Craig Alexander is a 5x Triathlon World Champion and 12x Australian Champion. He is a husband to Neri and a dad to Lucy, Austin, and Lani. Craig is an ambassador for the Kids Foundation and The Safeheart Foundation and also founded an online endurance training platform, Sansego
As athletes, we train every day (and often multiple times a day) to improve our physical performance. I think it is important that we also do some mental training so that our mental progression keeps pace with our physical development, leading to better overall triathlon performances. I often break down the mental component of my triathlon experience into three subgroups:
Mental Training Strategies
Motivation is like magic dust, and hard to exactly pinpoint how or why it is important. Over time, I learned that motivation is not really a "one size fits all" kind of deal, and there are really no right or wrong answers, more what is right for you and applies to your situation.
We often hear people talk about their "why" or what's driving them. I believe it is important to understand this because, as an athlete, we are on a long journey with sometimes seemingly no end in sight. That journey is like investing in the stock market, with plenty of peaks and troughs but hopefully trending up over time. Sometimes you are riding a wave of high motivation and performance and it feels like you are gathering momentum. That can change very quickly, and other times it feels like you are grinding away but making no progress, sometimes even regressing, and in those times, you are just battening down the hatches and trying to ride out a storm. It is not a question of will there be a storm but rather when and how often. Injuries, illness, poor form, race cancellations, and postponements can all add to our storm.
In those down moments, having a clear idea of what is driving you on and why you are doing what you are doing helped me push through and push on. My motivation as an athlete was quite simple: I loved the sport, the training, and the racing. I was inspired by the challenge of it and was determined to always get the most out of whatever talent I had, and to check all the boxes every day. That was my simple commitment to myself on day one as a triathlete when I was 20 years old as a complete beginner and stayed with me through my progression to winning five World Championship titles and beyond.
As we grow and hopefully mature as people, our perspective on things can change and, therefore, our motivations change as well. I know getting married and becoming a dad changed my life in an amazing way and certainly added fuel to my fire. I was incredibly driven by my family and what they meant to me, but also what they sacrificed so I could do what I loved to do. I wanted to honour their sacrifice and it was easy for me to push through tough times in training and racing when I took them on the journey with me.
Having this clear motivation helped me during the difficult times, like getting up early in the mornings to train when I was really tired or when the weather was terrible out but I still had to head out for a 6-hour ride. It helped when I couldn't go to social functions with family and friends because I was away training or racing. It was very clear in my mind why I was driven to do the things I was doing, and it made those sacrifices and challenges seem a little more manageable and worthwhile.
The reasons for doing something will be different for each of us. The key point is that if they are personally meaningful, they will be powerful and long-lasting. Once I knew my "why," the "what" (specific short and long-term goals), and the "how" (a structured and very well-thought-out plan) always fell into place much easier.
The second mental component I identified that I needed to work on to improve as an athlete was what I like to think of as the performance mindset, or how we think about our training and racing and how we mentally engage with the processes of improvement.
When I was a young athlete coming up through the ranks, I always tried to train with better athletes, watch them, emulate them, ask questions, and learn from them. I was fortunate that my training groups included some of the best athletes in the history of our sport. They were also great people who were extremely generous with their time and advice. I came to understand that the truly great ones, while often happy people, were never entirely satisfied professionally. Regardless of how many World Titles they may have already had on their mantlepiece, the thing that I noticed was that they were still always driven, focused, deliberate, had structure, and were never just cruising along and going through the motions.
Even though I was at a different level at that point in my career, that mindset struck a real chord with me. I dreamed about being a World Champion, but my real obsession each day was to improve. I was more obsessed with getting better than I was with actually winning.
MENTAL TRAINING STRATEGIES
My third mental component is the mental training strategies that I used to enhance my mental development and progression as an athlete. I was very lucky that quite early in my career, I crossed paths with a sports psychologist. She explained the importance and the benefits of athletes working on their mental game as well as their physical. After chatting for a while, she offered some personal insights into me as a person and some things she thought would help my development as an athlete.
I came to understand a bit better how strong the mind-body connection is and why positive thinking is so important, how thoughts, feelings, and actions are linked, and how much effort, focus, and time is required to change behaviours.
Personally, this really helped me a lot. I started in the sport of triathlon relatively late compared to a lot of the athletes I was racing at the time. I often put these athletes on a pedestal and just felt that I didn't have their training background and pedigree in endurance sports. While this was true to start with, the psychologist helped me realize that as I improved, there would hopefully come a time when I was on their level physically and that I should also be prepared for how to deal with that mentally.
Visualization, or mental practice, was something that I also incorporated into my training almost daily. I knew it was a strategy that a lot of athletes used to good effect. From my university studies, I understood it basically to be like watching the race play out in your mind like watching a movie—the more realistic and specific, the better. Fortunately, in triathlon, many of our races are on the same well-known courses, so it was easy to visualize the setting clearly and put myself in different race scenarios with my competitors. I did this regularly in the pool, on the bike trainer, or during run sessions.
I practiced visualization so often that after a while, I could easily take myself to the race mentally and feel the nerves, feel the heat and humidity (specifically for Hawaii, which I was visualized often). I could clearly see the race and eventually see myself pushing through and forward at critical moments and see a pathway to the endgame. I truly believed this helped me perform to my best in races because whatever the situation, good or bad, I felt more familiarity and a sense that I had been here before>
We are all different as athletes and as people. Our physiology, metabolism, nutritional requirements, motivations, and emotions are all things we need to consider. Understanding ourselves is very important, and so too is breaking down and understanding the underlying performance components of our sport if our goal is to improve. I hope my outline of some of the mental components, considerations, and strategies that I employed throughout my career has been helpful.
- Craig Alexander