Motivational Mantra and Mental Toughness

By: Terri Rejimbal, RRCA certified coach

We’ve all heard the saying that “Running is 90% mental and 10% physical." It’s no secret that in addition to strong legs and lungs, you need a strong mind to achieve your running goals. "Your mind can be your weapon or your weakness," says Lenny Wiersma, Ph.D., professor of sports psychology at California State University, Fullerton.

Attention and concentration can wane over the miles causing the pace to slack and opportunity for negative thoughts to seep in. According to Stephen Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in Boulder, a well-chosen mantra can keep you calm and on target. “Repeating choice words whenever you need to focus helps direct your mind away from negative thoughts and towards a positive experience.”

A mantra is a word or sound repeated to aid concentration. In spiritual practices like yoga or meditation, it refers to intention. Mantra – man (mind) & tra (transport/vehicle).

An effective mantra addresses what you want to feel, not the adversity you’re trying to overcome, says Robert J. Bell, Ph.D., a certified consultant for the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. A good one diverts your mind from unpleasant thoughts to ones that help you transcend it. It is believed that only positive intentions and actions will fill your mind and eliminate negativity.

So, what makes a good mantra? One that is short, positive, instructive, and full of action words. The key is creating one that resonates with you; otherwise, it will not draw the right response from inside of you. It’s been said that “where the mind goes, the body follows." If you’re distracted during a race or workout, the body will lose awareness and your pace will drop. A good mantra will keep you focused.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stephen Walker, a sports psychologist. He has worked with many elite athletes for over 36 years, including 2-time Olympian Kara Goucher. Dr. Walker contributed to Goucher's book, Strong: A Runner’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of You, in which she discusses how she conquered self-doubt, and shares proven tools for improving running performance while building confidence.

Mantras, listed second out of eight confidence techniques, helped Goucher shut out negative chatter and focus on the present.

"Everyone here is better than me. Look at them, they’ve beat you before. I’m not ready for this. Something’s off. And then there’s you,” are thoughts that Kara Goucher has had during a race. I’m sure we all have said these kinds of statements to ourselves. Talking yourself out of the competition before the race even starts – Self Defeating!

To train optimistic behavior, Dr. Walker had Goucher keep a confidence journal. The purpose of the journal was to train her mind to seek out one to two positive aspects that went well in her workouts or races, even if they were bad. From her journal entries, she was able to pick meaningful words that she could use when negative thoughts would creep into her mind. Positive self-talk reinforces confidence.

Mantras harness thoughts through instruments of thinking - framed statements that help to direct your focus on the present. They sync your body and mind to create focus and confidence to perform. Mantras keep you “centered”. It’s this fixated point of concentration that engages the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) to slow the heart rate, increase glandular activity, relax the GI tract, and help conserve energy. Like transcendental meditation, they have a vibration quality, a rhythm that soothes the mind, and helps to narrow your concentration to eliminate distractions.

Learning to focus your mind requires time, patience, and practice. Your thoughts will wander, regardless of how much you rehearse or how mentally tough you are. It’s impossible to maintain full concentration in longer races, and your mind will look for opportunities for a reprieve. That’s when having a mantra can sweep in and guide you back to the task at hand.

It’s your “mission statement” and it serves a specific purpose that is deeply personal to you. It's possible that we could have the same mantra; however, its underlying meaning to each of us could be entirely different. That’s what makes it incredibly personal and individual. For instance, one of Goucher's mantras was “I Belong”. Repeating this mantra helped her cope with the anxiety, self-doubt, and negativity about racing. As you can see from her previous quotes above, “I Belong” mantra is present tense and diverts her attention away from her competitors’ abilities and reinforces trust in herself to perform.

A mantra must deeply resonate with you. Not all mantras are created equal. Each one serves a different motive, such as managing discomfort or anxiety, remaining calm, or keeping mental focus. Some examples could be: “This is My Race”, “I’m Fearless”, “Fighter”, or “Endure”. Each one is different and elicits a different response. You may even use several different mantras within one race to help you stay engaged in the present. It should inspire or excite you. If it no longer does, then it’s time to develop a new one. Plan your attack on distractions, keep your mantras simple and in the present tense. You want your mantras to ignite an emotional spark within you, and remember:

Stay Focused. Positive. Present.

Happy Running!

Always consult a doctor before starting any exercise routine.

About the Author

Terri Rejimbal is a competitive Masters athlete. Terri is a RRCA certified running coach and is available for consulting or coaching services. Contact Terri at [email protected] or Instagram @bayshorerunner.