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Building a Strong Mental Game

I know an athlete who I’ll call Dylan. He was a competitive age group runner for many years, who more recently has come to embrace strength sports over endurance sports.

Dylan can still talk about running with great passion. His rate of speech picks up as he shares that he ran 17 marathons during his running years. He can recall which of the 17 is his favourite marathon (New York City), and he’s also quick to recall one marathon that was anything but ideal.

It was the Wineglass marathon in Corning, New York. Dylan signed up for it as the race organizers advertised it as not just fast, but “very fast.” Clinging to the promise of a course where personal records tend to be achieved, Dylan went into his training with focus and confidence.

The training went “exceptionally well” according to Dylan. He was the fittest and fastest he’d ever been, and ran a personal best in a half marathon several weeks before race day. He was excited and optimistic about his next marathon, and hoped that he would qualify for Boston.

However, some doubt started to creep in just days before the race, when one of Dylan’s training partners shared his thoughts about the Wineglass course. The friend, an elite runner, said, “I hate that Wineglass race. The last 10 kilometres are awful. You can hear the finish line but you just keep going back and forth long before you get there.”

The day of the Wineglass marathon it was pouring rain. Dylan was not discouraged. He recognized that while the weather was not within his control, he could still manage his emotions, and maintain a strong mindset throughout the race. He felt great during the first half, and picked up his pace (just a little), thinking that it just might be his day for a fast race.

But around 16 miles, Dylan’s race started to fall apart. He could now feel the chill from the constant rain, and noticed that he was shaking from the cold. His pace slowed, and his thoughts soured: “The fastest runner I know thinks that this isn’t a good race. My Boston marathon time is impossible now. All my training was a waste.”

When he crossed the finish line Dylan’s mood was at its lowest, and all he could ask was “where’s my &*$% finisher's medal?”

I asked Dylan to look back on that race, and to do a more balanced self-evaluation of his performance that day. More specifically I asked him to do the following 3-2-1 exercise:

• What are three things that went well, and why?

• What are two things that you want to keep working on, and how are you going to go about doing it?

• Finally, what’s one thing that you learned?

Among his answers, Dylan shared that he was able to be proud that he finished that race instead of walking off course and taking a DNF*. He also reflected that after the Wineglass marathon he worked at becoming more disciplined at sticking to a planned pace. Lastly, he learned to set goals that more closely matched his current level of fitness.

You can use this method too. It might be after a bad race, a bad workout, or a competition that didn’t go as planned.

The 3-2-1 self-evaluation approach will likely help you to move towards a more balanced way of thinking, and away from the idea that a race/workout/competition is either totally great or absolutely horrible. It’s also likely that it will help you to spot obstacles, and to navigate them before they take you off course, and away from your goals.

*DNF = Did not finish

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