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Athlete Perspective: Psychological Preparation

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

No matter how well we physically prepare for a challenge, if the mind isn’t in the right place, then even the simplest of tasks can seem insurmountable.



These themes were very much part of former athlete, Odette Hornby’s success when she completed this year’s London Marathon.

Below, Odette reflects on her experiences of the world-famous run, and reveals the psychological preparation she went through prior to it.

She then gives tips on how other athletes can get themselves in the right headspace to smash their own goals in life after professional sport.


Odette Hornby is Performance Psychologist at Athlete Career Transition and a former GB fencer.


A Day to Remember


The marathon was tougher than I expected, with many factors that you couldn’t control. The day began with torrential rain, and all the runners had to wait in a field for an hour before the starting gun. However, once things got underway, the support soon warmed us up.

I’ve never seen crowds like it; thousands of people all cheering us on despite the bad weather. Runners themselves were helping each other, and it was incredible to see so many people coming together for such a fantastic event.

I did all my training alone, so it was a shock to go into a race where you’re among thousands of others. Being in that crowd made things difficult. There was little margin for error and I felt a bit vulnerable as I’m quite short; I felt quite boxed in at times, and got pushed around a bit. However, people in the crowd would shout your name and that spurred me on.

Things got tougher around the 30km (18.5m) mark. I had run 31km in training so I knew where I was for most of the race. But then I found myself in unchartered territory.

As the run progressed, I got blisters on my feet, and you could sense everyone was starting to go into their own psychological tunnel. I was able to reframe the situation mentally thanks to the psychological preparation I had done.


Priming the Mind


This preparation began a few weeks before the event. The night before, and the morning of, a major run, I try to visualise the experience and imagine myself progressing along the route, feeling a sense of ease and comfort as if every part of my body is perfectly aligned to get me across the finish line smoothly.

I create a mental picture of a successful event and just focus on enjoying the moment to build a positive state of mind. By repeating this mental exercise before each run, I primed myself for a good performance. I became focused and optimistic, continuing this routine as marathon day approached.

I watched YouTube clips to further familiarise myself with the London Marathon. I absorbed every detail, mentally picturing myself on the course and embracing the sights and sounds.

On race day, it felt like I was re-enacting what I had rehearsed in my mind. I was familiar with the road and the cityscape, and my visualisation exercises had instilled in me the belief that I could excel. This mental preparation became my foundation for success, really boosting my confidence.

I realised that not knowing the course would make the process more difficult, so I made a conscious effort to gather as much information as possible.


Staying Alert


I trained without earphones and music throughout my preparation, because I wanted to immerse myself in the ambient noise of the race and soak up the energy of the crowd.

Without music, my mind was able to come to the fore and influence my performance for the better. It became easier to discern moments of struggle and identify that internal voice urging me to stop—a challenge I believe most marathon runners encounter at some point.

I overcame these mental barriers with self-talk techniques. I reminded myself that I had endured similar adversities before and that I had it within me to keep going.

Pinning down the words and phrases that resonated with me became an essential aspect of training. For the marathon itself, I wrote down my motivational phrases on sticky notes and attached them to my energy gels. Every time I reached for a gel, I had a reminder to persevere and push on.

This repeated positive reinforcement is a great source of strength when self-doubt creeps in.


Psychological Preparation Key Points


Below are four takeaways that athletes can use when developing their own psychological preparations for whatever challenges they may face.

Break It Down


My main goal was to complete the marathon, but I focused on hitting smaller goals throughout my training which all contributed to my success on the day. It’s a lesson that’s

so valid in working contexts.

Whether it’s hitting deadlines, preparing for a presentation, or revising for a test, break things down. Start preparations as early as possible and divide workloads into smaller, more manageable chunks; it gets the job done, while building mental fluency and confidence.

Visualise


Just as I visualised myself running the marathon, you can create the same visualisation before going into an interview or important meeting – it’s about practicing and getting used to seeing yourself nailing a win in the critical moment.

By taking yourself through the process, you’ll feel more natural and comfortable when it comes to delivering for real.

Self-talk


Self-talk and having physical reminders really helped me, and it’s a tactic that’s easily transferred to the world of work.

You might make small cue-cards bearing motivational words, quotes or even prompts to aid memory. Having these assists in place are a mental handrail, bringing clarity and reassurance when they’re required.

Self-awareness


Finally, remember how strong the mind is in terms of making you go above and beyond what you typically think possible.

Athlete Career Transition works alongside global organisations to successfully transition former professional athletes into business.

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