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We Cleared a Really Big Hurdle!

Mental preparation and achieving the peak experience on race day.

12 incredible months have just passed. Months of planning and scheming and training and racing, regrouping, reformatting, and refocusing. Calculating Olympic points and assessing the competition. Every race has been critical.

It’s an Olympic Year. There is nothing more exciting for a coach than to be sharing a high performance journey with his athlete preparing for the Olympic Games.

Brent McMahon at ITU Madrid 2012

This past May in Madrid, Spain, Brent McMahon earned the third Olympic spot for Canada, securing him and his team mates starting positions in London. He flew to Spain to go mano-a-mano with a triathlete from Portugal named Pereira to determine which country would get to send a third athlete. I met Brent at the airport before leaving and we both agreed:  these are the moments you live for as an athlete. This is why you swim your guts out as a teenager, bike hill reps through your 20’s and run countless loops of the track till your lungs are raw and legs searing. This is the psychological test that you spend years fantasizing about and visualizing through your minor competitions and back breaking training sessions. Brent stood up strong to this test and came home an Olympian.

What made this accomplishment remarkable was the journey over the past 12 months. Prior to April 2011, Brent had spent 18 months with a serious, career threatening knee injury. It ended up being attributed to a leg length imbalance, a diagnosis originally missed but later confirmed. During that stretch he lost his national team status and sport funding. More importantly, he lost confidence. Could he regain form? Would it be too great a hill to climb? Was he too far back from the competition? When the injury finally cleared 1 year ago, Brent was painting houses on the side to fund his training and living. Not exactly an optimal lifestyle or between workout recovery, while preparing to take on the world’s best.

Initially, Brent had to train simply to swim and run basic Triathlon Canada time standards to be allowed to apply for starts in World Cup racing, a task usually reserved for young up and coming athletes yet to cut their teeth. He had to fly internationally to race on the “B” circuit, Continental Cups, to earn his way back to the “A” circuit of World Cup and World Championship series prior to even starting to bank Olympic ranking points. Along the way, he missed key high point scoring races like the London test event on the Olympic Course, because he wasn’t yet ranked high enough, despite recent World Class results. With a frantic international scramble to improve his ranking and surpass other athletes, each and every result was critical.

Logistically, what does it take to come back from 18 months of injury, start at the bottom and climb to the peak of the mountain? How does this 12 month race tour sound: Canada > Mexico > Mexico > Japan > China > Canada > Germany > Canada > Hungary > China > Japan > Mexico > Mexico > Columbia > Argentina > Australia > Australia > Japan > USA and finally, Spain! That is 20 races in 12 months and a lot of air miles.

What was the outcome? Brent qualified for the Olympics against heavy odds and he is a better athlete for it. He was pushed to perform. He scored his first career World Cup win in Hungary and a Bronze Medal at the Pan American Games. He has a deeper belief in himself and a stronger understanding of his body.

I have been coaching Brent since age 15. He is 31 years old now. 16 years may be the longest high performance coach-athlete relationship in triathlon. Obviously I was very emotionally invested into this journey. Nothing was more gratifying that meeting him at his return, giving him a big hug and hearing that on the plane home, for him, it was truly sinking in just what he had accomplished. He had done it, against heavy odds. And that he was happy, healthy, and looking forward to preparing for the most important race of his life. That would be August 7th, in London, England, stay tuned….


This year will be my 4th summer Olympics. The Olympics are an event which epitomizes “peak experience”. So often at the Olympics we will see athletes perform extraordinary feats on the field of play. Alternately, we will see athletes crippled by self conscious awareness, and self imposed pressure that pulls their focus from simply executing their fitness and the task at hand.

Looking back to 2000 Olympics, with one month left until to the Games, I knew that Simon Whitfield was destined for the greatest performance of his life.  As his coach, I knew this based on the results that Simon had produced while performing his workouts during that training cycle.  The key to Simon’s success was more than his fitness; it was the preparation he had done prior to the Games. His victory was several years in the making, and the foundation to make it possible was built on the hard work he had done in his training and racing over that time. That was only part of the puzzle.  Without the training foundation the gold medal result would not have been possible. What put him over the top was his mental preparation allowing him to have a peak experience on the day.

Psychologically, peak experiences can fall into three categories: focused awareness, complete control of self and environment, and transcendence of self.

Focused awareness refers to the ability to block out distractions and fully concentrate on the task at hand.

Complete control of self and environment refers to the ability to master the task and the situation in which it must be performed.

Transcendence of self refers to the loss of a dualistic barrier between self and task – it suggests a holistic bond between the athlete and action.

Focused awareness is what enabled Simon Whitfield to maintain control during the Olympic triathlon race in Sydney after having crashed late during the bike leg.  Focused awareness allows one to determine what is important for success and act upon it, without hesitation. This awareness is not forced; it is as though he is trying without trying.  Simon does not consciously decide to stay focused and remain undistracted, he just does it. He gets back on the bike immediately, races through transition, and runs to back to the front of the pack without second thought.

Complete control of self and environment is the psychological mastery that a rider must have while navigating a pack through technical turns. There is no conscious thought to which line to take or when to accelerate and break. It is instinctive and rehearsed thousands of times in practice. This control goes beyond the conscious level; during peak experiences athletes often report almost out-of-body experiences.

Transcendence of self is the holistic sense of oneness with the task.  Many times athletes report being so completely immersed in the moment that they do not remember what they did.

The characteristics of a peak experience all have something in common: the loss of conscious awareness. Losing conscious awareness means that you no longer need to think about what you are doing, you just act! Your years of training and skill development come together and enable you to totally immerse yourself in the moment, focusing all of your physical and mental energy on the best performance you are capable of producing.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Olympians, Ironman and Age Group champions. He enjoys coaching athletes of all ages and abilities who are passionate about sport and personal excellence.

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