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The Champion Mindset: An Athlete's Guide to Mental Toughness

The Champion Mindset: An Athlete's Guide to Mental Toughness

by Joanna Zeiger


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Champions, as the familiar adage preaches, are not born—they're made. Reaching the top of any sport, or any aspect of life, takes years upon years of dedication and proper preparation. But if there's a huge pool of individuals who have undertaken the same commitment and steps towards becoming the best, what truly separates the winners from everyone else? Joanna Zeiger believes proper mental preparation is the answer.

The Champion Mindset is a much-needed and long overdue look into how to program a competitor's mind to achieve optimal success. Changing behaviors and ways of thinking are never easy, but the chapters in this book aim to simplify this process to make it manageable and achievable. This book is for every athlete—from the weekend warrior, who wants to complete in his or her first 5k running race, to those who have aspirations of one day becoming Olympians and world champions.

The Champion Mindset is a compendium of Zeiger's own personal journey from struggling novice swimmer to Olympian and World Champion. Through steps including: Proper Goal Setting, Keeping it Fun, Building Your Team, Intention in Training, Improving Motivation, Promoting Self-Confidence, and Mind/Body Cohesion, among others, Zeiger uses her decades of personal experience, doctoral-level research, and professional success, to prepare readers to go all-in with their mental game.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250096715
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2017
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,165,964
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.28(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

JOANNA ZEIGER, PhD. is an accomplished Olympic athlete, researcher, and coach. She placed 4th in the Sydney Olympics and was the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Champion. She excelled at all 3 distances in the sport of triathlon, winning races in the Olympic, Half Ironman, and Ironman distances. She is a 7x Olympic trials qualifier in marathon, triathlon and swimming. The Champion Mindset is her first book. She is the co-creator of Race Ready Coaching.

Read an Excerpt

The Champion Mindset

An Athlete's Guide to Mental Toughness

By Joanna Zeiger

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Joanna Zeiger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09671-5


The Mental Game Exposed

Memorial Day weekend,2000. Dallas, Texas. It was the first ever U.S. Triathlon Olympic Trials. The triathlon was to debut in September at the Sydney Olympics. The distance was a 0.9 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike, and 6.2 mile run (1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, and 10 km run). Twenty-five women earned the right to race at the Trials based on their International Triathlon Union (ITU) ranking, where a top-125 ranking was needed. Two U.S. women would make the team in Dallas; one person had already been selected in April based off of a finish in a race of the same distance on the Olympic course. This was my one shot, since I did not receive an invite to the April race because my ITU rank was not high enough.

I was nervous, but not overly so. The pressure was on the other athletes who were ranked higher and had many more years of international racing experience. I was a veritable newbie with only a handful of international races under my belt. As a PhD student who'd turned professional just two years earlier, I didn't have the time or luxury of globe-trotting. None of that mattered, though, when the gun went off. My competitive instincts took over. I knew what to do. I felt nothing but the desire to win. To push myself to whatever limits I had on the day.

I came out of the water in a group of thirteen women, sixty seconds behind the two lead women, Sheila Taormina and Barb Lindquist. The two in the front rode like they were in a perfectly practiced ballet. Their synchrony was in stark contrast to the pell-mell of our group of thirteen. We couldn't get organized; indeed, it almost seemed like there was an intentional slowing down of our group to provide the front-runners with more of an advantage. By the time we hit the transition to the run, we were almost four minutes in arrears to Sheila and Barb.

Four minutes! That is essentially an eternity in triathlon parlance. Over a 6.2 mile run, that equates to roughly forty seconds per mile. Making up that amount of time is virtually unheard of at that level. When my feet hit the ground, I scrambled through the transition with those numbers floating through my head. I was angry. Angry that our group of thirteen could be so complacent. Angry that I was now racing for an alternate spot. Angry that my favorite hat had flown off within the first two minutes of the run and now the sun was relentlessly beating down on my head. I tried to ignore the oppressive heat and humidity and the fact that two days before the race I'd had to sit down on a park bench in the middle of a short, easy run due to dizziness from the Texas swelter.

I settled into a rhythm. I ran hard. I ran off my anger. Within two miles, I started hearing that Barb was faltering in the heat and that I had a sizable gap to the women behind me. Suddenly, the impossible became possible, as halfway through the run I was in second place, in contention for a coveted Olympic spot. All I had to do now was stay hydrated, stay calm, and not succumb to the heat and the excitement.

The homestretch was long and crowded with spectators who cheered for me as I made my way across the line. I raised my arms in jubilation. Years of training, injuries, dealing with asthma, and the complexities of being a student-athlete all came into focus. None of it mattered anymore. I was an Olympian. Sheila was waiting at the line. We embraced. No longer competitors, we were teammates.

Using the mental game to augment physical fitness

I'm often asked how much of my athletic success can be credited to my physical abilities and how much can be attributed to my mental makeup. Champions, as the familiar adage preaches, are not born — they're made. And to a large degree that's true. Reaching the top of any sport, or anything in life for that matter, takes years upon years of dedication and proper preparation. But if there's a huge pool of individuals who have undertaken the same commitment to become the best at something, and each has undertaken similar steps toward that end, what truly separates the winners from everyone else?

There was a time when I used to believe that excellence was primarily based on putting in the work. Those who touched the wall first in a swimming race or broke the finish tape in a running or triathlon competition just trained harder than everyone else. There is no substitute, after all, for hard work. At least that's the lesson that was continually drilled into my head during my formative years. At some point, though, as I continued to achieve higher and higher levels of success, it occurred to me that the prevailing wisdom was just plain wrong. What truly distinguishes the champions is their mental edge.

The Champion Mindset: An Athlete's Guide to Mental Toughness is a much-needed and long-overdue look into how to program a competitor's mind to achieve optimal success. Changing behaviors and ways of thinking are never easy, but the chapters in this book aim to simplify this process to make it manageable and achievable. This book will appeal to a wide array of athletes — from the weekend warrior, who wants nothing more than to complete his or her first 5 km running race or marathon, to those seeking to improve their personal records in the swimming pool or on the triathlon course, to those who dream of one day qualifying for the Ironman World Championship, and to those who have aspirations of one day becoming Olympians and World Champions.

Get with the program

The turning point, for me, came when I was fourteen. My fledgling athletic career, rocky from the start, had taken shape some seven years earlier in a San Diego swimming pool. My parents had joined a swim and racket club, and since they knew my baby sister and I would be spending a lot of time in and around the pool, they enrolled us in swim lessons so that we'd be water-safe. It wasn't love at first dip for me — and I certainly wasn't a natural, à la Missy Franklin, a multiple Olympic medalist. My initial efforts were clumsy: a bizarre collection of body contortions, uneven kicks, and desperate arm strokes. I was actually rejected on my first swim team tryout, relegated to further lessons. Gradually, though, I started to see improvement.

Anyway, that pivotal day when I was fourteen, our team traveled up to Mission Viejo to participate in one of the biggest meets of the summer. At some point in the seven years from the beginning of my swim career to that day in Mission Viejo, I'd become enamored with the adrenaline rush that comes from trying to do something as wondrously pure as racing across a swimming pool as quickly as possible. On this particular occasion, though, I seemed to be lugging around a dark cloud tethered to the shoulder straps on my swimsuit because my coach, Mr. Weckler, had taken it upon himself to sign me up for the 400 meter Individual Medley. I'd been moping about the development for days, because the 400 IM is one of those dreaded events that most levelheaded swimmers try to avoid. It's so intimidating and grueling, in fact, that even Michael Phelps, the greatest 400 IMer in history, has been adamant in his refusal to add it back into his schedule no matter how many times he makes a comeback.

I wish I could say that my race that day proved to be an epiphany for me because I passed the arduous eight-lap test with flying colors. It would be nice to report that my performance was so stellar that I not only won the race but I had everyone in attendance on their feet as I basked in their ovation. The truth of the matter, though, was that I stunk up the joint. I swam poorly from the moment I hit the water and things only got worse from there. I finished the race in one piece, but just barely. Afterward, as I made my way up to Coach Weckler, my cheeks drenched with tears and my body racked in sobs, I blubbered that I hated the 400 IM and that I'd never swim it again for as long as I lived. My coach, never the warm and fuzzy type to begin with, went absolutely ballistic. I can still picture how his face flushed to a hue of red I'd never seen before and how a vein popped out of his forehead that resembled a grotesque worm. "I don't want to hear this crap from you, Joanna!" he bellowed in front of my teammates, parents, and anyone else who was within earshot. "You had a bad swim. So what?! You'd better get with the program because some day the 400 IM is going to be your best event!" Needless to say, it wasn't quite the reaction I was looking for. I could feel myself shrinking to something smaller than that alien creature above his eyebrows as I furtively looked for somewhere, anywhere, to hide. I don't know how I found the wherewithal to slink away, but I did. And at first, once I was alone and had finally regained my composure — partially, no doubt, because I realized there was no one around to witness my theatrics — I was mad as hell. I wasn't angry because the coach had called me out like that. I was ticked off because I didn't want to be a good 400 IMer. I mean, why couldn't he have chewed me out for having swum a lousy 50 meter freestyle? Heck, I would have even toed the line over a crappy 100 meter butterfly!

As it turned out, of course, my coach was right — 100 percent right. Four years later I qualified for my first of seven U.S. Olympic Team Trials in, you guessed it, the 400 IM — and that occasion marked the official launch of my elite athletic career.

Are you psyched up?

Does the mental game matter? As someone who's been fortunate to have reached the very pinnacle of her sport, I can unequivocally say that proper mental preparation is usually the difference between success and failure. In hindsight, my 400 IM that day in Mission Viejo was doomed even before my family and I had arrived at the swim facility after our long commute. In swimmer lingo, I'd psyched myself out rather than getting psyched up. I'd sabotaged whatever chance I had for performing well because my head wasn't in it. Michael Jordan didn't become the greatest basketball player in history by accident. Soccer great Lionel Messi doesn't score goals because he's wishy- washy about his abilities. He excels because he's convinced that every time he takes a shot the ball will wind up in the back of the net.

It's one of those fundamental lessons that I find myself repeating to the athletes I coach, time and again as they approach their big competition. Stay positive. If you're not entirely convinced that you will perform well, odds are you won't. It's as simple as that, and this book will explain why. Before you begin your journey of improved mental toughness, you can take my mental toughness quiz, which I dubbed the Sisu Survey (Sisu is the Finnish word for grit). You can use this quiz to determine your level of mental toughness as measured by eight separate mental toughness traits. You can access the quiz at

As I look back over the course of my own career, that moment — where I felt embarrassed in front of friends and family — was life-changing. I didn't know it at the time, but I'd reached a crossroads of sorts. As I sat by myself licking my wounds, I realized I was either going to learn from my mistake or I wasn't. Essentially, I was being presented with the choice of either steering clear of the difficult challenges that lay ahead in my athletic career or of tackling them head-on.

But what exactly did Coach Weckler's "get with the program" speech mean? For starters, it meant trusting my coach, trusting my training, and above all, trusting my abilities. He had seen something in me that I myself had overlooked. He could see that I was adaptable, gifted in my stroke versatility, and that I possessed an uncanny knack for endurance. He was also savvy enough to realize that I was someone who needed to be tested, continually, because he could tell that I had the resolve to persevere in the face of adversity.

I'm certainly not advocating that athletes need to be humiliated in order to perform to the best of their abilities. I didn't know a thing about sports psychology at the time and, clearly, neither did my coach, whose tact and timing were about as dreadful as that 400 IM I'd swum. But had I not experienced that wake-up call when I was an insecure teenager — still trying to find her footing as a competitive athlete — nothing that transpired later in my career would have occurred. I never would have earned berths on Olympic and national teams. I never would have won a World Championship or set a world record. And I certainly never would have captured all those national and international wins.

The endurance sports explosion

Ours is a nation of overachievers. How else can one explain the explosive growth in endurance sports? When the New York City Marathon debuted in 1970, just 127 competitors were interested in seeing if they could run 26.2 miles. Today, over fifty thousand runners make the annual pilgrimage on race day and tens of thousands more are turned away because of field size constraints. When the inaugural Ironman Triathlon was unveiled in Hawaii in 1977, a mere fifteen competitors attempted the quirky swim/bike/run test of stamina. Today, Ironman has become a true global phenomenon and hundreds of thousands of athletes clamor for spots in dozens of sold-out races staged around the world.

Participation in running, swimming, cycling, triathlon, Spartan racing, mountain climbing, and other gut-busting activities has never been higher. Americans seem to seek out bigger tests of endurance each and every year and the numbers reflect that. USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming have a combined membership in excess of 400,000. An estimated 46.6 million cyclists participated in various organized cycling events in 2013. Last year there were over 19 million finishers in U.S. running events (with a whopping 500,000 of those finishes coming in marathons). And in the sport of triathlon, 550,000 active members of USA Triathlon generate roughly 2 million race finishes per year.

Winning the mental game

There are countless books devoted to the physical side of endurance sports. Anyone Googling "How do I run a half marathon?" will be presented with dozens of strategies and training plans to get from the starting line to the finish line. Interested in triathlon? There are an equal number of books devoted to making your multisport adventure an enjoyable one.

This book's approach, however, is different. The Champion Mindset:An Athlete's Guide to Mental Toughness will not only be a compendium of my own personal journey from struggling novice swimmer to Olympian and World Champion, but it will offer a step-by-step guide to help athletes of all levels develop their own mental edge so they can achieve their athletic dreams. Among the topics that will be covered are proper goal setting, keeping it fun, building your team, intention in training, improving motivation, promoting self-confidence, mind/body cohesion, bringing it on race day, coping with setbacks, taking ownership of your career, and becoming a joyous athlete for life. These broad topics will be broken down and examined in detail, with tips and tricks to help athletes change their way of thinking so that when it's their turn to shine, they will be ready.

A great many athletes know how to train their bodies. Far too few, as I've seen from personal experience, know how to properly train their minds. Many years of helping athletes of all ages and abilities has proven to me that with proper education and a little nudge, athletes are able to transform not just their physical game, but their mental one as well.

Endurance sports as a metaphor for life

Train the brain as well as the body. It may seem like a lot of bother for what is essentially a hobby. Perhaps. I have found, though, when my athletic life is harmonious, it spreads into all other facets of my life. Starting off the day with a good run allows me to focus better on my work, I am a more agreeable person to be around, and my sleep is sounder. And the rewards of a good workout are immediate, in the form of an endorphin high that can last all day.

Christian Taylor, an Olympic and World Champion gold medal–winning triple jumper from the U.S., explained his perspective on being a professional athlete and how it relates to life outside of athletics: "I recognize this life is not normal, but it is important to remember that one day this phase of my life will be over, so it is important to take away bits and pieces from the sport to take into the next chapter of my life. I treat track and field like my internship for my next life." Taylor went even further by describing how sports readied him for life. "One day my track and field career will be over and I'll have no real work experience either. Fortunately, I am responsible with money. ... I had to make sacrifices, but the process was a good life lesson for me."

It is said that participation in endurance sports is a selfish endeavor. Athletes are often made to feel guilty for their training regimens and commitment to racing. Cat Morrison, a multiple duathlon World Champion, hit the nail on the head when she said, "Being an athlete, especially in an individual sport can be a selfish pursuit. However, it does not mean that you have to be personally selfish. In my own journey I have always believed that the help and support that I received and demanded of others by necessity required that I gave of my time and abilities towards others."


Excerpted from The Champion Mindset by Joanna Zeiger. Copyright © 2017 Joanna Zeiger. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 The Mental Game Exposed 1

2 Proper Goal Setting 24

3 Building Your Team 46

4 Taking Ownership 64

5 Intention 97

8 Developing Confidence 118

7 Racing 137

8 Mind/Body Cohesion 164

9 Overcoming Obstacles 179

10 Finding Meaning 205

Epilogue 223

Acknowledgments 231

Notes 235

Bibliography 245

Index 251

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