We Are What We Think: Part 1

by Terri Schneider 20

A ‘Why’ and ‘What’ of Mental Training for Sport (and Life!)

A month ago I tossed out a question on my Facebook wall: “As an athlete, do you spend focused time working on mental training?”

This was a tiny test to a) see if folks had a sense for what mental training is, and b) get a feel for where mental training lies on their priority scale.

My ‘test’ was admittedly remedial, but even the tiny sample size did uncover a couple things I have realized from many years as a coach and sport psychology consultant with lots of athletes: That the majority are uninitiated to structured mental training and its powerful benefits, and that some believe we are engaging in training our minds just because we are thinking. Because mental training is so critical to becoming your most amazing you this year, I’d like to peruse a bit of the “whys and whats” of mental training, and in additional posts offer some tips, stories and processes for you to engage with. Lets dive in!

Without a regular, focused mental process, it’s unlikely we’ll consistently compete at our absolute best and, even more importantly, live each day at our most optimum. An ominous statement for sure. But with a mental training process, we can do things we never thought possible, and have satisfying experiences each time we go out and get physical. Here’s one reason why: Our mind sets up 100% of the perceptions of our experiences via external stimuli, our past, various aspects of our current mindset, and stuff we just plain make up, and runs it through our brain each moment like an internal twitter feed. But, as some may think, that sometimes random and abbreviated feed isn’t a ‘training process’ that supports our best aspirations—it’s us, letting our mind be affected on various levels. And whether we like it or not, we are this feed in a given moment. We become what we think. Our thoughts generate our actions.

Embracing the unique joy of swimming in a natural environmentIf I dislike swimming in open water and mentally zero in on the discomfort of the open water swim, I will most likely have a miserable swim, or even become the miserable swim. I may even continue to share that miserable experience the rest of the day—with friends and family on Facebook and any other forum that will listen (or I think is listening)—and therefore drive the bad experience into my psyche. But if I stay focused on how to negotiate open water as best I can, and my swim experience in total, while accepting and maybe even embracing the unique joy of swimming in a natural environment, that same experience may become pleasurable or neutral (depending on the content of my mind chat). I may share that uniquely positive or neutral experience in the same manner as above, and thus drive this optimal experience into my psyche. We are capable of focusing the feed in any situation, and having it impact us positively. We just need to choose to step up with the proper skill set and then execute it. Then we can choose how we view open water. Repeatedly. Because being positive or neutral in our sporting life isn’t the norm for most. We need to formulate it, then practice.

Many non-athletes (and athletes) acquire this type of skill for life by meditating to calm their mind and create laser focus. In the process they find that generating a particular mindset is doable but challenging—that they have to practice it to generate it. We can create each sporting experience as a sort of meditation in motion. And just like doing drills, working on technique and spending time in the pool to improve our freestyle stroke, our mind takes on our chosen focused state by framing it, executing it, and then practicing it. Again and again. Through the good days and the tough ones. With steady and consistent practice we can learn to not only move more efficiently through the water, but we can control what our mind processes and even decide how each thought affects us.

Swimmers under Bridge

In sport psychology (and as athletes), we work with psychological factors that affect the experience of sport and with an aim to optimize our performance experiences. It has been shown that elite athletes tend to have a mindset that more naturally seeks this type of optimal processing, but even the elites need to refine and focus their objectives, and practice their desired mindset in order to generate it at will.

SwimmersIf I want to swim efficiently, I need to practice my freestyle technique, multiple times per week. If I want to be positive while optimizing race strategy during an endurance event, I have to specifically train my mind multiple times per week. And to have my best overall swim performance, my well-trained mind will drive the internal feed while my well-trained body swims. We can still have a fine experience while missing one of these pieces, but it won’t be our absolute best performance of the day. Nor our best possible experience. Engaging our well trained mind gives us that best performance and, most importantly, offers up our most satisfying experiences.

Stay tuned for more on this topic! In my next post I’ll share some stories with you while we start to look at the ‘how’ of putting this all together. In the meantime, work on this: Each time you exercise, notice what you are thinking. Everything. Write down your internal twitter feed post exercise by keeping a journal. No need to judge it, share it, wish it were different, or change it, yet. Just notice it. Are you focused more internally on your own experience, or are you more concerned with others around you? Are you positive, negative, realistic, critical, or supportive? If you are a bit of it all, you are quite normal. I’d love to hear what you come up with as I’ll bet ours sound very similar!

Back at you soon,


Terri Schneider has been “moving forward” for most of her 51 years. As a a pioneer of several sports, she has blazed a path through the endurance world with her curiosity for how far she can push herself and her desire to continuously up the ante… more »