Building the mind of a champion

The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness
By Joanna Zeiger, Ph.D.
260 pages St. Martin’s Griffin New York NY
$17.99 USA $24.99 CANADA

If you want to develop the mental toughness of a champion, it would be hard to find a better guide than Joanna Zeiger.

For sheer brain power and focus, Zeiger has it. She earned a Ph.D. in genetic epidemiology from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health while training for and competing in the 2000 Olympic Triathlon. Zeiger became a master at harnessing her drive and passion for sporting excellence by using her analytical horsepower to frame goals, polish technique, maintain training focus and keep her ego in check with a healthy outlook.

What gives Zeiger an added authority to advise athletes from beginners to rising age groupers and pros on the verge is her rocky road to the top, paved with failures as well as wins. During her career she dealt with asthma, a propensity to pass out at the finish line and an innate clumsiness that made her work hard to master technique and strategy. They say that the athletes who had to work hard to overcome make better coaches than natural superstars for whom it all came easy.

The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness tracks her journey from a novice swimmer to an Olympian, and an Ironman 70.3 World Champion triathlete. That journey provides the impetus for her book which combines four of her passions – sports, mental toughness, science and statistics. The Champion Mindset is a step by step guide for athletes of all levels to develop their mental edge to achieve their athletic dreams.

Zeiger divides this book into topics which she covers in a multi-faceted manner, using a readable scientific approach combined with her personal stories of triumph and adversity along with the words of many great champions in other sports. Topics include proper goal setting, keeping it fun, building your team, efficient training, improving motivation, promoting self-confidence, coping with setbacks, and maintaining hope during rough times. The underlying theme of the book is that a certain mindset is what separates the talented, hard workers who never reach their goals from the champions.

Throughout the book, Zeiger offers many sensible and often unique tips for a better mental approach. Also included are helpful quizzes to help determine certain aspects of mental toughness. She points out that a slow swimmer probably won’t become a fast swimmer but better technique can limit the damage on the swim and save crucial energy for the bike and run. On reaching your physical potential, Zeiger urges long distance competitors not to give up on top end training. “Athletes must train both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems as well as race specific paces …since many don’t train [their top end] their power drops late in the bike and their run ultimately suffers.” A key principle to unlocking potential is this maxim: “Don’t be afraid of failure.” Whether running first or last, Zeiger says that each race gave her the opportunity to push herself past her limits, and each failure offered lessons to build for the future. While maintaining a positive outlook despite failures, Zeiger also says that bottling up true feelings is not the answer – within limits: “Stick to a 24-hour grieving period. After a bad race I used to walk around in a dark haze for days… one day of temper tantrums, anger and tears is plenty.”

Interspersed throughout this book is extensive insight offered by many athletes and coaches, including Colleen De Reuck and Lisa Bentley.

Four time Olympian runner De Reuck discussed her discouragement that at age 49 she could no longer compete at an elite level and took to triathlon to keep motivated and redefine her athletic self to embrace a balanced diet of swim-bike-run sessions.

Bentley, who had a long triathlon career while managing Cystic Fibrosis, was an inspiration to Zeiger. Frequent chest infections required the antibiotic drug Cipro, forcing Lisa to abandon training for six weeks at a time. Without self-pity and with a relentless positive attitude, Bentley managed to finish 4th at the 2004 Ironman World championship despite being on a strong antibiotic and suffering decreased lung function. “This was a race on mental power,” said Bentley.

Framing of goals to the right type of motivation is something Zeiger emphasizes as being critically important. Extrinsic goals such as money, fame, and trophies have their place but can easily become obsessions, making the athlete nervous and leading to loss of perspective and poor performance. Intrinsic goals, says Zeiger, are based on a balance in life rather than results, and not on dominance of others, removing the embarrassment of egocentric motivation. Additionally, intrinsic goals focus on matters like self-improvement and helping others, and “satisfy psychological needs for autonomy, competence and growth, and embrace love of the sport and physical fitness.”

The importance of drawing a line between humility and arrogance is another characteristic Zeiger focuses on in terms of building toward success. The danger is perceiving competition “as a battle where winning is the sole goal and humility is disdained.” Yet Zeiger admits that there can be a too healthy approach: “Those who are too intrinsically focused often lack the killer instinct to make the progress needed to achieve their goals.”

Zeiger also has some advice for dealing with the reality of drug cheaters. “Since cheating is an inevitable situation in sports, what can you do? You can start by not cheating yourself. After that, nothing. Nothing at all. Ultimately all any of us have is our integrity.” The point is that bitterness robs the athlete of the crucial element of positivity - which fuels performance and satisfaction.

A crash at the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Championship was a turning point in Zeiger’s life and the aftermath of this accident helped further shape her outlook on mental toughness. The injuries she sustained - a broken collar bone, multiple fractured ribs along with intercostal nerve damage - ended Zeiger’s triathlon career. Zeiger met with a dozen doctors and several gave up and said nothing could be done. Some told her that her problems were psychological. From 2011 to 2015, Zeiger underwent several surgeries with four doctors while resuming her running career and qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. After six years of frustration and constant pain, she finally found a doctor who believed her instinct that something was wrong and had the ability and vision to attempt innovative surgery to fix her remaining primary problem. The point she makes upon retelling her travails is that athletes must be their own advocates and never give up trying to find solutions to difficult situations, and that joy can be found even during the darkest times.

In September 2015, Zeiger underwent surgery which alleviated long term issues but left her with a debilitating sternum pain and persistent abdominal muscle spasms. She was ready to give up her final goal to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trial at age 45 because she fell 59 seconds short of the 2:43:00 qualifying standard. But in December 15, 2015, USA Track and Field amended the qualifying standards for the women’s Olympic Marathon Trials to 2:45:00. She was in, but wondered if she could even run the full 26.2 miles.

With just a few weeks to prepare, Zeiger adjusted her goals from running well to finishing. Along the way, she made a succession of smaller goals: “I never feared failure. I took chances. I raced well when my body felt terrible. I raced with integrity. I did not take no for an answer. I cried. A lot. I cursed when needed. I shook off despair and desperation. Most important, I trained and raced with joy.”

In this writer’s opinion, Zeiger’s humbling 149th place finish, 40 minutes over her personal best, was her most impressive victory. Zeiger emphasizes that even with severe limitations, setting reasonable goals is imperative to help athletes mentally deal with their difficult situation.