Twisting thoughts: Mastering the mental side of competing
By Greg Bach
One of America’s greatest long-distance runners remembers the race that forever changed her thinking.
And her life.
“My biggest lesson was going to my first national cross country championship as a professional athlete and I had high expectations for this race and I absolutely got demolished,” says Deena Kastor, the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist. “And my first thought was, ‘I’m so delusional, I’m worthless, this is so disappointing,’ and really owning that defeat. It wasn’t until my coach Joe Vigil said, ‘I’m glad you are disappointed. You shouldn’t be satisfied with that performance. You’re disappointed because you care and you expect more out of yourself.’ So he actually showed me that disappointment could be that springboard for putting your head down and working more diligently toward the goals that you set and the desires that you have to accomplish in the sport. So that was a really big learning moment for me – not to own the disappointment but to use it as a catalyst for moving forward to what I wanted to become in the sport.”
That signature moment helped a world class athlete begin to understand how developing the mind, fueling it with positive energy, could help propel her to reaching her full potential and become a dominant runner who would stamp her name on American records in every distance from the 5K to the marathon.
Kastor’s new book, Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, is a fascinating read that has applications for all athletes in all sports – and for those who coach young athletes, too. It’s about cultivating positivity as the launching pad for achieving great performances.
“Understanding the gifts that my coach gave me in mastering my mental game, along with my physical growth, I realized through his example that everything that we have – whether it’s food or knowledge or time or money – that it increases in value the moment that it is shared,” Kastor says. “I want people to walk away not learning more about me but understanding more about themselves. So I like to think of it as an instructional memoir.”
One of the most important of the many great lessons shared in the book is that the mind can be molded.
“What people don’t understand is that our minds are really malleable and that they can be shaped with our direction so it’s a critical factor in your self-conditioning,” Kastor says. “It’s about paying attention to your mind and your thoughts and your perspective and to be able to shape them in a way that serve you.”
Kastor puts that process to work when she’s struggling during a workout or enduring one of those days where nothing seems to be going right.
“Now my perspective is that any time a day is going wrong or a workout isn’t going to my advantage I just sit there and try to twist my thoughts and focus on a way to get through it, knowing that getting through our bad days is sometimes more gratifying than breezing through the easy ones,” she says.
GROWING THROUGH SPORTS
Yes, we want our young athletes to strive to win and to always do their best. But in that pursuit of success we don’t want them losing sight of what competing is all about and the amazing lessons they can learn about themselves in the process.
“I’ve had this dilemma with myself for so many years because my goal is always to win races or break records, but I also realize that winning races and breaking records really doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things,” Kastor says. “People win races every weekend. Someone won last weekend and someone else is going to win next weekend; someone is going to win a gold medal at the next Olympics. So what does all of this mean?”
Kastor solved these complex questions that hover over athletes, and it’s a message coaches of all sports should be sharing with their young athletes as they navigate their seasons.
“I really grew to understand that you are growing the person you are through sports, that it’s not really the performance itself that matters but how you carry yourself in that performance and how you define yourself in the moments when the going gets tough,” she says. “Are you going to be the person who throws their hands up? Are you going to throw in the towel in a challenging moment or are you going to drop the hammer and try a little harder? So I think it’s more of having fun with defining who you are through sports than letting the sport define you.”
HITTING YOUR STRIDE IN LIFE
Participating in sports – regardless if it’s running or a more traditional team sport – offers so many benefits for youngsters. Both now, and later in life.
There are the obvious physical benefits of being active.
And, as Kastor has learned, tremendous upside for developing mental strength that will serve youngsters well in all areas of their life, too.
“That’s why our parents put us into sports to begin with because they want us to have good role models and a good backbone for building confidence and being goal oriented,” Kastor says. “These are all things that being in sports can give us. But I think paying attention to our mental game is going to serve us much better in our lives long past the days that we hang up our shoes in the sport that we are involved in. It wasn’t until I was a professional that I learned how to deal with the mental aspects that could enhance my performance and really enhance my life.”
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Add these tips to your coaching toolkit to help young athletes broaden their outlooks, enhance their emotional health, and compete with honor