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Applying Mental Skills Training to Pacing

This is an excerpt from Pacing by Kevin Thompson.

Mental Skills Training

Four broad categories of intervention have, to a large extent, dominated sport psychology to the point that many believe they are all sport psychology has to offer (Gardner & Moore 2006). These strategies are imagery (Cumming & Ramsey 2009; Holmes & Collins 2001), self-talk (Hardy 2006; Hardy, Oliver & Tod 2009), goal setting (Burton & Naylor 2002; Kingston & Wilson 2009) and arousal control (Murphy, Nordin & Cumming 2008), and each is devoted a chapter in almost all sport psychology textbooks. The following sections briefly review why each intervention could conceivably be applied to pacing.



Imagery involves creating an inner experience that mimics real life, using a combination of senses (Cumming & Ramsey 2009). It may be deliberate and purposeful, but it may also include unstructured daydreaming. Explanations of how imagery might work include the psychoneuromuscular theory (e.g., Suinn 1980) - which states that imagery produces low-level activation in the muscles and generates feedback and improved awareness - and several variations of symbolic learning theory (e.g., Ahsen 1984) - which states that imagery allows the person to form important associations; and, for example, practise timings or the ordering of events. An athlete’s ability to form clear and vivid images and to control the outcomes of imagery, as well as issues such as the speed of imagery (slowed down or sped up), the environment in which imagery occurs (e.g., relaxed or at pitch-side) and even the degree of accuracy of the athlete’s learning (improved technique or understanding) have all been shown to influence the effectiveness of imagery (Cumming & Ramsey 2009; Holmes & Collins 2001).


There is nothing to suggest that imagery could not be used to manage pacing - for example, by mentally practising key accelerations during a race (notably without getting tired!) or by replaying certain experiences of fatigue so as to understand them better for future reference. This area is ripe for research attention and, in the meantime, a promising area for athletes to explore with the goal of eking out any available competitive advantages.



Self-talk refers to the internal voice (although it may also refer to utterances spoken aloud) that often narrates or interprets events as they occur (Hardy 2006; Hardy, Oliver & Tod 2009). Researchers examine the contents of self-talk (positive or negative, motivational or instructional, and so on) as well as the frequency (some negative thoughts may need to be reduced or prevented to boost confidence). Explanations of self-talk are often varied, although priming and attentional cuing (discussed earlier in this chapter) are two strong candidates for explaining why self-talk works. In the press-ups example given earlier, as well as the wall-squat (or ’ski-hold’) test, subjects quickly experience the urge to give up, yet if they deliberately steer their thoughts towards persistence and feeling strong, the impulse to give up is less likely to win out. Hardy, Oliver and Tod (2009) considered these explanations cognitive mechanisms, but also offered motivational (e.g., persistence or desire), behavioural (e.g., instructional cuing) and affective (e.g., mood or emotion) theories for explaining the observed effects of self-talk.


Realistically, self-talk may well operate through various mechanisms to achieve various outcomes. As mentioned, there is reason to believe self-talk could be used to manage pacing; for example, by managing feelings of exertion or discomfort or by cuing key technical or tactical instructions. Also as noted previously, researchers, athletes and their coaches could all stand to benefit from exploring self-talk in relation to pacing.


Goal Setting

Goal setting is a relatively common practice in sport, and psychologists tend to focus on managing how goals are set rather than on persuading athletes to use them. A goal can be defined very simply as something a person is trying to accomplish - that is, the objective or aim of one’s actions (Locke et al. 1981). Under this definition, goals may be unconscious, and so goal setting should involve deliberately and explicitly setting meaningful goals that one wishes to pursue.


In principle, goal setting should involve prioritising objectives and avoiding distractions by steering behaviour towards suitable, rather than unsuitable, pursuits, by producing improved training and practice and (done properly) by increasing self-esteem through the gradual accrual of multiple personally meaningful successes. In this respect, like self-talk, goal setting may work through cognitive, motivational, behavioural and affective channels to help people achieve multiple desired outcomes (Kingston & Wilson 2009).


As applied to pacing, athletes may pursue outcome goals (placings, selections - i.e., in relation to competitors) by focusing on specific performance goals (times, scores - i.e., independent of competitors) and ultimately by deploying process goals (e.g., split times, training intensities or even specifying how to feel at a certain point). Generally, the most beneficial goal-setting programmes are

  • a good mix of outcome, performance and process goals;
  • split into short- and long-term goals (ideally with short-term goals building towards the long-term goals);
  • set by (or in collaboration with) the athlete;
  • pitched at a suitable degree of difficulty; and
  • as specific or precise as realistically possible (e.g., not just ’more confident’ but a rating of confidence improving ’from 6 out of 10 to 9 out of 10’).

Arousal Control

Arousal control is the term used to describe psyching up or calming down, although much research in this area focuses on relaxation and avoiding overarousal (Edwards & Polman 2012). Arousal can be manipulated physically (e.g., by lying down rather than running up the stairs, or by breathing fast and hard rather than slow and deep) and psychologically (e.g., by remembering calm moments or by using self-talk to get angry). Note the use of other mental skills to achieve arousal control, which is itself viewed as a mental skill.


Perhaps the most basic theory of arousal is the inverted U, which depicts an athlete as underaroused, overaroused or ’just right’ (Yerkes & Dodson 1908). Hanin (1980) adapted this theory into the IZOF model (individual zones of optimal functioning). This model considers the athlete’s personality and the nature of the sport, but still ultimately invokes a simple inverted-U model. Liebert and Morris (1967) specified different roles for cognitive versus somatic arousal (or ’anxiety’), with an inverted U for physical arousal but a straight negative relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance. Perhaps the simplest way of viewing arousal control in sport and pacing is the matching hypothesis put forward by Davidson and Schwartz (1976). This hypothesis states that the arousal level for each performance should match the requirements of the task as opposed to the situation (e.g., if performance during training is optimal when calm, then the athlete should seek the same state of arousal even in the presence of a roaring crowd).


Numerous techniques are available to control arousal, especially down-regulation, including various types breathing (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing: in for 5, out for 10), progressive muscle relaxation (PMR; Jacobson 1930), imagery and self-talk, and physically lying down (or bouncing around, depending on what is necessary). Anecdotally, many athletes believe that ’nervous energy’ can undermine pacing, because the nerves of a big event may render them ’pre-tired’ or ’emotionally spent’. This belief would be consistent with Marcora and colleagues’ (2009) findings, reported earlier, that mental fatigue can lead to faster physical fatigue. The specific arousal control requirements of various sports remain relatively poorly understood, and so there is tremendous scope for researchers and athletes to explore how best to use arousal control for pacing in various contexts.


Each mental skill, or strategy, can be used to pursue multiple aims (e.g., performance, confidence, motivation, pacing) and through multiple mechanisms. For example, imagery, self-talk and goal setting could be used to pursue these aims by influencing cognition, behaviours, motivation, confidence or emotions. To a large extent the mechanism will depend on the desired outcomes.


Given the broad applicability of these mental skills, a clear case can be made for applying them to pacing and for researchers to explore this link.

Read more from Pacing: Individual Strategies for Optimal Performance by Kevin Thompson.