Sports Performance Training: The Mental Approach to Achieving ‘Elite’ Goals

Sports Performance Training: The Mental Approach to Achieving ‘Elite’ Goals

Most of us would say being an elite athlete requires physical talent, drive and disciplined…right? But what about the famous artist, the corporate executive, the Special Forces soldier? These people have achieved ‘elite’ status in their chosen field as well. What is it that causes people in general to achieve their dreams? Do those at the top possess something special that others of us simply don’t understand? Does ‘elite’ success depend on skill, desire, luck, or talent? These are the questions I ask myself as I observe people in the gym working to achieve their goals.

I recently read two very different but interesting pieces on performance, specifically elite performance. The first was a New York Times article that discussed various mental approaches to pain. The second was a book called Mind Gym, by Gary Mack and David Casstevens. I’ve divided this into two articles, the first based on mental tactics for goal achievement and the second based on the mental approach one takes to achieve elite level performance.

One main question I often wonder about is whether the reason elite athletes (or anyone who achieves impressive goals for that matter) are elite because they have special abilities others don’t have (mental & physical) or if their achievements are a result of the depth of their desire. After reading the first few chapters in Mind Gym, I became even more convinced that the true ability of the elite athlete or high achiever is in their mental approach to the game (of life).

I personally feel elite athletes and achievers are the ones who don’t mind feeling like they are the best within themselves. They’ve given themselves permission to mentally dominate their own playing field and to really believe they can do it. And while their physical playing field may be a court, field, or stadium, its true location is within their own mind, where they visualize continuously until they win.

What I mean is, they don’t envision themselves on some crazy spaceship headed to war which somehow allows them to become king and conqueror of planet Zadar (that was supposed to be funny). They take the environment around them as real, they observe it in themselves as real, and then they dominate it within real. THEN they go act it out.

The book Mind Gym, Alex Rodriguez who is one of the greatest players ever in the game of baseball started out in little league wanting to be a major league baseball player. For a brief period, his dream switched to professional basketball…and then back to baseball…why? In his words…’not to many Dominicans playing in the NBA’. With the goal of baseball player he had before him something he could believe in, and he envisioned, from every angle including fans, manager, teammates and himself, that he was the best, and guess what…it worked.

High achievers can teach us the mental approach that allowed them to soar! Elite athletes have phenomenal capabilities that most of us wish for, but more than that, they have something to teach us about achieving our own goals.

What does this have to do with your fitness goals?
For the purpose of this blog elite physical performance should be defined by the individual according to his or her own abilities.

Ask yourself, what is it that you think you can achieve.

We need to be real with ourselves (probably not gonna be heading to outer space anytime soon) and select goals that are specific to us as individuals. We all face different challenges, have different gifts, and come from different life experiences. Our life experience is our ‘playing field’ in a sense. And we must teach ourselves to dominate that, whatever it may be. Weight loss, athletic performance, injury recovery, power lifting, MMA fighting, whatever!

Set some goals using the SMART goals technique, then ask yourself if you actually believe you can achieve this goal. Can you envision it the same way Alex Rodriguez envisions himself as the number 1 player in the game? Based on what I learned from the book Mind Gym, if you cannot see it in your mind, it’s going to be difficult and maybe even impossible to achieve. Use your mind to your advantage, speak to yourself in positive ways and envision yourself as a success. These are the tactics of the elite performers and role models of pop culture today. Take their advice and play your game to win.

Remember the words of Yogi Berra: “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Area Triathlete Transforms More Than Just Her Performance

Area Triathlete Transforms More Than Just Her Performance

In late spring Colleen came to me with one goal in mind: improved triathlon times.  She had started racing last year, fell in love with the sport and decided this year she was going to take it to the next level.

With race season still a few months away, her initial program included personal training sessions twice a week with an emphasis on cardio training, healthy meal plans, and strength training workouts.  I also developed a monthly fitness exercise program specific to her goals.  I created a plan that included swimming, running, and biking tasks for her to complete each week that eventually prepared her for top performance in her first race.

As time progressed our relationship somehow morphed from trainer/client to coach/athlete.  We began to discuss the psychology of goal achievement, performance, pushing oneself, eating habits, and surprisingly…body image.  The following is an excerpt from a body image paper written by Colleen this summer:

“I’ll never have the body I need. The sentence surfaced from some deep place within me as I lay in bed one morning, looking for a reason to get up. I had been going through one of the hardest times I had been yet in my life. The wounds I had suffered at fifteen years old were too deep, the barriers too high; it just didn’t seem worth the effort to fight anymore.”

(More body image stuff to follow at end of article back to training stuff for now)

As Colleens first race approached, I started to wonder if everything I had taught her would result in just minor improvement or a dramatic shift in her performance…I mean technically I’d never trained a triathlete before, and I’ve only participated in a few myself when I was a kid.

Well I guess my good old MSU (GO GREEN) education and Chris Johnson personal training approach came through for me though because Colleen ended up making some huge strides!  Take a look at the difference in her time…***9 minutes faster!***

She Rocks Triathlon 2009 (First Triathlon ever):
50th overall
Swim: 27:19
Bike: 34:25
Run: 24:29 8:10 pace

Time: 1:27:45

Iron Goddess 2010 “She Rocks” 5th triathlon ever):
14th overall

Swim: 20:27
Bike: 33:35
Run: 23:00 7:40 pace

Time: 1:18:42

While the improved race time was a huge goal for Colleen, as we developed more of a relationship, we uncovered other deeper issues that are also crucial to success.  As I mentioned earlier, we adjusted Colleens mental approach to exercise, eating, and body image and I know that this was (and is) her key to long term success and goal achievement.

Because of her dramatic improvement, I decided to do a video interview with Colleen to discuss her perspective on working with a trainer and how it helped her improve not only her time, but other areas she wasn’t expecting to as well.

I created a 4 part video series detailing the different parts of Colleen’s experience.  The topics of the videos range from the difference having a trainer played in her performance all the way to her experience as a young figure skater and how it has effected her self-esteem and body image to this day as a 23 year old woman.

Part 1: Triathlon Results

  • Difference having a trainer made
  • Having structure improved confidence
  • Difference in motivation
  • How she feels now that she has beat her time by 9 min

Part 2:  Nutrition

  • The purpose of having a structured eating plan
  • How being coached on nutrition helped her succeed

Part 3:  Body Image and guidance through mental blocks that women face

Although I’m not trained as a psychologist, being a trainer exposes you to the many psychological issues people face in the course of their lifetime.  Another quote from Colleen’s body image paper reveals the truth about the mental state of many young women today:

Confused, I wondered how I could be too big when I only weighed 110lbs with 8% body fat. I felt naked, covering myself and asking, “What is wrong with me?” I couldn’t change my body, I felt hopeless.

In video 3, Colleen explains how training assists you in the mental aspect of sports, fitness, and self-esteem.  The discussion focuses on the role of personal training and how often it is about more than the workout, it’s about learning positive self talk, positive reinforcement, and reaching higher levels with assistance from someone on the outside who can see what you are truly capable of achieving.

Part 4:  Body Image & the media

  • Being suited for sports even if it’s a different sport than you started with.
  • Having a different body type than the sport you are in doesn’t mean you cannot be successful in athletics or that you aren’t an athlete
  • How she can use the lessons she has learned in her work as a figure skating coach

I hope you found this article helpful and informative as it touches on a variety of important issues that I feel affect all of us on some level.  As most of us know, the line between fitness for health vs. for looks & sexuality is often very thin or even non-existent.  This article brings some of these important issues into the open where they can be talked about and solved.

Sports Performance Training: Box Jumps to One Leg

Part of sports performance training is utilizing a controlled environment to re-create movements performed during sport.  Although not all sports do, most require the athlete to have controlled jumping ability.  That is, the ability to move a certain direction, jump, potentially move or manipulate the body in some way while in the air and then land safely.

I’ve included a video below of one movement you can try in the gym that will challenge you can improve your ability to perform jumping related movements.  The video is very brief, but gives good instruction as to how you can practice this skill safely and effectively.

Bench Jumps to 1 Leg — powered by

Strength Training for Sprinting

Strength Training for Sprinting

If you want to become a better sprinter, you can do so by incorporating various strength training workouts into your training plan.  Particularly, workouts focusing on the posterior chain will help you improve sprint ability.  The posterior chain includes your spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, and calf musculature.  These muscles are often referred to as the ‘running muscles’ because they do the majority of the work during running and sprinting.

Unfortunately, many conditioning regimens neglect posterior chain which can cause muscle imbalance and also reduced performance.  I also think most of us recreational athletes and fitness enthusiasts tend to unknowingly gravitate towards movements that negate the posterior chain.

Strength training workouts to improve sprint performance should be well rounded, including both anterior and posterior movements.  This will promote balanced muscular development, joint health, and optimal performance.

Primary Muscles Used in Running/Sprinting
I placed a brief 22 second below that illustrates muscles used during running.  Take a look.

While sprinting technique is slightly different than running, the video gives shows that muscles used in sprinting are mostly in the posterior chain.  In fact, a large part of the movement comes from the hamstrings role in hip extension. While it’s not only hamstring strength you want to develop or even solely posterior chain development, a well rounded sprint conditioning program should definitely include movements that develop the glutes, hamstrings, and emphasize both glute activation and hip extension.

Elements of Sprint Strength Training Workouts

  • Olympic Lifts
  • Squats (and their variations)
  • Lunges (and their variations)
  • Deadlifts (all types)
  • Hamstring Isolation Exercises (Machine & Body Weight)
  • Glute Ham Raise
  • Kneeling Good Mornings
  • Single Leg Glute Bridge

Strength Training Workout Guidelines
When training specifically for sprinting, strength workouts should stay in the lower rep range (approx 6 or less) with a focus on moving the weight quickly while staying under control.  Movements should mimic the explosive nature of the activity without becoming sloppy or potentially damaging.

Proper Torso Rotation for Sports Performance and Core Strength Training Programs

Proper Torso Rotation for Sports Performance and Core Strength Training Programs

You might be wondering…what is torso rotation and how can I do it properly in my core strength training or sports performance training routine?
At first appearance, the concept of properly rotating the torso seems fairly straightforward.  Twist to the left and twist to the right, what’s so tough about that?  Actually, rotating the hips and spine or torso, is not so simple.  It involves flexibility and a coordinated effort of the core musculature.  And the majority of people, even those who are active, rotate incorrectly.

Why is proper rotation relevant to regular people?
Just think of all the times you bend and twist to pick something up off of the floor or lean over to grab the dog before she runs out the door.  Rotating through the spine is an unconscious movement we perform almost every day.  At the same, hasn’t almost everyone bent over to pick up groceries out of the car, twisted to reach, and then thrown their back out?   It’s not rotation itself that’s the problem, but the improper rotation form and the lack of flexibility most people experience with age.

Why is core strength training and rotation relevant to athletes?
Just think of all the different sport movements that require rotation.  From golf to football, almost every type of athlete needs to generate power by rotating the torso and by observing the elite athletes in our culture, you can see they have mastered the ability to twist, pivot, and rotate with power and seeming effortlessness.

The core musculature serves as a mechanism for mobility that both dissipates force and transfers energy.  Therefore the core must be both strong and flexible and all movements, especially strength training movements should be biomechanically sound.  Learning to perform movement correctly in the weight room will allow the athlete to use proper form and technique during athletic movements.

Depending on the sport or action, the core may or may not perform a twisting movement.  If rotation is required and the athletes’ core is weak or the twisting motion is biomechanically incorrect, the athlete will not perform at his or her highest ability level and the risk of injury is increased.

Optimal biomechanics for torso rotation are the same for athletes, core strength training program, and regular people.
Although the three purposes for rotating the hips and spine (torso) are different, there are basic elements common to athletes, core strength training enthusiasts, and regular people.  The most common mistake people make is compromising the lumbar spine instead of using hips and thoracic spine during movement. Unlike the lumbar spine, which is designed to flex and extend with almost no ability to twist, the joint structure of the hips and thoracic spine facilitate a range of motion that includes many different movements including rotation.

If you had the opportunity to hold a working model of the spine in your hands, you would notice the joints in vertebrae of the thoracic spine rotate and move far more easily than the lumbar vertebrae.  The reason for this is the design and structure of the joints between vertebrae called facet joints.  Facet joints of the lumbar spine have a rounded design which enables flexion and extension but not twisting while those of the thoracic vertebrae are flatter which allows for twisting and greater mobility.

Concepts described in this article will reduce your risk of injury in daily life and sports related activities.
If you are wondering why everyone doesn’t just do it right and avoid using their lumbar spine for twisting, the answer is tri-fold.  First, there is a lack of knowledge of how to perform movements correctly.  I mean seriously, I’m one of the only people I know who thinks about this stuff while working out or at all for that matter.

Second, most people aren’t aware of their diminishing flexibility.  Diminished flexibility comes with age and sedentary lifestyle and causes many people to compensate by using their lower back (lumbar spine) while performing simple or difficult tasks.  Third, sedentary lifestyle and work environments leads not only  to tight hips but also causes the upper back to round, the shoulders to slump, and the stomach to flop around.  Hours and hours spent in these flexed postures gives no support to the spine, results in limited mobility in the upper back, and causes people to compensate with the lower back.

To reduce your risk of injury, while twisting or improve your athletic performance and core conditioning, follow these three steps:
1.  Use your thoracic spine and hips to twist and rotate.
2.  Engage abs while performing all movements and even while sitting.  (no more flops)
3.  Work on flexibility and stretching, even if only 5 minutes a day.
These are some of the steps you can use to improve your mobility and form during movement and sports activities.  Depending on your age, you may not see instant results but I encourage you to stay diligent in these practices and you will see and feel a difference.

1.  Functional Training for the Torso; Cook, Gray MSPT, CSCS; Fields, Keith MS, CSCS
6. Loads on the lumbar spine; A Schultz, G Andersson, R Ortengren, K Haderspeck and A Nachemson

Brief Running and Gait Analysis Video

Brief Running and Gait Analysis Video

Almost everyone who’s into fitness goes running. Some people prefer the treadmill or the trail to the open road, and some people are just cruising up and down the basketball court.

One thing I see people fail to pay attention to is their running form. Proper running form makes for an effective, efficient stride that results in the ability to achieve higher speeds and maximize endurance. Take a look at this brief video to better understand the variables involved in proper and effective running form.