How to Master the Mental Side of Winning

By Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach and co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

Anytime you see a group of athletes lined up at a starting line it’s important to realize that large percentage of them have already lost the race. It has nothing to do with their fitness or nutrition, but rather what’s going on in their heads. Athletes – even champions – talk themselves out of winning more often than they talk themselves into it. Fix this problem and you dramatically increase your chance of winning or at least being a real factor in the competition. Here are some of the quotes I related to the athletes I talked to, and the advice I gave them.

“It’s not who’s put up the fastest time in the world that year, or who’s put up the fastest time in the previous four years, but who can get their hand on the wall first today.” – Nathan Adrian, 100m Freestyle Gold Medalist at the 2012 Olympics

Nathan Adrian is a great swimmer. Between the 2008 and 2012 Olympics he won three world championships. And in Beijing he was part of the 4x100m relay team that won the gold medal (although he didn’t swim in the final race). But going into the 100m freestyle final in London, he was up against a stacked field and the favorite for gold was Australia’s James Magnussen in the lane next to him. In the rows nearby were Cesar Cielo – the world record holder from Brazil, and Yannick Agnell – the swimmer who had very recently chased down Ryan Lochte in the final leg of the 4x100m relay to win gold for France. By his own admission he was hoping to make it on the podium. Any step of the podium.

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47.52 seconds later, Adrian punched the wall to stop the clock. Just 1/100th of a second later Magnussen touched to win the silver medal. The quote above came from his poolside interview immediately after the race, and it’s a sentiment all competitors should take to heart.

“Previous results are not a guarantee of future performance.”

That quote actually came from the fine print on a TV ad (for a local personal injury lawyer). Take that quote out of the context of litigation and apply it to competition, and it too is a sentiment competitors should take to heart.

Every time you step to a start line of a race, the scenario boils down to what Nathan Adrian described. It’s all about who can get to the finish line first on this day, right now. The competitors around you may have more experience, more wins to their credit, or better equipment, but they have to rise to the same challenge you do. On this day, right now, they have to get to the finish line first. What they’ve done in the past doesn’t guarantee they can do it today. And what you haven’t yet accomplished doesn’t limit what you can achieve today.

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When we stand on a start line the only thing that matters is what we are capable of doing at that moment. And the truth is, you don’t know what they competitors near you are capable of. You don’t know if they’re having the best days of their lives or are feeling sluggish. Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt just because they’ve beaten you in the past.

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“Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” – Steve Prefontaine

There are whole lot more underdogs than there are favorites, and it’s fair to say that almost every time you go to the start line there will be at least one person there who is faster, more powerful, or more accomplished than you are. But no one is unbeatable, and favorites cannot be granted an easier path to victory based on their previous results. Make the race hard. Push them to their limits and make them prove they deserved their status as a pre-race favorite. If they still manage to win you will at least know they earned it.

All that matters is who can put his hand on the wall first today. That can be you. And only you can make it happen.

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Comments 8

  1. Good start to the article but it fell short of expectations. I was hoping you would go over ideas and tips on pre-race mental prepping and how to turn around negative thoughts that always creep up in everyones mind.

  2. Fact is that in the first case you cite it just came down to luck not mental attitude, Had the water conditions just been slightly different then the winner would have been different.

    It’s a common mistake in articles like this. Quotes are taken from the winners and taken as gospel. No account is taken that the other competitors most likely had identical thoughts/motivation.

    As for Steve Prefontaine, he is frequently mentioned by Americans but not by anyone else. He was a very average runner who failed to live up to his potential. If you are going to talk about middle distance runners and the difference mental attitude can make the Ovett vs Coe clash at the Moscow olympics is a far better example. Coe’s comeback in the 1500 after his defeat in his preferred 800 is a classic.

    All this is not to decry the impact of psychology. It’s because it is so important that it deserves a more thorough approach than motherhood and apple pie articles like this one.

  3. It’s true, but everything is relative. Not everyone is elite and actually capable of winning. For most of us it’s about doing the best we can do for ourselves. And really winning in the season at whatever level starts during fall and winter.

  4. This is a great article, thanks for sharing! It’s amazing to see how true it is. I know one rider who has great talent but doesn’t do well in races, he always defeats himself mentally first. Another friend of mine is the opposite, he was not born with great talents but he is mentally strong & always does really well in races!

  5. Great article and a demon that I’ve been dealing with the last two months of being beat to the finish in several races. The last two races I went out to win and didn’t let those demons accept defeat before the race was over and I earned that top spot on the podium. Those were wins that training enabled but my head won for me. When I read this, I revised the last sentences as (words in CAPS are revised): “Make the race hard. Push MYSELF to MY limits and EARN MY WIN…I AM GOING TO WIN THIS RACE.”

  6. Great article Jim.
    Anybody can beat anybody on any given Sunday!
    Whenever I am in an event and even being a leader in life, I will be the best me I can be that day.

  7. Great piece. Like training for any sport, you can do all the right things during the week but we have only hope that this puts us in the best position to perform at peak. on the weekend. And this is fairly hard to predict. We’ve all had days where we feel sluggish but have come out in the lead with the group. We can control how we train but not how we do on race day.

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