From time to time I love to highlight people within the sport, the BTS side, if you will (I only recently figured out what BTS meant, BTW. behind the scenes!). Running is a sport that requires a lot of mental fortitude. I first met Coach Dean in August of 2015 as I was preparing for the Twin Cities marathon. My interactions with him have changed the way I view both myself and the sport, and he has become a great friend. He was kind enough to do an interview with me, and even better, is giving away his unique, comprehensive mental game assessment (M4PAASS), including the results of the assessment and a complete personal mental toughness game plan. Details for how to win at the end of the interview!
You have a pretty interesting background, care to explain what your history is with the sport?
I started running as a sophomore in high school. A friend of mine on the cross-country team stopped me from catching my bus home just to get me out for the team. It worked. I’ve been running ever since. I ran in college but really improved most post-college and as a masters runner. I raced almost as fast at 40-45 years old as I did 20-25. I’ve raced everything from 400m – well really 440 yards – up to 50 kilometers (both on the track!).
How did you become interested in the mental game of athletes?
I have always loved psychology. It was my minor in college. I found the mind just amazing and complex. I first took graduate sports psych courses for my own benefit. Next thing I knew I was using it on a regular basis helping other runners but integrating it into the coaching I was doing. Back in the 90′s, I decided that this was what I wanted to do full time.
You work with a diverse group of athletes – not just runners – what parts of mental game training are the same across different sports? Different?
This could be a long answer. I’ll try to keep it succinct without losing meaning or watering this down too much.
First I’d say that the mental game is the mental game no matter the performance venue (I say this because I include musicians or dancers in this as well.) Applications and techniques are the same – such as visualization aka imagery, focus-refocus, regrouping and pre-performance routines.
But the implementation is unique to the elements of the sport.
The cues to keep one focused differ by sport. How you might use a “regrouping” technique will be different in a self-paced sport like running compared to something like basketball.
And of course any team sport has elements that individual sports do not.
What is the biggest challenge you face when working with athletes?
I think there are two. The first one is getting athletes to see the value of mental game coaching. Some athletes think you either got it or you don’t. Others don’t think you can learn the skills. The second and related is that they just don’t think it’ll help them perform better.
Now for an athlete I’m working with it’s probably patience. Everyone wants a quick fix. You didn’t get to think the way you do overnight. You won’t get to think a “new” way overnight either. I tell everyone, it’ll take every bit of effort you put into your physical training and maybe more.
One of my favorite parts about talking shop with you is that you know a lot about the science side of sport. However, science and mental game can sometimes be at odds with one another (for instance, I tend to race better than my workouts would indicate). How do you balance these two aspects with the athletes you work with?
I love this question. Because I believe that this gets to one of my strengths as a coach. I have content knowledge of science and sports as well as applied sports psychology – with emphasis on “applied”. I believe that I’m adept working with athletes as individuals. There is no single solution; no single technique; no template to force fit athletes into. And I love the challenge of finding new ways to make things work for THAT individual athlete. I can suspend that other stuff I know to get results. So, regardless of what the “books say”; in the application part of all this – you do what works.
How have your own personal running experiences shaped the way you approach mental game training?
I was never the most talented runner. I was ok. But I sure had a competitive mindset and rarely did anyone get me off my game. I can’t remember a race that I had anxiety about or doubted myself. Oh, I had my bad races for sure but I was always there to “win”. My enjoyment of pushing my limits and the freedom and self-control I felt is something I wish everyone could experience.
What is your favorite part about being a mental game coach?
This will sound so cheesy. I love making a difference in people’s lives. I love the relationships I develop. To see someone move beyond fears that limit them; to experience life fuller; to completely enjoy the moment… It’s all inspiring to me and keeps me going.
Your mental game program is pretty comprehensive. Can you explain what it is and how you developed it?
I have to give a nod to Dr. Patrick Cohn at Peak Performance. I completed his mental game coaching program after my graduate work. This provided the bridge from academic to practical-applied sports psychology. His program provided the initial base for the programs I’ve developed for athletes. I designed and tested a proprietary mental game assessment that I now have all my athletes take. That provides the initial data – our starting point. I designed programs for several sports. But even within those programs I tailor the specific elements to the needs of the athletes who come to me for help.
What is your favorite mental game technique?
For me, like music, it’s about my mood or the situation so this is tough to say. I would say that historically I’ve used imagery the most and the “announcer” in my head technique (It’s a play by play on my run – think Larry Rawson and Frank Shorter announcing the New York Marathon, only I’m the star). I have a pretty vivid imagination and I can make these so real.
As a competitive runner, what was your biggest mental struggle?
Easy: Over-thinking. The phrase that comes to mind: A thinking athlete is an under-performing athlete. An athlete’s job on competition day is execution – not over thinking. Yes, some decisions have to be made but if you are well trained they are almost automatic.
What is the most common mental struggle that you see in runners?
In youth it is often related to anxiety of racing or having an overly external reference, that is, comparing to others.
More mature runners I see the anxiety and wanting to find the secret to pushing through discomfort.
Is it the same for all types of athletes?
The peer or comparison issue is pretty strong regardless of sport.
Do you think the adage is true that running is 90% mental and 10% physical?
Thank you for this. Total garbage but it makes for a pithy quote.
First, in reality – you can’t truly quantify this.
Second, it is completely subjective (what exactly is 90% of running anyway – 9/10ths of a stride?).
Third, it is unique to the individual (you or I have different issues to different degrees).
Fourth, it is unique to the situation (practice vs competition vs championship). And I’d even throw in a fifth point – it depends on mastery of your sport (if you are still mastering skills – it’s more physical). Mental training cannot compensate for poor physical preparation.
What factor do you think most contributes to an athlete’s mental obstacles?
All behaviors are learned – directly or indirectly. So, how we think is the culmination of experiences, role models, and learning with a pinch of genetics thrown in for good measure. My focus is on Controlling the Controllables. You don’t control any of those things from your past nor your genetics. But you do control NOW. So let’s do something about it, eh?
What has been the most rewarding part of your job so far?
I think like any teacher, seeing the light bulb go off or when you get that call or out of the blue and the athlete says something like… “I couldn’t wait until our next session to tell you – I did it. I did what you taught me and nailed my performance. Thank you!”
Now, for the fun part! In order to win a mental game assessment from Coach Dean (more info can be found here) simply find my post on facebook, instagram, or twitter and reply with the best excuse you have ever used to get out of a run or workout, or reply here in the comments. For an extra entry into the contest, tag a friend or share the post. The winner will be randomly selected. Contest ends 2/10 at 5 PM PST.
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