Triathlon and Mental Health: How To Cope – Part 1

The modern world creates many challenges that we have not yet evolved well enough to deal with and, in turn, this frequently leads to increased stress. Ultimately, it may even lead to depression. When a person experiences this debilitating condition, they can feel that they have no motivation to do anything and can lose their way in the sport they love. Worse still, the sport itself can create stress and pressure that they aren’t equipped to cope with.

Despite coming across as ultra-confident, I personally suffer from extremely low self-esteem and anxiety at times. My mood is deeply affected during the build-up to a race. Despite my lovely wife’s reassurances, I still stand in transition with a deep belief that everyone there is better than me. I never feel as though I have trained enough or that I am ready to achieve my goals. The self-doubt can, admittedly, be overwhelming. Long triathlon events require year-long dedication, and during the winter months finding this level of commitment consistently can be more difficult than we expect. Over the years, I have used many techniques to help me stay focused, positive and motivated. This ultimately resulted in me setting up my own business and race team designed to support others on this journey.

It is worth noting that I am not a medical expert in mental health or a psychologist, but I have experienced challenges with my own mental health in recent years that originated from experiencing domestic violence while growing up. I also work with a number of athletes who share similar challenges with anxiety, depression and self-esteem. Here are my top tips to a more successful, more enjoyable tri-journey. Focus on the process. Not the outcome.

Success is not defined by the result of your race or training sessions. Or how well you did compared to others. Focus on the execution of the race and training sessions and you will find that there are more positives than negatives. Even better, set out clear process goals before the race and practice these before the day so you feel more confident. Review your goals regularly and remember that not achieving them is not a failure, if you followed the process you planned. Make sure the goals are ‘smart’. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-efficient. If the sessions are vague then it will be hard for you to plan. Celebrate mini successes.

Have a plan to follow and break it down. This way, you will feel a sense of accomplishment each time you complete part of the plan. Set short term targets, maybe even daily goals. This way the long-term goals won’t become overwhelming and you may feel less anxious when you think about your short-term goals rather than the final goal. Even if you just get faster by the blink of an eye each day, eventually this will add up to a big improvement in speed.

Don’t worry about what you look like

Although the media imposes the ‘perfect body’ image on us, athletes come in all shapes and sizes. I get fed up of seeing ‘beach body’ nonsense everywhere. Remember that most of the images in the media are heavily edited anyway. Triathlon is inclusive and open to all abilities and body shapes. Size does not necessarily dictate ability and you don’t have to look like the stereotypical ‘athlete’ to be an accomplished athlete.

Surround yourself with people that won’t judge you by their own standards

Find a support network. One person’s success is one person’s failure. Anyone who judges your successes by their own standards is not worth being around. There is nothing wrong with someone helping you to see your true potential and encourage you to reach for that. There is also nothing wrong with others encouraging a certain way of conducting yourself. However, judging another athlete’s success based on your own standards is just plain wrong. If you suffer from mental health challenges, you will also know that the way you act or react outwardly is not always how you feel

inside. Make sure that the people you surround yourself with are people who understand this and who will stand by you and support you while you try and realign your inner feelings with your outward behaviour.

Arrange for others to train with you

This is one of the best motivators you can find. Knowing someone else is meeting you for a session or race can be a huge incentive to go. Afterwards, you know you will feel empowered by the session.

Control the controllable

You can’t control everything, so only focus on the things you can control. Stop focusing on the things you can’t. This will keep you calmer and less anxious. For example, at a group swim you can’t control how fast everyone else is. Try to focus on you and your session, and not much else. In the gym, we all worry about how we look, but in reality, no one is looking at you. More often than not, people are only looking at themselves. Get into coaching.

Helping others is inspirational. There is simply nothing more motivating than helping someone else on their journey and seeing them succeed. It is also a great way of getting your training done if you can train with them. You will be amazed how much you learn about yourself when you coach others too. You will definitely become so much more self-aware and confident. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go and qualify as a coach immediately. It may just mean guiding a friend on a journey you have experienced yourself.

Volunteer at races

This helps you appreciate privilege. Racing is a privilege and we can often forget that. Go and volunteer at a race and you will appreciate the sport so much more. For me, the best part of any Ironman is not watching the pros finish, or getting a finish myself, but watching the Hero’s Hour.

Share your journey

Write a blog or share your success on social media. Yes, you might find ‘haters’ along the way but sharing your journey is exciting and can enhance your feelings of inner pride. You will also be inspired by the feedback you get from others. However, don’t do it to fish for compliments or self-promote. There is far too much of this going on as it is and often, people just find it irritating. Do it because you genuinely think others will gain something from reading it, otherwise keep it to yourself. You never know who may be experiencing the same issues as you and you may inspire someone without even knowing it.

Written by Zone3 Ambassador Tom Ward

Edited by Catharyne Walton-Matthews