When emotions threaten your race, use them to help you shine, says triathlon coach Steve Trew

Steve Trew Triathlon Blog: Shouting and swearing. Illustration: Peter Greenwood

Illustration: Peter Greenwood

Emotional involvement in our lovely sport of triathlon is entirely natural. Sometimes it’s swearing at someone in a race because they’ve taken ‘your’ transition space. Sometimes it’s over-reacting when you get accidentally kicked during the swim. Sometimes it’s losing your cool over nothing in particular.

But we should recognise whether the emotions are affecting us for good or for bad and what impact they’re having on the way we race.

Emotional intelligence

Although racing is emotional, becoming too emotional during a race (or just before it) can lead to a sub-optimal performance – the focus shifts away from the race and onto those mind-juddering emotions.

Allowing yourself to become over-emotional uses up a lot of energy and although initially you will almost certainly feel a burst of extra energy, it will deflate. The best athletes maintain absolute self-control, staying totally focused on the race and their own performance.

When the mind starts to wander, perhaps because of focusing on the initial cause of those emotions – maybe getting pushed under at the swim start, unable to get the wetsuit off cleanly, or being jostled as you come out of transition – then the focus on what is happening now can disappear.

Look at the ice-cool attitude of that great runner, Michael Johnson: nothing at all was able to phase him. When asked whether he was worried about Frankie Fredericks, he laughed and said, “How can I worry about Frankie? I can’t control what he’s doing, only what I’m doing.”

In a different sport in a different era, tennis superstar John McEnroe was often accused of losing his temper, his cool, unable to contain his emotions. But was this a ploy on McEnroe’s part? Did the anger he displayed play a part in upsetting his opponents and making them lose focus? A thought worth considering.

Perhaps the key to using emotions during a race is to control them, not allowing them to go from helpful to harmful.

Race to your strengths

There’s the old cliché of train to your weaknesses, race to your strengths and this is where the physical and emotional can work together to get the best out of your abilities. What is the best part of your race? Swim or bike or run? That discipline is where you can start those emotions working for you. Mostly it can be as easy as talking to yourself: “This is where I take control, this is where I move away.”

We can break it down even further to one specific part of your race. When Alistair Brownlee shot off the front of the lead bike pack in Stockholm last year, leaving both Javier Gomez and his brother Jonny gasping, he was working to a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.

A strength because the lead group were consolidating their lead and no one was expecting a lone break. And a weakness because Alistair knew that injuries had left him just a tiny bit short in his brilliant running and he needed to compensate for that before the final discipline.

The physical was about to happen, but the emotions would have played a huge part in that effort. Once the break had been established, the emotional side would have kept the adrenaline flowing on the physical as the hurt entered new territory.

Emma Snowsill joins the Brownlees in her manner of running. There is simply no caution, no hesitation when setting out of transition. No thought of leaving the run to a sprint finish, because that is where these three great athletes might well be vulnerable. So the run simply becomes hurt, and then, hurt a little bit more. Establish the gap by sprinting out of transition at around 2:45 for the first kilometre, maintain that pace for the second kilometre, then look around. Oops! No one left!

Now that’s very simplistic, but it’s the essence of how to destroy a field of competitors. Be prepared to hurt yourself more than anyone else and to do that you need to involve your emotions. It’s the coming together of mind and muscle that makes that difference.

Never think it’s easy for the great athletes, Alistair, Emma and the rest. They work and hurt as much as anyone, probably more so.