 2002-2003 and 2004) when I finished in 5th place overall. To be honest, Hungary is a bit of a blur... but I still remember Chicoutimi (the trials) like it happened yesterday. 

The athlete's mindset

You do not need to be an elite athlete to experience being in the zone. Think of an exam that you totally blitzed at school, a work presentation where you were 100% in control or even this local 10km run when you smashed your personal best. Being in the zone is this moment where hard work, correct mindset and a bit of magic collide. Such a  "state of grace" is unlikely to happen in all our "A races" or big presentations. It is however possible to get as close to it as often as possible, just by adopting the correct habits.

1. Repetition is your best friend

Train, practice, be consistent. Day in, day out, repeat the movements or speech until it is second nature. On the big day, you won't have to worry about the basics and will have all your head for problem solving and extra motivation.

2. Get out of your comfort zone 

Challenge yourself, when something feels too easy, make it harder. If you are training for a race, simulate a tough situation that might happen: no water or nutrition, boredom, rain. If you are preparing for a speech, practice with a lot of background noise or ask a friend to act as a hostile audience. It will boost your confidence and get your ready for anything.

3. Surround yourself with a great support crew 

pair up with positive people who believe in you, pick you up when you are down and push you to always be a better version of yourself. 

4. Practice self love

Self love is the best form of motivation. Have high standards and keep your body and mind in top shape. Eat an alkaline forming diet, sleep enough, avoid too much stress, exercise, meditate, laugh, pet your cat... You are much more likely to perform to your best when standing on strong foundations.

5. Practice visualisation

A lot of elite athletes or professional speakers replay their upcoming performance a million time in their head before the actual event. Close your eyes and try feeling the emotions you will experience. See yourself executing everything to the perfection and being victorious. Do it as often as you can and preferably at the same time of the day to create habit. I personally also like to visualise my next race when I am in the midst of a hard workout to help push myself even more.

6. Create an anchor 

In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), "anchoring" uses a stimulus; it may be a sound, an image, a sound, a smell, a taste to trigger a consistent response in you. For example, you can condition yourself to get into racing mode and push harder when you think of a certain person or a certain word. A lot of athletes will glue pictures or write certain names on their bike, race car, wrist, etc I love to listen to the song Lethal Industry from Tiesto before a hard race or training to pump me up. It really gets me in the battle mood! Another great practice is to find a mantra (a few words to repeat over and over) to help with any situation you may face. For example, I repeat to myself "Everyone is going through the same thing" when facing difficult race conditions. When I want to push harder, I love the cheesy but oh so efficient: "Pain is temporary!".

7. Love what you do 

Like Mark Allan on the lava fields of the Big Island of Hawaii, find joy in what you do. You will find it a lot easier to give it your all and push through pain and/or discomfort. Remember why you chose to do what you do and be grateful for being able to do it.  

And of course...

Always remember to #fuelpositive!

Peace and strength,

Emilie Tan

Luke TanComment