Sports psychology tip of the week: develop a dashboard

Regular readers know I’m a little bit obsessed with sports psychology. It’s amazing to me that, in sports and in life, being aware of your thought patterns and squashing negative thoughts can lead to measurable gains in athletic performance (and notable gains in joy once the workout’s done). So I’m always excited when I get to interview sports psychologists and the athletes they counsel, knowing I’ll benefit from the tips I’ll pass along to readers.

Before running the Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half-Marathon on Sept. 6, I based my goals on some tips from Colorado sports psychologist Stephen Walker, whose clients have included athletes like Kara and Adam Goucher.

Today, I’m putting together the story for which I interviewed Walker, and I’d like to share another of his tips.

Walker advises athletes to think about what they’d like to keep in mind during a race or event, and then to imagine there’s a dashboard in front of them cycling through those reminders, similar to a screen on a treadmill cycling through pace, distance, calories burned and other measures. “Athletes at every level can benefit from rotating through a mental list: How’s my form? How’s my rhythm and tempo? How’s my breathing? How’s my arm work?” Walker says.

Elite Runner Kristen Fryburg-Zaitz, who has worked with Walker, says she used the technique when she finished eighth in the 2010 USA 20K Championships (time: 1:09:56, her personal best), cycling through reminders including: Believe in yourself. Believe in your abilities. Believe in your training. Embrace the pain. “If you have a negative thought, you just go back to focusing on the dashboard,” Fryburg-Zaitz says. Her dashboard also included some physical cues.

My mental dashboard would be blue and red, like my VW's.

I’m still figuring out what should go on my dashboard. Certainly, I’ll remind myself to focus on rhythm, stride and arm work on hills. I’ll recall the mantra I developed during some other adventures in sports psychology, “strength, power and grace.” I’ll let you know the rest when I figure it out.

What would go on your dashboard?

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