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Finding Your Mental Sweet Spot For Big Races

One of the toughest parts of competing in big races for me was finding my mental sweet spot that enabled me to take the hugeness of the day and use it to fuel me to a great performance.

It was where I was feeling charged up by the pressure and anticipation  but not overwhelmed by it. Too much and I felt like I was going to completely explode mentally from the nerves. It’s the place where I was relaxed within the nervousness. It was a mental sweet spot where I felt both strength and hope but wasn’t expecting anyone to just hand me a great race. It was the place where I was ready to earn the dream. My mental sweet spot was where I was okay with giving absolutely everything I had toward the big goals knowing full well I had an equal chance of completely falling apart from the demands of that effort. Here are some thoughts on how to find it for your best race.

Make The Shift From Stress To Confidence

Athletic confidence is taking the leap into peak performance without any guarantee of the outcome.

I found that mental sweet spot for the first time in 1989 at the IRONMAN World Championship. It was a mental place that I just couldn’t figure out how to get to in the previous six years racing there. The whole IRONMAN experience had seemed bigger than life to me, the kind where all my normal day-to-day ways of approaching things just seemed to be so puny and ineffective. How could I be THE best in the biggest race on one single day against the best in the world? How was I going to get in the right mood to go do deep into the effort I knew it would take to be the champion? That effort was painful, and frankly thinking about it paralyzed me.

The very best know they can’t control every feature of success on the day. They simply apply as much pressure as they can for as long as they can more as a game to see what they themselves can come up with than as a strategy to win.

If you are someone who has had a deep history of being good or even one of the best at something, you can draw upon that to find your mental sweet spot for any of the big things in life. You know that you have just as much of a chance of hitting the goal as anyone on the planet. And if you have ever broken new ground for others to follow, well, you still know it’s not a slam dunk, but with that experience you know that your mental sweet spot is something you can command when it’s time. You know how to find it, use it and then just see where the chips fall at the end of the day.

Recalling a great day training can bring confidence in the heat of a race.

I didn’t come into the sport of triathlons with that tool chest. I didn’t grow up with a vast pool of experiences that supported the possibility that I could be a World Champion in one of the toughest events to win on the planet. In second grade I was one of the slowest runners in my entire school. In eighth grade I got a “C” in my physical education class. Who have you ever heard getting a “C” in PE!

So figuring out my mental sweet spot was no slam-dunk. It was a painful year-to-year learning curve where the only litmus test happened in Kona. Going into 1989 I knew what it felt like to win at other races. I’d found my mental sweet spot at other races like the Nice International Triathlon that I’d won 6-times going into the 1989 IRONMAN. But the big ugly monster in Kona with the ultimate pressure was the final proving ground. It felt like there were magnitudes more stress going into that race, and mega-magnitudes more possibility that it wouldn’t go my way. Where was it: my mental sweet spot at the IRONMAN?

The key finally came just days before the race. My focus had been trying to win. Everything short of that felt like it would be a failure. But guess what? There is only going to be one person that wins. So does that make every other athlete’s effort and race a failure? Absolutely not!

I shifted my focus from trying to be the winner to trying to use everyone and everything that happened out there on race day to help me pull out the best I had inside of me. That made the shift from stress to confidence.

Focusing on racing rather than winning was a huge part of my first IRONMAN World Championship victory in 1989.

I still knew it would be painful, challenging and come with the same risk of completely blowing up. But that slight shift in focus transformed my entire IRONMAN experience and race. I still felt the nerves. I woke up with the same race day anxiety and tension. But that all excited me rather than feeling like an oppressive force that I could never deal with. This became a benchmark day not only in my career but in the sport of triathlon as a whole. Dave Scott and I raced side-by-side for nearly 8-hours before I was finally able to pull away and log a 58-second victory over a guy who came into the race a 6-time IRONMAN World Champion.

I explained this mental sweet spot to a woman I coach, Sue De Jesus. She was getting ready for the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga.

Sue De Jesus with coach Mark Allen.

Sue had a strong history winning her age group at this distance over the past few years. Yet,  the race in Chattanooga was worrying her. It felt like the race was bigger than life and she was trying to figure out how to bring the whole anticipation of that down to a level that felt manageable. I love giving my thoughts on those kinds of concerns! Here is what I said to her.

“As far as the race, it actually IS bigger than life! That is what is going to make it special. Of course that can cause some nervousness. But in my experience there is only a certain level of anxiety that I can experience before a race. I hit that top level at other races with much less at stake. It doesn’t take going to a race like Chattanooga, or for me Kona, to get to the top of my anxiety meter.

So those really big races? Indeed they “feel” bigger, even bigger than life. But they are just like every other race that you put your best into. The difference is that because they feel bigger than life, you find more inside of yourself to bring out that never gets a chance to be revealed at the other races. It has something to do with the energy of having everyone there being the best in the world giving everything they have. It helps bring your best out in a way that no other type of race can. That is the part that is indeed “bigger than life” because it just can’t happen anywhere else.

All that said, it is just another race and requires exactly the same things to do well at as every other race you have done. You have to be prepared, stay relatively calm, be smart, pace yourself and keep an eye on the competition. Check in with your body and respond to its needs. Manage the unexpected. Stay present and fully engaged even in the down moments.

Transcend the numbers. This is where you will also transcend the nerves and find that mental sweet spot.

Sue De Jesus finishing 3rd in her age group at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship.

If it was all about the numbers, then we’d just mail in our Garmin files and see who the winner was! Focus on the basics like maintaining good form. Make this your mantra: to get from the start to the finish as quickly as you possibly can by optimizing every single moment. Do it without panic. Get there with calm and perseverance. Use steadiness and a large dose of steeliness as your power. You’ve done it before. This is a great chance to do it again in a way that you have never been able to, because this race is bigger than life!”

Sue found her mental sweet spot and went beyond any numbers she has seen in the past. She has been 10th and 18th in her division at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship races in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This year she placed 3rd! It was a course that from start to finish she described as being  the toughest she had ever experienced. That course challenged the very best Sue! Congratulations!

Learn how to find your mental sweet spot here.


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