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What to Expect When Working with a Mental Performance Coach

Our mentality can push our running to new heights—or hold us back. Have you considered coaching your brain as well as your body?

Photo: Getty Images

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As runners, we spend hours upon hours each year ticking off the miles, pushing ourselves through grueling races, and maybe even finding time to work in a gym session here and there.

But for every physical workout, there is a mental one accompanying it, too. It’s no secret that the mind plays a vital role in everything from getting us out of bed at dark o’clock to helping us hang on just a little bit longer in pursuit of a new personal best during a race.

Failing to train your mind alongside your body will only limit you in the long run (pun absolutely intended). Just like running coaches who provide structured training plans and help you track toward a goal, mental performance coaches work with individuals on confidence, motivation, and self-talk.

Kayla Bowker is a 33-year-old mother of two boys under the age of three, an elite athlete who frequently clocks sub-1:25 half marathons, and mental performance coach based in Spokane, Washington. She is the first to acknowledge that her success in sport would never have happened without tapping into the power of the mind.

“Previously, I lived a life with no confidence and a lot of doing what I thought others wanted me to do,” says Bowker. “One day in 2013, I woke up and literally said to myself, ‘Enough. I deserve better.’ And the shift that brought to my life changed its entire course in the most positive way.”

RELATED: Inside the Mental Game of Elite Marathoners

Since then, Bowker has continued to see the power of the mind play out in her life and sport. After a difficult race in Kona a few years ago, Bowker realized what had been the biggest challenge of the day was not her body, but her mind. If she could better understand her mind, she knew that what she could achieve was limitless. This ultimately spurred her into getting the necessary certifications and training to become a mental performance coach.

When it comes to working with a mental performance coach, the relationship is both give and take. Your coach should provide guidance and expertise, but you also need to come to each session with an open mind and willingness to do the work.

What is a Mental Performance Coach?

We sort of know what to expect from a running coach, who provides you with daily workouts to prime your body to perform its physical best at your next big race. While some of those sessions may (by default) also strengthen your mind in certain ways, a running coach’s focus is generally on planning sessions that help you attain new physical goals.

A mental performance coach, on the other hand, is dedicated to all the things that happen inside your head as you nail (or struggle through) those workouts. From self-talk to self-doubt, a mental performance coach helps you retrain your brain to become a place you want to hang out.

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And, unlike a sports psychologist, mental performance coaches tend to have a program or defined plan with milestones to help their clients find progress. Sports psychologists may delve into topics such as trauma, mental illness, and more. While some of this may be discussed with your mental performance coach, the emphasis tends to be more on self-talk, confidence, and motivation.

“My job is to help you find this natural passion and belief in yourself through our sessions,” says Bowker. “My belief is that we all have these innate abilities, but that we’ve been taught to hide that confidence, hide that belief.”

What a Typical Session Might Look Like

Most mental performance coaches suggest a one-on-one, once-a-week session for anywhere from eight weeks to six months for their athletes. The weekly meetings are generally an hour and can be done in-person or over video chat. It’s important to be face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) with your coach, as it strengthens the important conversations happening in the session.

“Our conversations will center around the idea that how you talk to yourself can drastically alter and optimize the way you achieve your best self,” says Bowker.

While it can be difficult at first to share the mental challenges you are facing, such as quitting on a workout or constantly interacting with negative self-talk, being as open as possible with your mental performance coach is the key to unlocking next-level performances.

RELATED: Take Control of Your Self-Talk

“What you can expect from me as your mental performance coach is for me to show up with an open mind, ready to work on what’s important to you,” says Bowker. “And what I ask of you is to come prepared to discuss how to expand your self-belief and really dig to the root of what’s limiting you and how to best attack it.”

Bowker added that she will cover topics such as focus, pressure, motivation, passion, goal-setting, and more with her clients— sometimes all in one session, but usually across many weeks.

You will likely come away from each session with “homework” or a specific task to work on. Here’s the part where you need to pull your weight in order to make these sessions worthwhile.

What is Expected from You

Aside from bringing an open mind to each session as Bowker notes, it’s common for mental performance coaches to leave you with a task or prompt to work through at the end of your sessions.

This could be a journaling prompt, self-awareness task (like noticing when negative self-talk occurs), or a podcast to listen to. One of Bowker’s favorite pieces of homework to give relates to being proactive about one’s outlook toward a session instead of letting the session dictate one’s emotions.

“Before a physical training session, I have a client write down how they want to feel as they run, as well as three actions they’ll take during the workout to instill that feeling,” says Bowker. “Then, after their workout, I have them jot down three takeaways about how their training session and accompanying emotions during it.”

This type of exercise shows athletes that they have the power to set their own emotions and not let external factors drive the bus, so to speak. On race day, having this habit and tool in the arsenal makes an athlete much more resilient to all the unpredictable things that can happen during a competition.

It’s also critical that you put some thought into what you’d like to address in each session. This is, after all, your time to talk about you. While your coach will guide the session and have a plan in place, putting some effort into reflecting on what went well, what didn’t go well, and what you’d like to bring up to your coach before the meeting helps ensure those precious one-hour meetings are focused and deliberate.

Bowker even suggests jotting down notes before the discussion if you’re worried you’ll forget what you wanted to talk about. Plus, most coaches record each meeting and share with the athlete afterwards.

How to Know When to See a Mental Performance Coach

There is no right or wrong time to begin working with a mental performance coach. Even if you’re flying high, achieving your goals, a mind coach can help you optimize and fine-tune your approach to training, racing, and life. For those who are tired of feeling down about themselves, a sports performance consultant can assist in reevaluating one’s mindset and motivations.

Keep in mind that if there is a particularly exciting (or daunting) race on your horizon, planning ahead by six months to a year will result in plenty of time to work with a mental performance coach, absorb their guidance, and actually put your new mindset into play before the big dance.

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