This week I had the opportunity to interview a sports psychologist, Courtney Levinsohn. We talked about how to have fun while you run and how to use running to build mental skills for your future. Levinsohn founded, Growth Through Sport, and she focuses on elevating mental skills.
How can a runner build and use mental skills to help them be a stronger runner?
Mental skills are equally important as all the other skills a runner must build to be competitive. Focusing on a breathing pattern, creating pre-race routines, visualizing successful runs, setting goals to improve performance, are examples of mental skills training. When a runner applies mental skills to running they are strengthening focus and concentration muscles, while increasing confidence at the same time. Blocking out distractions is another example of a mental skill. A runner must strengthen her or his "focus" muscle the same way they train runners physical and technical skills.
What are common struggles that young runners may have?
Dealing with all the emotions that competition makes us feel can be confusing and stressful. Competition can make young runners fearful and this becomes a feeling of self-doubt and comparison with others (I will never be as good a runner as her!). Sometimes the expectations of competition can take the fun out of running. Maintaining motivation, challenging the fear, and self-doubt that creep into the mind is the key but how? The simplest way is to keep running "fun". When we experience "fun", our brain's respond differently than when we experience fear and stress. When running and racing stay fun the brain responds with positive feelings - I can do this, I am flying, I am so focused, my breathing is calm and I feel steady. When the fun part is lost because competition became too intense, the young runner needs to ask for help and guidance.
Courtney Levinsohn finishing her 14 mile journey through the jungle in Kauai, HI.
How can they gain the confidence to overcome these struggles?
Confidence comes with learning to trust yourself. Confident runners trust in their ability to handle what the run (training or race) has in store for them. A runner's confidence grows over time through experiencing good races and trying to recreate them, experiencing bad races and learning from mistakes.
What do you tell young athletes about using sports confidence in their lives?
I like to compare the feelings of a race day with the feeling of a test day at school. If you went to training and practiced, race day can be exciting because you feel prepared. If you went to class, paid attention, and prepared for your test, then test day is not stressful. It is the same with sports, if you didn't train properly and took shortcuts, then you are not prepared to race your best. If you did not study for your test, you are not prepared.
Final advice for youth runners.
1. Keep running fun. When it doesn't feel fun, please share your feelings with your parents, coach or teammates.
2. If you are a competitive runner, creating a pre-race routine is way to stay focused and feel prepared. While preparing the physical body with stretches and warm up exercises, the mental routine should include visualizing yourself racing with confidence and practicing the use of a positive phrase or statement to help stay focused and block out distractions. Training the brain to tap into these skill sets during training makes them easier to access on race day.
3. Build in a rest day so the body and mind can be fresh. Overtraining is bad for the body and the brain!
Running can be a competitive sport. However, as runners, we need to remember that the reasons why we run are to have fun and stay fit. Running is a sport that gives people a feeling of gratitude towards themselves. It also is a sport that you can enjoy as well. There are many ways that you can make running more enjoyable. Find ways that help you become a better runner.