Track & Field

Is Your Head Getting in the Way of your performance?

Her practice throws had looseness, strength, and distance; but in meets she was losing 10-15 feet!

The freshman hammer thrower was potentially one of the best her college coach had ever seen. He couldn’t believe his good fortune when she ended the suspense and committed early to his program. Her hammer and discus practices had been everything that he had expected. She was a coach’s dream: a hard worker, extremely coachable, a quick study, and always looking for ways to improve. As a bonus, her attitude was outstanding. She was a “team player” despite the fact that her two field events traditionally isolated her from the rest of the team’s practices.

She had had a great freshman year until it happened, placing high in the hammer throw in every meet she entered, even winning two competitions! With conference and NCAA championships approaching, there couldn’t have been a worse time for something like this to happen. Suddenly, she wasn’t the same athlete in the circle when the heat of competition was turned up high. While her practice throws still had the looseness, strength, and distance, in meets she was losing 10-15 feet! Furthermore, she looked tight and tentative. And the coach could very clearly trace the problem right back to its source. He even vividly remembered the exact moment because he happened to be watching her from a distance and caught the whole thing!


So why would an athlete consistently perform better in practice than in competition? As a track and field competitor, your strength, speed, conditioning, and technique are critical to your ultimate success. You know you can’t possibly reach your potential without enough work in these training areas. However, far too many athletes stop there. They train physically and leave the mental part of their performance to chance. Without adequate training in the mental side of your sport, you won’t be able to go as far as possible in your event. You need mental toughness training to complete your overall training.

It happened in a relatively insignificant dual meet. There weren’t even many spectators watching. She was right in the middle of her wind-up for the first throw when she lost her footing and her momentum slammed her to the ground. She landed face-first and although she badly scraped her chin and nose, she wasn’t seriously injured. However, the shock and embarrassment of the incident really got to her. Ever since that meet, her throws in competition always came up significantly shorter than her practice ones.

Your mental toughness is directly related to your ability to control the master-skill of concentration. Your ability to focus on what’s important and block out everything else is the key to performance excellence. When you focus on the wrong things before and during your events, your ability to stay loose, handle pressure, and remain confident is seriously compromised. Choking and other performance problems can almost always be traced back to a faulty focus.

This was the case with our hammer thrower. By the time she was referred to me by her coach, she had lost her confidence and was unknowingly concentrating on all the wrong things. Do you know what the UC’s are? You should! These are the mental traps that are lying in wait for you. They are the “uncontrollables”, or very simply all the things in your sport that are directly out of your control. Examples of UC’s are the weather conditions, temperature, size & reputation of the competition, the officiating, your coach, and the crowd. If you focus on these UC’s, you’ll get yourself uptight, kill your confidence, and send your performance down the proverbial tubes.

Two key UC’s are the outcome of a competition, (i.e. anything in the future) and the past. For this hammer thrower, her primary focus in competition was on the accident, a past event. Want the competitive edge over your competition? Would you like the key to avoiding psych-outs and intimidation? Know what the UC’s are and every time your focus drifts to them, quickly “reset” and bring your focus back to what you CAN control: what you are doing in the NOW. It’s only when you let the UC’s play in your head that they get you into trouble. Remembering her fall and worrying that it might happen again made this athlete nervous and tentative. You know that you can’t be at your best unless you’re loose and willing to really go for it.

So what else can mental toughness training teach you? Well, it taught her how to stay relaxed under pressure. To recognize when she was leaving “good nervous”, entering “bad nervous”, and how to quickly get her physiological arousal back in control. She also learned how to erase the past so that she wouldn’t go into a performance carrying any negative baggage. In addition, she learned how to better-control her focus of concentration, avoid the “UC’s”, and stay in the “now” of the performance. In a short amount of time her competition throws began to lengthen out, and soon she was back to her old aggressive self.

What kind of mental toughness skills to do you possess? Can you readily handle big meet pressure? Are you able to keep yourself focused on your own performance without getting distracted by a talented opponent? How about failures, setbacks, and bad meets? Do you know how to constructively handle them? If your head is getting in the way of your sport, get smarter about your training. You can’t reach your athletic dreams without working on the mental part of your events. Develop the competitive advantage.

As a sports performance consultant, Dr. Alan Goldberg works with track and field athletes at every level. A popular presenter at coaches clinics, high schools, and colleges around the United States, Dr. G specializes in helping individual athletes overcome blocks and perform to their potential. He is the author of the revolutionary book, This is Your Brain on Sports.

  • I would think too much before my races and then way too much during the race. I found  your book  'Using Your Head workbook for Track & Field!' and I have to say you have opened my eyes  Now my race times are just like my practice times and I am being recruited to run in college!

    Jake West Virginia
  • Abby used to get so nervous pre-race that she would throw up and that would finish her for her race. You taught her how to concentrate on the right stuff and low and behold, she hasn't thrown up all season. She PR'ed at Conference, qualified for States and finished in the top 10 at States!

    Molly Minnesota
  • Mandy had her best year in high school sports with PR's in cross country and track, state appearances in both sports and a cross country medal. She was approached by Loyola the weekend of the State track meet and we are thrilled that she will be attending there!  Thank you for all your help!

    Lorna Texas
  • Amy had a fantastic race at States. She PR'd by nearly a minute. She managed her nerves and focus. Between your CDs and what you guys worked on she had a breakthrough. Thank you for helping her cope and manage her nerves and fears!

    Debbie New Jersey
  • You helped Katie turn her Pole Vault season around! ! She went from not being able to take off the runway, to ranking her second in the state, and placing at the California State meet! You have given her skills that she will use throughout her life. She has amazing confidence and grace now!"

    Nancy California
  • Kelsey and I looked through your workbook this week before her Saturday meet. She said she put your ideas to use and it looks like it REALLY worked! She jumped a season PR of 5'1"! We will continue the exercises and hope for an even better meet this coming Friday!

    Lynn Missouri
  • My pole vaulting coach used to joke about me being "fragile" mentally. That's because when I'd get to a certain height, I'd start to freak out. I read Using Your Head...Track and Field and I can't believe what a difference it  made.  I'm much calmer and even my coach is impressed!

    Jenna D Florida


It’s always fascinating to me how much emotional and physical energy gets wasted by athletes when they focus on and worry about their competitors.

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