A CONVERSATION WITH JEFF SYMONDS
ALTHOUGH A TRIATHLETE who follows a welldesigned training and nutrition plan will likely achieve great results, an element often separating champions from their competitors is mental toughness. Experts define mental toughness as the psychological edge enabling you to cope better than your competition with specific demands of your sport and also to be more consistent and stronger than them while also staying determined, focused, confident and in control, all under pressure.
One of the best Canadian triathletes to help illustrate these qualities is Penticton’s Jeff Symonds. Familiar with success as well as adversity, Symonds has made a name for himself with world-class performances and a style of mental toughness he calls “getting ugly.” I spoke with Symonds to get his thoughts and examples on two aspects of mental toughness.
Self-belief is the idea that you will have more confidence and conviction in your racing if you have successfully overcome challenges in training or in previous competitions. Symonds explained that, after he graduated from university, he was getting good results and thought he could compete at a very high level. However, he wondered if the desire to become a professional triathlete was for the right reasons. He wondered if it was just a way to avoid getting a real job. After he came third at the 70.3 World Championships in 2011, he felt validated as an aspiring pro.
Symonds also developed self-belief after overcoming huge adversity at the 2013 Challenge Penticton event. While he was leading the race, he crashed on his bike doing about 60 km/h while descending from Yellow Lake. He ripped his shoulder and banged both hips, but his bike was rideable. Symonds said to himself, “There’s no excuse not to continue” and, drawing from his deep well of mental toughness, he mounted his bike and completed the ride. While in transition, race officials and medics swarmed him. They wanted him to go to the medical tent, but he believed that if he went in, he would never leave it. In his bloodied state and with his shredded clothes he got onto the run course, ran a 2:47 marathon, won the race and made a huge deposit in his self-belief bank.
Another aspect of mental toughness is inner-arrogance, which is believing that one can do anything to which he sets his mind. An example of Symonds employing this method was at the 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kona. Symonds recounted that, as he was cycling back from the turn-around point at Hawi, one of his cranks began loosening. He ignored the issue and continued to pass people hoping a support car would appear soon. That never happened. The crank eventually malfunctioned, forcing him to stop. After hurling a series of “f-bombs” into the lava fields, he composed himself, and dedicated himself to finishing the ride, albeit with one leg. Eventually, the lead female vehicle passed him and he later received mechanical help. Arriving in transition he saw his overall position in the race and felt discouraged, but not for long. Before leaving transition he made a new goal, to see how quickly he could run the marathon. His inner arrogance told him he could do anything he set his mind to. The tactic served him well. He had the third-fastest marathon in the race and proved to himself he was a viable contender the next time he raced there.
Symonds uses self-belief and inner arrogance as components in his approach to mental toughness called “getting ugly.” Whatever you wish to label it, by increasing selfbelief and by tapping into your inner-arrogance, you can achieve better results and have more positive experiences in your races this season.
Kevin Heinz hosts a bi-weekly podcast on health, wellness, and endurance sports at fitspeek.com
Jeff Symonds “getting ugly” at the ITU Multisport World Championships, in Penticton in 2017 ABOVE