Five secrets of mentally tough athletes

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At 37 years old, I've had a resurgence of competitive running goals. I'm nowhere near as fast as I was as a middle distance runner in college half my lifetime ago. But somewhere in my third decade of life, I discovered a talent for distance running that I didn't have back when the track was my playing field.

I became a marathoner with a dream of hitting an Olympic trials qualifier. And 26.2 miles -- at any pace -- takes some serious grit. So when I got the opportunity to talk to sports performance coach to the pros, Dr. Colleen Hacker, about mental toughness, I jumped at the chance.

Hacker, a professor of kinesiology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, has had a front row seat to some of the most celebrated moments in U.S. women's sports history, including the national soccer team's historic 1999 World Cup win and the ice hockey team's 2018 Olympic gold medal. As a mental skills coach for the women's national teams in soccer, ice hockey and field hockey, Hacker has been part of Team USA through 10 world championships and six Olympic Games.

But while Hacker, a former field hockey and basketball player herself, has spent decades helping athletes at the tops of their sports cultivate a mental edge, she's quick to clarify that her methods aren't for Olympians alone. "The same principles and techniques that we use to achieve excellence at the Olympic Games or in professional sports can in fact be mastered by athletes and teams at any level," she said. "And just like physical skills training, there's evidence-based research that tells us how to develop mental toughness."

Here are five strategies she uses with athletes:

1. Ditch the headphones.

Hacker is a fan of short, pithy phrases, and here's her first: "Be where your feet are." In competition, that means staying in the moment, which isn't necessarily a new idea. But practicing and executing it is the true challenge, especially in a cultural moment when our noses are seemingly always in our phones.

No, there's nothing wrong with running with a podcast. Hacker does. "But I'm not an elite," she said. The difference, she explained, is a dissociative versus an associative focus. You're either tuning out while you train or you're tuning in. When Eliud Kipchoge ran his 2:02 world-record marathon in Berlin, she said, you better believe he was running in the now. He wasn't thinking about the record he was chasing or the performance bonus he could win. He was thinking about his breathing, his posture, his stride length, his turnover.

For a distance runner, if you care about performance, that means being self-aware. It means being conscious of when your mind is drifting and practicing the ability to reel it back in to the present moment. You can do the workouts and train your body, but if you choose to tune out with your mind, you're leaving something on the table. At any given competitive level, it's the mind that's the great separator, Hacker said.

2. Forget the zone. Adjust and adapt.

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about choosing a marathon to run in the spring. I've been debating which race will be most likely to have the right weather conditions, the right amount of time to train, the right competition to get me to my goal time. As a result, Hacker's next piece of advice caught me off-guard. "The myth that everything has to be perfect or I'm not going to play my best is one of the great fallacies," she said.

Consider Desi Linden at the 2018 Boston marathon: If she had waited for that perfect day, she would have missed one of the greatest races of her life. "You can't think it's gonna be a good day," Hacker said. "You've gotta make it be a good day. And you've got to deal with the reality you have." You have to adjust and adapt. Bob and weave. Face the wind and the rain, and forge onward.

3. Feed your focus. Starve your distraction.

To explain this mental toughness technique, Hacker doesn't have to go any further than this year's U.S. Open match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. While Williams was going back and forth with the official, Osaka didn't get caught up in the fray, Hacker said. She turned away from what was going on and used the time to focus on her own game and her own competitive strategy.

"She took a situation that would have undone many a competitor," Hacker said. "They would have gotten emotional and thought how this is changing the rhythm of their game." But Osaka didn't even watch what was happening. She didn't listen. She didn't get emotional. She focused on what she could control: her own play. And she won.

4. Create a mistake ritual.

Everyone makes mistakes. It's what comes next that separates the mentally tough from the rest. Missed your first three shots on goal? Struck out your first two times at bat? What matters is how you respond.

Hacker coaches her athletes in developing and consistently using what she calls a mistake ritual, typically a behavior and a prepared phrase.

"To perform is to make errors," she said. Prepare yourself before it happens with a response that will help you clear the slate and have what Hacker refers to as competitive amnesia. Missed your mile split? "You might squeeze your hands and say, 'Let it go.'" Missed a free throw? "Some athletes brush their shoulders and say to themselves, 'Brush it off.'"

5. Be your own toughest challenger.

"You don't have to finish first to be a winner," Hacker said. For most runners, that goes without saying. After all, the vast majority of runners won't win the race. "But when athletes, or the rest of us mere mortals, focus on winning or losing or [finishing] first in our age group or qualifying for Boston, we're going to be infinitely more disappointed."

Hacker recommends focusing on the process, rather than the result. Did you follow your prerace strategy? Did you negative split the second half of the race? Did you fuel the appropriate times and appropriate amounts? "There are a lot of wins to be had if you commit to being joyful and grateful for the opportunity -- regardless of how you finish."