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Ask Billy Bean: Getting That Mental Edge

Welcome to a new edition of RealJock.com's "Ask Billy" column with sports and life advice from Billy Bean, former professional athlete and author of "Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and Out of Major League Baseball." Do you have a question for Billy? Send him an email at billy@realjock.com.

Dear Billy,

Thanks for your column! I am an amateur gay athlete who wants to get a lot more competitive and take my sport (distance running) to another level. I train all the time, but I find that during races I sometimes actually do worse than I do during practice runs. I guess I'm just choking, but I find it frustrating. Since you are one of the few out gay pro athletes out there, I was wondering what kind of mental techniques you used to train in general and to prepare/psych up for big games. I think I have the talent, but would love some help on the mental prep front.

Mike in Chicago


Dear Mike,

I am always inspired when I hear someone say they want to get serious about the sport they love. It's hard to explain how gratifying the thrill of competition can be until you've experienced it. So many people in this life shy away from this type of stress, and in truth, it can be a bit scary. However, once you experience a win you thought you might lose, lower your best time in a road race, win a tough tennis match, or begin to see improvement from hard work in the gym, it can transform the way you feel about everything. Your confidence grows, you stand a bit taller, and your next competition seems exciting instead of fearful.

I remember being so intimidated by some of the star players I met my rookie year in the major leagues. It seemed to me that only a couple of months before I was watching them play on TV and imitating them in my dreams, and then suddenly I was playing against them on the same field.

In my experience, I have found talent to be the common denominator of all successful athletes. However, the true difference between good and great is what's "between the ears." To maximize your talent you need to hone your ability to concentrate, focus, and believe in yourself. This is vital to any athlete's success.

As a runner, you may be stuck on an eight-minute mile pace, and when are running it may feel like it is impossible to run faster. I remember training with my buddy Jim Stork and preparing to run in the Florida Gulf Beaches Marathon a few years ago. I wanted to break four hours, and I just made up my mind that I was going to do that.

I ended up running the marathon in 3:57. At first, beating my goal by three minutes made me so happy (and exhausted), but then a few days later I thought to myself, "What if I had wanted to run 3:45 minutes? Could I have done it?" All I would have needed to do was shave 40 seconds or so on each mile, but I had "decided" in my head that beating four hours was sufficient. So I stayed at that pace for the duration of the run.

Where you see yourself finishing is where you will probably end up. Try to visualize improving your time in short training periods. Set small performance goals that won't overwhelm you. It would be crazy to try and run a six-minute mile if you are consistently running eight-minute miles. However, you'll probably find that you can easily shave 15 seconds off your mileage time in a short period of time. Keep making goals that you can accomplish, and then beat them, and then set a new goal 10 or 15 seconds ahead of your last one. In no time you will see significant improvements not only in your running, but also in your ability to overcome different obstacles if life that you have felt were difficult to overcome before.

Consistent training is also key to your success. If you are consistent with your training, then the actual day of the road race will feel no different than your daily workouts. Fear will be a thing of the past, because you will know you've done the work.

I wish you good health, and hope you'll let us know how your next big race goes.

Billy Bean
Miami Beach

Do you have a question for Billy? Send him an email at billy@realjock.com.