The 3 P’s (my top psychological tips for endurance sport)

A few weeks back I was lucky enough to be a guest on the Physical Performance Show which happens to be one of my favourite podcasts and is hosted by Australian physiotherapist, author and running specialist Brad Beer. If you missed it, listen to our conversation here.

During our chat Brad asked me for my top three psychological tips that might apply to anyone chasing their own physical endurance goals. Admittedly I was thrown on the spot a bit and I was quick to disclose I am not a sport psychologist. However I do have 15 years of elite level competition and a decade of coaching experience to draw on, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised when my top three tips rolled off the tongue relatively effortlessly. Brad then challenged me towards the end of the podcast to follow up on these three tips in the form of a blog, so here I am keeping to my word. 

Credit: Brad Beer / The Physical Performance Show

As it would transpire, my top three tips became known as “Dougal’s three P’s” as they were three words that hold great meaning and application to me in my role as an athlete as well as a coach, the fact they all start with the letter P is really just a coincidence, but it seems to make them easier to remember. I love these “Three P’s” because I feel they are applicable to any age, stage, experience and ability level in endurance sport, but perhaps even just life in general. So here goes.

Process: I have written about this plenty of times before but I will continue to, because it really is that important to me. We will always perform and behave at our best when we focus on the process above the outcome. This means staying in the moment, concentrating on the task at hand and the things we can control, doing the best we can with what we have in the situation we are in. It also means blocking out the noise. Noise can be anything that doesn’t fit within the parameters of the previous sentence, eg. things we cannot control such as competitors or unfavourable winds or things that have happened in the past or into the future. Staying in the moment and being process focused is not as simple as making a decision to think and behave this way. It needs to be practiced in training and constantly refined (I still get it wrong at times, but less so with experience). Let the desired outcomes keep the fire lit, but let the process do the talking. Not just on race day, but everyday.

Credit: Finlay Woods / Duncan NZ Vension

Patience: Endurance sport is often a game of patience. The best performances often come from the people who demonstrate the best patience in the heat of battle. But when I refer to patience, I am really considering it on a more global level. From the young kids that envisage a successful career in triathlon or multisport, to the adults looking for a ‘bio-hack’ (I still don’t really know what that word means). The hope is they might shortcut the work they’d need to do by instead discovering a special diet, tablet, bike accessory or phone app that helps them sidestep the weeks, months and years they’d otherwise need to commit in order to achieve their goals. Refer to the previous point (process) and immerse yourself fully in the journey. In my 15 years in the sport I am yet to discover a real substitute for consistency and hard work. So long as that hard work is balanced with lots of good food and quality sleep. Do not come into this sport expecting everything to happen now. But do expect that if you have the patience and the long term application, you can achieve anything you dream to achieve. Eventually.

Credit: Finlay Woods / Duncan NZ Vension

Perspective: When it comes to your participation in sport and the goals you set out to achieve, I’d encourage you to begin by asking yourself why you do it? Then follow your answer up with the one-word question WHY? four more times. You could write this down yourself and just imagine someone standing opposite you replying with the question WHY until you have five lines/answers written down. Who knows exactly where this process will take you, but I can guarantee if you are honest with yourself throughout it, you wont arrive at an answer that has anything to do with winning. In fact, I am almost certain your final answer will have nothing to do with anything outcomes or results related at all. It is far more likely it will have a direct connection to your deeper self-concept, who you believe yourself to be, what values you hold dearest, which people are most important in your life, etc. To me this process offers perspective. It helps us understand and remember the true essence of why we do what we do. Keeping perspective is one of the most powerful tools that will keep you enjoying and engaged in the sport for a long time. Ultimately your health and wellbeing are the true beneficiaries when it comes to maintaining perspective on what you do and why you do it (and the twist is, perhaps health and wellbeing just happen to be a big part of why you do it in the first place).

So there we go – my top three psychological tips for endurance sport: process, patience, perspective. If I am performing well I am usually living these three well. If I am not – the chances are I need to revisit, revise and reset myself around the three P’s.