Vasa Exclusive Interview: The Unstoppable Paralympian on Mental Toughness – Part 1
Vasa had the privilege of interviewing Elite Paratriathlete and Sports Psychologist Chris Hammer, Ph.D. He recently became the first challenged athlete in history to earn his USA Triathlon elite license, allowing him to compete in professional fields against the elite able-bodied competition. Chris is preparing for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. (Athlete Bio: Chris Hammer — Team USA). In this 2-part interview, Chris answers questions about the effects of psychology on athletic performance and how developing mental toughness has played a vital role in where he is today as a triathlete.
Vasa: In your experience as an athlete and a coach, what have you learned about preparation?
CH: There are so many clichés about preparation; in my experience, they are mostly true. I was the least nervous I have ever been on the start line of a big race before the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2021. And I believe the reason was that I knew in my heart that I did everything I could to put myself in the best possible position to succeed on that day. There was no second-guessing the preparation, and I felt the race was a celebration of all the hard work. So what have I learned about preparation? I learned that I could not rush it and that consistency is the most important aspect of any endurance sports training program.
Vasa: How does expectation differ from possibility regarding mental health and resiliency?
CH: For me, the only expectations I have in triathlon are the things I can control. The best advice you can give an athlete is to focus on “controlling the controllable.” In racing, you cannot control how fast someone else is, so why waste time worrying about that? But I can control my effort, discipline, training, etc., and I expect to do these things to the best of my ability. Possibility, on the other hand, is a bit more exciting because Possibility is about dreams. However, what is possible depends on doing what is expected. You have no right to think about the possibilities if you aren’t doing what is expected of you.
Vasa: What can athletes learn from “failure”?
CH: I heard a quote the other day that was along the lines of “you can’t experience ‘10’s’ in life without experiencing some ‘1’s’ as well”, meaning that the highest highs are often the result of experiencing some pretty low lows. I don’t completely agree with that, but I think there is a lot of truth to the notion that we learn from failure more than we do from success. And failure can be a huge motivational source. For me, had I not finished in 4th place at two consecutive Paralympic Games, there is no way I would still be pursuing triathlon with the intensity that I currently am. However, since I experienced that “failure” by finishing just off the podium, I am hungry to keep pursuing my triathlon dream.
Vasa: Describe cognitive sports thinking. How can it improve performance? (a.k.a. Performance thinking)
CH: There is so much more I want to say here, as my Ph.D. is in sport psychology, but there is not enough room! If you ask most athletes what percentage of their sport is mental, you often hear answers between 50% and 95%. Then if you ask those same athletes how much time they spend training the mental side of the sport, you often hear answers between 0 and 10%. Why is there such a discrepancy? One reason is that most people don’t know how to train their mental side appropriately and thus develop mental toughness.
Vasa: What’s your recommendation to athletes for overcoming their fears in sport and improving mental toughness?
CH: I think the way by which to overcome fears is very individualized. Some people benefit from a sort of “baptism by fire” where they are just thrown into an uncomfortable situation and left to experience it and find their way through. Other people need to be more methodical and slowly expose themselves to that which scares them. Either way, you are facing your fears; it is just the pace you do that is different. I think you need to know what kind of person you are. Are you a “fly by the seat of your pants” type person or a “thoughtful and deliberate” person? If you are the former, I would say jump right into scary situations and learn as you go. If you are the latter, take it a step at a time. The key is to know what kind of person you are and know that you will have to take that first step eventually.
Vasa: Swimming in open water, especially in triathlons, can evoke many fears and anxiety for athletes. What did you do to improve your mental toughness to overcome those fears?
CH: That’s funny because I still feel anxious in open-water situations. At least I feel anxious during open water training swims and course familiarizations. However, once the gun goes off and it becomes a race, all that anxiety goes away. I become singularly focused on my race. The cure for anxiety is simple, though. I just need to spend more time doing open-water swims. I’m sure if I were to swim in open water more than a handful of times each year, I would feel plenty more comfortable. It is similar to the principle of specificity. You improve and get comfortable with what you do. If you only swim in a pool, you are likely only comfortable in a pool.
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