We Are What We Think: Part 1

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,


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February 21, 2013 at 10:19 am

This blog is very timely for me. I’ve noticed that I’m very aware of my mental activity during yoga — it’s so engrained in the practice and the teaching. But translating the mental training from yoga to other forms of exercise is more challenging. I’m going to take your advice and make note of my internal chatter. I look forward to learning more!

Terri Schneider

February 21, 2013 at 10:23 am

One of the excellent qualities of a yoga practice is that the mental focus is integrated. Its easy to become intimate with what you are doing mentally and physically. Paying attention while running, biking etc. is a bit more challenging but check it out. Write it down. It will be fun to see what you come up with!


February 21, 2013 at 10:36 am

Thanks for this. I had a really rough bouldering session yesterday, and have been dreading facing the wall again. Instead of evaluating, I’ll work on just noticing what happens!


February 21, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Reading articles like this one is great….however, I’d love to know if anything is going on in our local store. My friends and I were so excited when Athleta opened in Towson, but unless we go to the store and see what’s new or what the class schedules are, we have no idea. I can’t run up there all the time – is there a way to post local Athleta happenings??

Team Athleta

February 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Nancy, thanks for your interest in hearing about happenings in your local store. There are several ways you can stay informed. The Towson store event calendar is located online at http://stores.athleta.net/store-4871/. Stores also share info about upcoming events on our Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/Athleta — and if you’re on Twitter you can follow @Athleta_Towson. Hope this helps!

Terri Schneider

February 21, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Amanda – exactly! No need to judge the session or even what happens in your mind. Just listen to it for now…. then you can work on changing it up – stay tuned!


February 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm

I am a runner, but I haven’t always been. When I first started running I was very negative about it. I found that my inner chatter hated every minute of it. When I decided to challenge myself a few years ago and run a half marathon I was very skeptical I could even do it, but when I changed by whole mindset and inner chatter I began enjoying every run. Now I am the cross country coach for our local middle school and hope that I have inspired them to run happy as well. Thank you for such a wonderful insight on dealing with our negative thoughts. Next I would like to work on swimming. I love the water but really hate swimming laps and really I am not a very good swimmer either, I would like to change that.

Terri Schneider

February 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Thanks for sharing! Your story is inspiring and poignant. One of the things that is key in supporting our helpful thoughts is to in conjunction, work on our skills within a sport. I recommend taking lessons with someone in your area who works with adult swimmers, to refine your stroke. Swimming is a heavily technique based activity and as you gain competence, you may notice the dialog in your head change up as well. The two can go hand in hand. Have fun with it!


February 22, 2013 at 10:43 am

This is fascinating. I have noticed my mind’s continuous stream of thoughts during my workouts. Running outside I think about the various external stimuli of the environment. Sometimes, at the gym, I can put my body on “autopilot” and allow my mind to wander with the continuous flashing images on the TV screens, which is a nice way to help time go by without looking at the clock/timer incessantly. A large part of my mental focus is on self encouragement, telling myself, “Yep, this is hard, but you can do it, just keep going!” OR thinking about my form, which is probably the most useful thing to do with my mind.

My point is this: while we are exercising, our minds are clearly always working. Why shouldn’t they be working FOR us? This post about sport psychology and mental “feed” has made me realize that the mind is under-utilized during physical activity and I don’t know about you, but my body is working very hard and it could use all the help it can get! The thought that my mind may be slowing me down, holding me back or just not contributing to a better bottom line at all makes me want to learn more about putting it to good use!

I am on pins and needles for the next post. 🙂


February 22, 2013 at 11:19 am


Terri Schneider

February 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Lindsee – yes! “if our minds are always working why not have them be working for us.” Well said. And I will say that if we create this, we tend to have a more satisfying experience. Thanks for sharing! Stay tuned for more…

Chelsea – I had the pleasure of watching Arizona Ironman this past Fall, which supporting a few of my clients who were doing the event. Fun time in Tempe for sure!

Renee Shreves

February 22, 2013 at 8:38 pm

I loved this post and it spoke to me so timely! I am almost 50 and am training for a 1 hour indoor triathlon. I’ve always hated the swimming part and am taking lessons to improve my turn/stroke. I’ve noticed over the last few weeks how I can “see” myself swimming in my mind and that with the practice and forcing myself to get in the water, I know that I can do it. I’ve completely transformed my attitude!

Terri Schneider

February 23, 2013 at 10:08 am

Congrats on taking on a triathlon! What an excellent birthday present to offer yourself. It sounds like you are taking all the right steps to really owning it! I’ll be sharing more on this process in my next post. In the meantime keep visualizing your swimming while not swimming – this will help you expand your relationship with the activity. Let me know how the race goes.

Jannine Myers

February 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Great post Terri! As Renee commented above, this is such a timely post for me as well. I’m getting set to fly out from Japan this week, to run the Napa Valley Marathon on March 3rd. And although I have been running races for several years now, I still struggle with pre-race nerves, so much so that if I don’t keep them under control they adversely affect my performance. I have been scouring the internet the past few days looking for tips and information on psychological training, and this is so perfect for me.

Thank you Terri, I look forward to your next post on this topic!

Terri Schneider

February 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Enjoy Napa – that is a lovely race for sure. All of you amazing women are bringing up such important topics within the umbrella of mental training – pre race mindset being one of the biggees. I could easily spend a lot of space writing on all of these topics, which I’ll save for my blog posts. In the meantime I’ll offer this: Think about what kind of “space” you need pre race to put yourself in a stimulated yet under-control mind set. This “space” is called our zone of optimal functioning. Do you like to be around other people, spend time alone, listen to music? Then set up your pre race time to accommodate you. Make sure ahead of time that loved ones are on board with your needs as well.

For example, I tend to like to be alone in my own thoughts and listen to music and visualize my race. I listen to music that focuses and calms my mind – something like classical or thought provoking rock. Before the race I find a place where I can be as alone as possible before a big event. I’ll stretch and listen to music to put myself in a grateful and calm mindset. The headset also helps keep people at bay :).
More to come! Let me know how Napa goes for you!

Think about what might work for you and do it.

Jannine Myers

February 24, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Great advice Terri – much appreciated! And yes, would love to share with you how I get on at Napa, or more specifically, how well I do at putting into practice your advice 🙂

Shirley Fee

February 26, 2013 at 6:04 am

Great article Terri, you just jostled my memory. I’m 72 and have two weeks until my final 50K. My last few long runs have been very difficult and I wondered why.
I have not been controlling my self talk. My dialog now is: I’m young, in shape, trained and going to have fun in my last 50K. I will still put out my best but with a positive attitude.
Thank you

Terri Schneider

February 26, 2013 at 9:22 am

Thanks for the reminder of how amazing our 70’s can me! I watched the Banff Film Festival here in Santa Cruz this past weekend and one of the films was on a team of 3 disabled guys who climbed El Cap in Yosemite. One of the guys said, “A one armed climber with a great attitude will out climb a climber with two arms and a bad attitude any way.” (something like that). It sounds like you’re on the right track and I’m certain you are going to have a solid experience at your 50K. Let me know how it goes!

Jannine Myers

March 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Hi Terri,
Just sending you an update on my performance at the Napa Valley marathon on March 3rd – I tried as best I could to stay relaxed, and to put myself in my own “zone” on the morning of race day. It was difficult however, as I roomed with three other ladies, but I tried as best I could to separate my mind from my immediate surroundings and keep my thoughts focused on having a good run. I still experienced a huge amount of nervousness and anxiety, but I tried to manage it by reminding myself that I had done all the training, and that I was physically ready for the challenge. I didn’t reach my goal of 3:30, but I did finish in 3:34 which is still a Boston qualifying time for females over 40 years old. I feel very content with my results, and thankful that I came across your post the week before I left for Napa. Looking forward to reading part II of your post!

Thanks Terri 🙂

Terri Schneider

March 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm

It is difficult to create our own correct pre-race space when we are working around other peoples energy. Sometimes we have to make choices around who we are interested in being with prior to the event in order to set ourselves up for the event optimally. That said, 3:34 is an excellent time despite the challenges! Congrats on qualifying for Boston and congrats on a process of starting to define and refine your mental training. Keep it going and results will continue to come.

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