She’s in the middle of the biggest race of her career, but she’s barely hanging on to the train of runners that look as though they’re effortlessly gliding along the track. Hamstrings are on fire. Sweaty salt streaks run down her face, which is a splotchy red with exertion. Inhale, exhale, breathe, again. Everything in her body is telling her to stop. STOP!
* * *
This is the critical moment. It’s the ‘make or break’ moment, when we make the split-second decision to either push harder or falter under stress. To keep going requires a high degree of mental toughness, which is much more complex than we might realize. The good news is, we can train our minds to become tougher in these situations. But how?
Carrie Jackson Cheadle, VIS Expert and certified mental performance consultant, helps us understand what we can do to optimize our mental capabilities to fight through what she calls our critical moments.
Using the 4Cs Framework of Mental Toughness
Control, challenge, commitment, and confidence. These are the 4Cs that sports psychologists use to guide athletes through challenges. Cheadle views mental toughness as a combination of “hardiness” and self-belief. She explains that hardiness is similar to resilience, which “is made up of three things that we see in the 4Cs . . . which are control, commitment, and challenge.” And “self-belief is that confidence.”
Our perception of what we are able to control is necessary for us to be able to concentrate on the task at hand. A technique that Cheadle uses with her athletes in order to improve this ability is having them “brainstorm a list of things that are in and out of their control. We start to look at the things that are important to focus on and what are just distractions,” she explains.
Let’s see how we can apply this part of the framework to our girl on the track. Before the race, she was feeling anxious because she was afraid that she’d be letting her team down if she didn't score. She was uncomfortable with the nighttime start of the race. Not only was it bitterly cold out, but it was also raining. Here’s an example of a list she can make before the race to ease her thoughts:
Out of My Control:
The weather conditions
What my teammates are thinking
The start time of the race
In My Control:
How I prepare for the weather (e.g. several warm-up layers, arm sleeves)
My own thoughts: My training has prepared me for this.
My preparation: I can make sure to get enough rest and fuel throughout the day so that I am energized and ready tonight.
Before our next competition or race, try responding to these prompts that Cheadle uses with her athletes:
Write in detail what your best performance(s) ever felt like, when you were just on fire. How did it feel in the moment? What were you thinking?
Do the same for a particularly poor performance. What are the differences between those days?
During a competition or race, challenges often come in the form of critical moments. Knowing that this will happen allows us to form specific strategies ahead of time so that we are better able to set ourselves up for success.
Don’t be afraid to dream big! A crucial part of mental toughness is the tendency to seek out challenges, because doing so creates more opportunities for us to perform at a high level and to grow as athletes. In the moments that these challenges arise, our reaction to them is just as important.
“You can’t build your mental toughness without putting in your mental reps. It’s just being deliberate about your mental training, and making sure that it’s happening in conjunction with your physical training.”
Our sense of commitment to our sport has a huge influence on how we respond to our critical moments. The less committed we feel, the more likely it is that we will give in to the discomfort. True commitment cannot be created quickly. It’s built from every practice, workout, late-night bus ride, win, loss, and sacrifice made. In other words, time in the game.
To determine an athlete’s commitment to her sport, Cheadle will ask: “What is it that’s important to you about doing this? What meaning does it have to you to be able to participate in your sport?”
Cheadle also uses what she calls the 1% More Technique. “Sometimes we think, ‘how could I possibly give more than what I have right now?” she says. In that moment, ask yourself what you need to do to push just 1% more. “It makes it something that is in your control, that you can commit to, that is challenging, and that you feel confident doing it because it’s just 1%,” she says. “We can always find 1%.”
There has never been a successful athlete that has not been confident in their own ability. Here is a team activity that Cheadle guides her athletes through to build up their self-belief:
Athletes choose a partner, and they state their strengths to one another. The catch? They can’t use a “qualifier”, which is a word or phrase that draws attention to a weakness. The word “but” is a common qualifier. For example:
Strong Statement: “I am really good at mile repeats.”
Weak Statement: “I am really good at mile-repeats, BUT I should be able to do more.”
Cheadle has found that this activity is generally easier for men than women athletes. As women, we need to have more confidence in our abilities. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the desire to improve, Cheadle explains, but we still need to be able to “own our strengths.”
We have control over how we use the 4Cs Framework. The more we practice these techniques that Cheadle has given us, the better we will perform at crunch time. “You can’t build your mental toughness without putting in your mental reps. It’s just being deliberate about your mental training, and making sure that it’s happening in conjunction with your physical training,” she says. We have the tools, so let’s use them to make us the exceptional athletes we are capable of being.
* * *
Her mind flashed to the moment she wrote out the list of things that are in her control. She thought about her teammates, how hard they laugh at their dinners together, how they study with each other on the road, and dream bigger and bigger with every meet. In her notebook, she’d written about how great she is at finishing her workouts strong. The bell rang for the final lap, and she moved. Fast.