Leaping the Mental Barrier

07/22/2022

This article is written by Kibwe Johnson, SPIRE’s Director of Track & Field and Head Coach – Throws, and was originally published in a recent edition of Athletics Weekly. This is the fourth in a series of Coaching Corner articles that provide thoughts and insights from our Track & Field leadership team to help athletes learn more about what goes into becoming an elite athlete, both on and off the track.

When it comes to a big event or important championships, athletes can have a habit of psyching themselves out. Former Olympian and SPIRE Academy coach Kibwé Johnson offers advice on how to rise to the occasion.

Many athletes share one common trait when facing a big championship or event. No matter how much preparation work they have put in, they psych themselves out. It doesn’t matter how well prepared they are or how long they’ve been training, the doubts can creep in and athletes can convince themselves that they aren’t good enough. Unfortunately, mindset is one of the biggest deciding factors in winning a big event so here’s how to fight back against those mental demons and increase your chances of success.

Get Your Mind Ready

It takes a positive mindset to win big. Giving an event too much “headspace” before the big day is a sure way to psych yourself out. Like any test, you’ve studied hard and you’re ready to perform. Confidence and positivity are key to success.

One way to mentally prepare is to remember that, at its heart, this is just another meeting. It’s the same distance, it’s the same track width, the same circles and the same weight implements. The only difference with this particular event is that it’s on a grander stage and thus has the potential to produce much more anxiety.

Open Yourself to the Moment

Depending on where your information comes from, some athletes intentionally try to block parts of themselves as a means to prepare for the competition. I personally believe this loads more anxiety on our shoulders, which may lead to potentially negative results.

This isn’t to say that an athlete won’t do well unless their mind is perfect. It happens all the time, but keep in mind that doing “well” is subjective. Most people hear that I was eighth at the London Olympic Games and the first American in an Olympic hammer final since 1996 and think how wonderful it all must be. When these people can read the apprehension in my face, confusion sets in. “Why does he appear to be upset or frustrated with such a good result?” The examples of such encounters are countless.

It’s Not the Time to Make Changes

Keep as much the same as you possibly can. Whatever processes you have at home, keep them the same at the championship.

That said, you have to adapt if necessary. The great philosopher, Mike Tyson, said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” With all of your best-laid plans and intention to keep training and support exactly as you’re used to at home, anything can and will happen on the road or at a championship in a foreign country.

Keep it Fun

This needs to be said again and again. At the end of the day, we are meant to have fun and enjoy the things that we do. Getting lost in the minutiae of how and when to compete is a perfect recipe for finding yourself out of flow with what is. In other words, it’s just not fun anymore.

This meeting or event is an individual entity to be enjoyed on its own. Stay in the moment and experience this game. Savour each piece of the game. This isn’t the time for looking ahead or behind. Athletes who strive to master their sport routinely look at each meet, each individual attempt or race as a new chapter in an ongoing book. I suggest looking at each big event as a book of its own. Together they make a series but, individually, each book stands alone.

Go With the Flow

Ultimately, success at a major event or championship has more to do with being able to go with your own flow than beating your competition. How ready are you to meet challenges that come your way? You’re physically prepared, now it’s time to make sure your mind is equally ready. When you can accomplish this, then you will be in a position to achieve success.

Kibwé Johnson is a two-time Olympian and five-time American hammer champion. He is Director of Track & Field and Head Coach—Throws at SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio.

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