Most sports require you to be able to move in all different directions in short periods of time and athletes dedicate long periods of training to improving this skill. Yet many athletes pay little attention to the agility of their mind and often find themselves in a very fixed mindset.
Why is mental agility important for athletes?
Mental agility enables athletes to alter their training at the right times to provide a novel stimulus.
Novel stimuluses lead to growth and change.
Growth and change lead to better performance!
Every athlete wants better performance 🏋️♂️!
The problem is that athletes get caught up in their own fixed beliefs, which leads to being stuck in training patterns too long, eating a diet that doesn’t support their training and recovery, and other practices that may lead to subpar recovery and therefore performance.
To avoid these pitfalls it is important to have good mental agility, allowing you to quickly switch directions where training, diet, or lifestyle practices are no longer serving you.
How can you train mental agility?
Dr. Lisa Lewis, who works with athletes on all aspects of mental performance, advocates for a three step process to improve your mental agility.
- Review the data that goes against what you believe is right.
- Reframe your belief to put the thought in a different light.
- Create a contingency plan for various outcomes.
Let’s look at how you can apply this process using a more concrete example.
Imagine you are an obstacle course racer and your number one obstacle is having the speed and power to make it through obstacles quickly and efficiently. You are firmly convinced that it is your lack of speed and power training that is at the root cause of the problem. You are also convinced that following a low carb diet is the best diet for endurance athletes and you have seen many positive benefits in your endurance performance since adopting that diet.
Since speed and power is your greatest obstacle right now, you carefully start adding sprints and plyometrics into your training routine. The problem is that you are not seeing progress after weeks of incorporating them and your recovery after these sessions is not good and is starting to affect the rest of your training.
Let’s apply Dr. Lewis’ three step process for better mental agility to this problem.
Data does not lie.
Many athletes, for better or worse, are very data driven. In the case of improving your mental agility, this characteristic can be quite helpful. Providing an athlete with data is a sure fire way to convince them to change a fixed belief.
One day while reviewing your heart rate data from a sprint session you did, you notice how high your heart rate got. This causes a light bulb to go off in your head, you realize how anaerobic these sprint and power training sessions actually are. This makes you think about how you have structured your diet and your belief that a low carb diet is superior for endurance performance. You realize that speed and power training is clearly not endurance training.
Could it be the lack of carbs holding you back?
You jump on the old Google machine and start pecking away.
You come across study after study showing for anaerobic training, carbohydrates can aid in performance and recovery from anaerobic training like speed and power training!
Now you start to question your belief….
“Low carb diets are superior for endurance performance.”
Well maybe that is true, but obstacle course racing is not pure endurance, it requires a mixture of endurance, speed, and power. You need both good aerobic and anaerobic performance.
You find yourself back at the Google Machine trying to figure out the best way of eating for mixed mode sports like obstacle course racing.
You come across the term metabolic flexibility which allows you to efficiently use both carbs and fats as a fuel source. You think to yourself, “If I am metabolically flexible I can get the recovery and performance benefits of carbs for my speed and power training but yet maintain the endurance benefits of being able to utilize fat.”
You start to reframe your belief from “Low carb diets are superior for endurance performance.” to “A mixed macro diet in combination with metabolic flexibility is ideal for obstacle course racing performance.”
Based on the data you have uncovered and your new belief that carbs can help you improve your speed and power training and that metabolic flexibility will allow you to maintain your endurance performance you decide to make a small dietary shift. On the day before and day of your speed and power training you are going to add 100g of carbs into your diet and see how you perform, recover, and progress.
You know a lot could go wrong with this little experiment though and you are a bit nervous. Instead of being scared of what could go wrong and just sticking with what you know, a low carb diet, you decide to set up some contingency plans.
Problem: You could suffer major GI distress from the added carbs.
Contingency Plan: If you experience GI distress from 100 grams of carbs there are a few things you can try.
First, lower the amount of carbs.
Instead of 100 gm try 50 gm and gradually ramp it up.
Second, look at the types of carbs you are eating.
Maybe you are eating a lot of complex carbs, you could try simple easy to digest carbs.
Third, look at the timing of your carbs.
Are you eating them too close to training? Try spacing them out.
Problem: Your speed and power performance increases but your endurance performance decreases.
Contingency Plan: What else could be causing the endurance performance decrease? It could be that you are just doing less endurance training. It could be that the speed and power training is having a negative impact on your endurance training sessions. It does not mean that the carbs are the root cause of the problem. Try taking a break from the speed and power training for a week while keeping the 100 grams of carbs in your diet and see if your endurance performance returns back to normal
Problem: Your speed and power performance doesn’t increase and your recovery is the same.
Contingency Plan: Maybe it is not your diet, but are you any worse off than before?
In fact you are better off!
You may not have taken a step toward your goal, but you learned something and now are eating a broader range of foods than before and are no worse off. Your plan in this case is to keep eating the additional carbohydrates, but go back and gather more data on what you could be doing to improve your speed and power performance and recovery.
By practicing these three steps and applying them to all aspects of your life you will surely develop better mental agility. Being mentally agile was something our ancestors needed for survival. They had to adapt to our ever changing environment and those that didn’t would not make it too far.
In my Ancestral Athlete coaching program I work with athletes to eliminate fixed beliefs and learn to be more mentally agile in the process. The best athletes I work with are the ones who are open minded and do not resist changes throughout the coaching relationship. Sometimes those changes work, and sometimes they don’t but they are always learning and optimistic and this helps them overcome their greatest obstacle and constant make progress
Take the first step to being more mentally agile and becoming a better athlete by signing up for my newsletter below.
You have the data, I helped reframe your belief, and the unsubscribe button is always there as your contingency plan 😉.
- (2020, May 20). The Effect of Ingesting Carbohydrate and Proteins on … – NCBI. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7284704/ ↑
- (2017, May 2). Metabolic Flexibility in Health and Disease – PubMed – NIH. Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28467922/ ↑