What is the Athletic Mindset?

What is the Athletic Mindset?

By: Phillip Liao

Total Words: 1230

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes

What occurs in the mind of someone pursuing an athletic goal? So much is said regarding the ‘mentality’ an athlete must have. The ‘athletic mindset’, being one of the primary drivers behind athletic success. During my journey as a competitive athlete – I seldom recall calling myself an ‘athlete’, not because it wasn’t true, but largely because I’m not sure what it really means.

Does every athlete have an athletic mindset? Can someone who hasn’t achieved sporting success have an athletic mindset? What about two champions, with polarity in thinking? Are both ‘athletic mindsets?’ When I look at the term in this way – I can’t help but think that this term is largely just fanciful language, used to describe not much at all.

So then, what does go through the mind of someone with an athletic goal? To be quite frank, I’ve got no idea. What idea I do have, are the thoughts in my own head during the 7 years I trained competitively, culminating in a spot on the Australian Commonwealth Games Team.

Where do I even start?

I suppose the best place to start is the two years prior to the Commonwealth Games. I had just transitioned from training for enjoyment to training to win. My mind was solely focused on putting myself in the best position to be the best in the country. I would call this a ‘competitive’ mindset. Naturally what followed were a series of actions that aligned with this thinking. I stopped going out. I ate well, mostly. I rarely missed a training session. I prioritised my sleep.

When I adopted this approach, my performance increased dramatically. I started winning frequently, and my main challengers were at national meets, as opposed to local. It wasn’t until these events came to pass that I started believing that I could be the best in the country. I suppose this is where I was slightly different from the autobiographies of many well known athletes. I always believed that I could be one of the best, not necessarily the best. Maybe some would call it self-doubt? Humility? Groundedness?

Thus far, we’ve established I am competitive and potentially grounded. Let’s continue.

As I entered 2017 (one year out from the Commonwealth Games), my momentum continued although life had changed dramatically. My time as a Masters student had come to an end, and now I was working full-time as a physiotherapist. However, it wasn’t as if I was a stranger to full-time work. During my time as a student, I would work 20-25 hours a week part time and almost full-time during semester break. I was just too bored when I wasn’t doing something I felt was productive. A lot of athletes train full time (think twice a day, with rest breaks during the afternoon), and as a coach now – I believe this is the right way to go for performance. However, even if I had the opportunity to do that, I genuinely believe it wouldn’t have suited me. I would’ve gone crazy. So perhaps… productive is another aspect of my mindset?

The first half of 2017 was largely the same. There was an immense amount of self-belief – that I was ready, destined to achieve my goal. These feelings were almost like a drug. I felt indestructible. Ready to tackle any challenge. Usually, I was right. But, one of the reasons why we love sport is for the drama – and drama there was. Halfway into 2017, my greatest rival emerged from retirement and dominated the competition. If our totals were close, I would’ve liked to chase him down, but the reality was – he was just too far ahead.

I still remember sitting alone in my car after a training session engulfed by cold, dark despair. Not long ago, the mountain seemed within reach. But now, all the pain, all the time, all the sacrifice seemed in vain. Do I give up? Do I still commit to these next six months? Despite knowing deep down that I just wasn’t good enough? I tried to give myself every reason to continue. Maybe he’ll suffer an injury? Maybe I’ll somehow gain 15kg on my total in the next 6 months with a miracle training program? Maybe I can still do this! This dialogue was just me trying to convince myself that there was hope. That it wasn’t over. Maybe it was just my hopeful side.

I’m a very logical thinker. The pragmatic side of me usually guides my decisions. There was hope, but it was minimal. There just wasn’t a case to be made that I had a shot anymore. Maybe it would’ve been better to give up now, focus the next six months on my career, my friends, my family and leave this all behind me. I’ve already come this far right? What’s the point if it’s an impossibility?

But my heart told me in the beginning of this journey that I needed to do it. And my heart was still telling me the same thing. Just keep going, no matter what. This internal warfare continued for many weeks. It led to MANY sleepless nights. I would have meetings in my head, between ‘Hopeless Phil’ and ‘Hopeful Phil’. It would go something like this:

‘If I give up now, I release myself from this mental prison and get on with my life.’

Yes, but if you give up now, you also throw away the YEARS of hard work.

‘But I’m not going to make it.’

No, you won’t. But there’s still more to gain. The experience. The tenacity. You’re still winning.

‘I can’t win.’

The journey is the prize, whether you make it or not. If you give up now, you won’t get what’s waiting for you at the end.

‘And what’s that?’

No one knows, but we do know what you get if you give up now. You chose this for the adventure. See it through.  

Ultimately I accepted that I wasn’t going to make the Commonwealth Games team, but I was still going to see this journey towards the very end. I was going to try my absolute best EVEN if I was going to come up short. I set a goal, and I was going to see it through to the very end. To. The. Fucking. End. Some would call this mindset resilient? Stubborn, even?

As luck would have it, I was right. Approximately 8 weeks out from the Commonwealth Games trials, my coach and I decided to drop one weight class and attempt one final shot there. And right at the very end, when I had surrendered to whatever fate would have for me – I attained the goal. You see, if I had not surrendered myself to the outcome, I do not think I would have continued with my journey. It was only by accepting that losing was the only possibility but moving forward anyway, that I found the greatest gem in this journey. In the act of surrender, I became grateful. And within this gratefulness, I found joy.

So perhaps my ‘athletic mindset’ is many things – it is competitive, it is humble. It is productive, it is pragmatic. It is hopeful, it is doubtful. It is resilient and stubborn. But the one thing that I know to be true for myself – it is grateful.