Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli has a doctorate in clinical psychology with a specialization in sport psychology. A multi-sport athlete, Gloria has been racing triathlon for 8 years, including completing a total of 12 half-ironman (70.3) distance races, as well as finishing 14th in her age group in her first full distance (140.6) Ironman at 2013 Memorial Herman Ironman Texas. I asked Gloria what psychological techniques she uses to peak her performance on race day. She explained:
As a sport psychologist and Ironman triathlete there are key skills and mental strategies that are necessary for success in being a competitive triathlete. I attribute my best race performances, as well as my triathlete clients’ best race performances, to these 5 key skills.
1) Mental rehearsal/visualization. It is key for me to expect the best of myself, but to also be prepared for the worst on race day. Almost all triathletes know that things can and will go wrong on race day, but it’s how you manage the unexpected that matters. I use mental rehearsal/visualization skills to run through how I want myideal race performance to unfold, but also to help me prepare for what could happen. For example, I visualize how I could handle losing my swim goggles during the 2.4 mile swim or how will I handle my bike getting a flat at mile 80, or what most often happens, during the marathon (when a body is most stressed during an Ironman), being unable to hold down foods or liquids. Visualization and mental rehearsal helps me prepare and expect the unexpected. I also go into a race feeling more confident that I have prepared for the “what if’s” that I don’t have to worry about it until it happens, if it happens.
2) Be adaptable—mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally. I aim to be as adaptable as possible, which goes along with point #1, but there is a quote by Charles Darwin that I always keep in mind. It says, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” I feel this quote embodies what the best triathletes do throughout a 140.6-mile race. In order to get through the day with the least amount of suffering and pain I must be willing to adapt to changing conditions of the weather and adjust my actions accordingly to the water, my body, my emotions, my bike, my nutrition needs, other competitors, the time, the race course, etc.
3) Be non-judgmental and objective. It goes along with point #2, but if I am caught up in an emotional state or judging my performance there is no space to problem-solve and I might miss an opportunity to adjust to a better state. The best quote that I keep in mind is from Sarah Piampiano a Professional Triathlete. She says, “I don’t think anyone ever has the perfect race, it’s whoever can problem solve the best is the one who’s going to win.” This quote reminds me to mentally refocus and control how I interpret my body and race conditions in any given moment so that I can quickly assess, treat, and keep moving forward at any point during the race.
4) Mindfulness and being present in the moment. Being mindful during a race helps me remember that all things are temporary. This perspective helps me to cope and also brings me relief from distressing emotions, judgments, or sensations that I have during a race. I will intentionally say to myself, “This will pass. This is only temporary. Time will pass and 5 hours, 2 hours, or even tomorrow I will be in another place or feel something very different. So be here now.” Mindfulness also helps me see each moment as separate from the previous, which works to any Ironman triathlete’s advantage. I tell myself “Be here now,” meaning when I am swimming only think about swimming, when I am on the bike, I only focus on the bike, and likewise on the run I only focus on the run. It does me no good to think about the 112 mile bike during the 2.4 swim. This will likely overwhelm me, so mindfulness allows me to be fully engaged in my moment and relieve me from distressing thoughts.
5) Non-judgmental evaluation of performance. When it’s all said and done and Mike Reilly says “You Are an Ironman!” it is so imperative that I have a balanced perspective on my race performance. It’s very rare in triathlon that any athlete has a perfect day, but triathletes, myself included, are very hard on ourselves. We have a difficult time giving ourselves credit for the aspects of our race we executed well, so I try not to evaluate my race performance until a few days after a race when my body and emotions have stabilized and recovered from the 11+ hours spent on race day. This will allow me to hopefully see my performance as feedback and hone in on areas that I can improve upon as well as my strengths. We triathletes are very competitive within ourselves. We thrive off of breaking internal mental, emotional, and physical limitations and that is definitely worth giving myself credit for.
Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli on the Internet: