Sunday, July 31, 2016

Interview w/a Sports Psych Consultant... Are You Mentally Tough??

Sure, you train those raging quads and glutes of yours, but what about your mind?

Through his company, Mental Grit Consulting, Nathan Last is on a mission to help athletes unlock their most powerful weapon... their mind. Here he provides some great insight into the mental side of triathlon, along with some practical tips. Thanks for the time, Nate!

First of all, what can you tell us about yourself and your company?

Well, I guess to start this all off, my name is Nate and I like to party… ;) Not going to take that one back.

What to say about myself and Mental Grit…Well, Mental Grit Consulting is the result of my years studying applied sport psychology at the University of Utah. I found a passion in helping people fulfill their performance potential in athletics and now knowing what I do, I would like to get this kind of training into as many hands/minds as I can. Sadly, it is really only available to Olympians, professionals, or collegiate athletes even though it’s a big part of sport performance… it's my mission to make it accessible to all athletes!

If not answered above, what led you to go into this field of study & work? 

When I was a kid, I competed in a myriad of sports ranging from moto-x to ballroom dance to swimming, golf and lacrosse; through all of it I had some great times! I also had many rough times... Many of those negative experiences stemmed from things that I had complete control over (attitude, effort, etc…), other issues had to do with the program itself and the coaches… Mental skills training could have helped with all of that. I could have had a much better experience. When I found sport psychology it was like a light that just clicked with my personality and overall goals in life. I could work with people, own my own business in a budding field, and be a part of the athletic scene in a variety of sports.

Why I got into running, and later triathlon, was really to fill a gap in my competitive experience. I couldn’t really wrap my head around what some of my clients were talking to me about so I had to figure it out for myself… and boy did I!

After Ironman Canada, Rory Duckworth raved about the “mental training” he's been doing with you. What does mental training mean for triathletes, and is it an area we typically overlook?

To be honest, the training is different for everyone. I like to say that what I do is all about optimizing the potential of the athlete. We look at all of the factors that are involved with that person and figure out where the most potential is to start working on.

What do triathletes have some opportunity in getting better at? A few things come to mind right off the bat, like energy and emotion management before races, controlling their self talk in the race and during training, and focus control over the training period.

Is it an area that is overlooked? Most definitely. Not because of any negligence on the part of the athlete. In my experience, most athletes know how important the mind is in performance but just don’t know what to do about it. The fun thing is that most already have mental techniques that they have developed over years of training. The Mental Skills coach will help to bring purpose behind what they are already doing and provide some training on how to respond in those things they don’t have techniques for. We are a third party of sorts to help bring perspective to the athlete's situations and provide guidance.

physically and mentally ripped
All sports require mental toughness, but where would you rank triathlon? In some ways, the ability to perform a “skill” isn’t required on the same level of a baseball pitcher, Olympic gymnast, pro tennis player, etc. On the other hand, endurance racing is the ultimate battle between mind & body.

Being a triathlete, the toughness factor is critical. However, what I define as mental toughness is much less about strength & power… rather, I have found it is more about making really tough decisions, and then doing the hard things to act on those decisions. You know the ones I am talking about… Getting out bed at 4 or 5 in the morning vs staying in bed and sleeping, completing a training ride vs ending early, pushing the limits vs slowing down because it just makes sense; all decisions we have to make in our daily performance as triathletes. Now these are the decisions that naturally come to mind but what about these ones… deliberately putting the training down at the end of the season for a while vs continuing the structured daily workouts; something that I found harder than I thought it would be at the end of this season (yes, deliberately putting down the training after a season for a while is very important for long term performance, it’s called energy management).

Alright I will get to the point here… I would rank triathlon in the top 5 sports requiring the most mental toughness purely due to the training and the fact that those two 70.3’s that I did this summer were 2 of the hardest things I have yet to do in my life.

Ok then, I’m putting you on the spot: give us the “Nathan Last Top 10 Mental Toughness Sports.” (for example, a sport like soccer wouldn’t be on my list. Golf probably would).

Ah man I don’t think I could even start here… Ok well I “ranked” triathlon in the previous question… but every sport has its own mental challenges. Soccer for example has some really tough mental aspects that those athletes need to work; these might include spatial ball/body awareness, focus control, and playing under pressure. Where 1 step can mean the difference between a goal and a turnover, and the athlete needs to know his/her position and the position of every moving body on the field all the while staying poised and ready among the carnival of chaos in a stadium… well let's just say it takes a lot of mental and physical skill to make big things happen on the pitch.

Yes, the endurance sports take a lot of mental toughness but every sport has its own challenges. All going back to working each athlete as an individual.

If I was to say something I would want to put a condition on the list. The condition is that these are based in reaching the highest competitive levels vs participating in them. 

With this in mind I would have to bring in some really tough individual sports like enduro mtn biking/motorcycling, long distance running Marathon+, trail running, Ironman, Golf, gymnastics. They all require YEARS AND YEARS of mental and physical training to reach the highest competitive levels. 

No matter how mentally strong I am, I’m not going to beat Chris Hammer… that said, how large of a role can mental toughness play in someone’s own race?

I would say it this way: Every athlete has a certain physical potential in a given sport based on many factors like training, experience, natural talent, body elements (muscle type, muscle length) etc. It blew my mind to know the depth of sport science programs that I could have gone into in college where all of them study an area of sport performance factors. I believe this physical potential is unlocked by the mental skill of the athlete. Where all action starts in the mind, the more you train the mind, the more you are consistently able to unleash your full potential.

I want to clear something up really quick. The component of mental toughness is a small part of the whole of what I do. Toughness is important yes, but more important is control. Control over where you place your focus; Control over your emotions; Control over the talk and the images we create in the mind; control over developing and executing a plan; control over how you see the world and where you are in it.

Scientifically, what’s the phenomenon behind people “choking” in sports, and what can an athlete do to prevent it?

Scientifically, theories point to uncontrolled anxiety, varied attentional control, inadequate mental processing, self consciousness, or a combination of each as the culprit. To say it frankly, science does not know… or at least can’t agree…

Unscientifically, choking is the negative effect of an untrained mind. This is really a big part of what a mental skills trainer does, help the athlete develop the skills that, when used, can be implemented to combat anything that might keep them from performing in the big moments.

You’re days, hours, minutes away from go time, and you’re in need of some Depends. What are some practical tips to enjoy the build up and prepare effectively as opposed to stressing out? 

Preparation yields confidence and composure. Put a plan in place, run through it so you know it, execute.

Practical tip #1 (Days before race) – Make a checklist of everything needed for the race (race bib, jersey, shoes, etc) and pack it all up. YES DAYS BEFORE THE RACE. Check it twice before putting it in the bag and then seal that puppy up. Once it is zipped, tied, or sealed and checked LEAVE IT ALONE UNTIL RACE DAY! Trust your processes and let go of worry.

Practical tip #2 (Morning of Race) – Again trust your process. You have probably worked through this all in your head before hand a few hundred times.

Practical Tip #3: Breathe. Yes, breathe… and when you breathe let the diaphragm do the work inhaling and exhaling through the stomach. The energy of T1 prep and the start line is incredible. Unregulated thoughts, images (visualizations), and memories with that much energy behind them can cause people to literally get sick with worry, anxiety, and overall emotion if the thoughts are any kind of negative. Just breathe, engage in everything that is around you (GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD) and just be! I like to be completely out of my head by the time I hit the water for warm up always repeating to myself BE HERE NOW and at that point nothing else exists but each stroke, each breath, and a cannon signaling the start of the race.

Your race is falling apart. You’re suffering physically and beating yourself up mentally. What should you do from a mental perspective?

Fight and Fake it - You know the form you should have physically – put yourself there using a few cues to help get you in better form. (Ex. Chest high, head up, arms 90 degrees, etc.)

Who is your idol in triathlon? Ask yourself: What would they do? How would they think? What would they look like? How would they act?

E.A.T. Up – In many ways, when suffering happens we act and think the same way we act and think when we get really hungry. The ‘HANGER’ sets in… In this case we always have the choice to E.A.T. Control our Effort, Control our Attitude. Control our Teamwork. Effort and Attitude are always under our control if we choose to control it. This is a part of training. When it comes to the T for Teamwork I am really talking about the way we are working with ourselves. Like you said, you're beating yourself up… this is not very good teamwork. However, you can control it through a lot of mental toughness and choosing to support yourself… Soon enough you make enough decisions to control what you E.A.T. and you will be back to your regular self in no time!

This made me think of a song called Eat That Up, It's Good For You

What makes one person mentally stronger than another? Are we born with it, developed through experiences, etc?

In my personal opinion, mental toughness and high mental skill comes entirely from our experiences. This is the reason why I want to get this kind of training into lower level programs; help athletes at younger ages and/or at earlier stages in their sport to have more effective experiences early in both mental and physical skill development.

How can we get mentally tougher, and how do triathletes benefit from working with you?

Train the skills. Emotional Control, Focus Control, Self-Talk, Imagery, Mindset, Routine Development… they are all skills that we have the capability to develop.

How can all athletes benefit?: Well, if performance is weighted more mental than physical in competition… actually training the mental side might just be a big step in the right direction…

What an athlete can expect from training the mental skills?

  1. Higher confidence
  2. Sustainable Motivation
  3. Deliberate Focus
  4. Consistency
  5. Resilience
  6. Self Trust
  7. Self Control
If any of these are things that you feel like you need to optimize your performance potential, then working with a sport psych or mental skills trainer can help.

Instagram: @mentalgrit
Facebook: /mentalgrit
Twitter: /mentalgrit

O ya, I also have a partnership with SLTC members, please reach out if interested.

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