Sports psychology: how to understand your personality to achieve your goals

Setting goals, retaining motivation and understanding your personality are the three essentials to your best season ever. Prepare for a new personal best with sports psychologist and top triathlete Dr Victor Thompson

Do you know what makes you tick?

Training can be an absolute joy. You feel fit, strong and healthier than ever. But as time passes, your packed schedule or a bout of man flu sets you back, and it’s not too long before your training plan’s out the window and you’re no faster than the year before.


So how can things change? Simple – by developing a better understanding of sports psychology and what makes you tick…

Every second counts

It’s easy to be motivated when your race is two weeks away; it’s more difficult when the race is a few months away. Right now many of you are probably riding the same thought pattern, namely, ‘Does it really matter what I do today? I’ve done some training this week. It’s still a long time off. I could take today off and do some tomorrow instead.’

So what will help to get you out of the door when your enthusiasm dips? Or better still, what can you do to ensure that your enthusiasm never wanes in the first place? The answer lies in understanding the golden triumvirate of triathlon achievement…

1 How to set effective goals that will help you achieve more this year.

2 What motivates you and how you can boost your motivation.

3 How personality and, more specifically, how your ‘triathlete personality’ influences your choices and success.

Goal setting

The single most important thing you can do to improve performance and become more motivated is to set goals. “Why?” we hear you cry. It’s because goals – when set properly – provide appropriate targets and give focus to your training, so you work on the right things, in the right way, and get results. And nothing motivates like success! Getting better, achieving targets and knowing that you’re spending time doing things that lead to improvements is very rewarding.

Most people know that goal setting is important, but many don’t do it, or do so ineffectively. For the New Year many people (not just triathletes) set the same ‘woolly’ or vague goals. Come on now and be honest with yourself – do you fall foul of the following ambivalent behaviour?“I’m going to lose weight.”

“I’m going to get fit.”

“I’m going to improve my running.”

“I’m going to work on my swimming.”

These statements alone aren’t enough because how would you know you’ve reached your target, as none of the goals have a ‘finish line’? And by what date are you looking to achieve these goals? And where are the review dates to check progress towards the goal?

One tried and tested way of setting effective goals is to remind yourself of the old adage: SMARTER athletes set SMARTER goals.
These are…

Specific – state exactly what targets you want to achieve.

Measurable – express the goal in units. For example, distance, speed, time, heart rate and so on. This will help you monitor your progress and achievement.

Acceptable – ensure that it is you who wants it, not someone else.

Realistic – make it challenging but possible.

Time limited – you have a deadline for achieving your goal.

Exciting – it will interest and inspire you.

Recorded – you’ve noted it somewhere so it’s visible and you remain committed to it.

Just as three sports make up triathlon, there are three types of goals to aim for: outcome, performance and process…

Outcome goals: These relate to your final position or result (to win, qualify or beat someone). Outcome goals can be motivating but achieving them is often determined to a large extent by factors outside your control (for example, who else turns up for the race) and, therefore, can often lead to disappointment.

Performance goals: These are more useful because they’re based on your own performance and are unaffected (or affected only a little in triathlon) by other people (for example, a time for a total race, your swim time, your average heart rate for the bike segment and so on).

Process goals: These concern what you’re doing at that particular moment. Process goals may include physical aspects (level of tension, your heart rate), your behaviour (level of effort, leg speed on the run, emphasising
the upstroke when pedalling), your thoughts (positive, focused on relevant factors) and your emotions (helpful ones such as excitement and enjoyment).

Both outcome and performance goals can be developed using the SMARTER goals framework. Process goals don’t fit into the framework so easily because they relate to what you are doing here and now. If you perform well moment-to-moment, this will give you your greatest chance of achieving your performance goal and, consequently, your outcome goal.

Therefore, when training and racing, most time should be spent with your mind focusing on process goals for the session or race; they provide the building blocks to reach your outcome goals.

Long, medium and short

As the SMARTER framework shows, for goals to be effective they need to be time limited – to be given a deadline. It’s hard to keep motivated for big goals far in the future. For instance, if your goal is to represent Great Britain in 2018, it takes some commitment to retain motivation in 2016-17. So you might be tempted to take it easy for a bit, believing that you still have plenty of time.

Assuming that qualifying to represent GB is an achievable goal for you, then it’ll help to add some medium- and shorter-term goals to act as milestones to monitor your progress and provide some more immediate targets to
shoot for.

Working back from this long-term goal for ’18, you might sit down now and set several performance goals for ’17 and then start setting some process goals. Here’s how it might look:

Long-term (outcome) goal

Qualify to represent GB in World Age Group Champs in summer ’18.

 Medium-term (performance) goals

Complete ’17 Windsor Olympic Triathlon in sub 2:45hrs.

Complete ’17 Swanage Olympic Triathlon in sub 2:50hrs.

Short-term (performance) goals

Swim 1,500m in local pool in sub 29mins.

Complete 5km run in sub 20:40mins.

Complete local 25-mile time trial in sub 1:15hrs.

Process goals

Your triathlon process goals could look a little like this…

Swim: Focus on hands entering the water closer to your nose and rotating your hips.

Bike: Work on pulling up on pedal and keeping cadence above 100rpm for 50% of rides to help efficiency/economy.

Run: Focus on fast feet and pushing off from the balls of your feet.

With these goals in place, you’re more likely to be motivated to start training now.

All about motivation

Now you’ve set some goals you’re well on your way to being more motivated over the next year. But that’s not all you can do to drive you onwards and upwards in ’17…

Motivation is about being keen to do the things required to develop as an athlete (such as the right training, eating what’s good for you and getting enough sleep). It’s about having the drive to achieve, to persevere, to meet and overcome challenges.

Athletes are motivated by both internal and external factors. Internal factors are those that are personal to you (for example, personal standards, holding a certain heart rate, the feel of running, the rhythm of swimming and the camaraderie felt when out with friends on a training ride).

External factors are those that you don’t necessarily experience physically during racing or training (like winning a trophy, getting your name in the press, receiving a “Well done” from people you respect or monetary rewards).

Athletes usually have a combination of internal and external motivation, and that mixture can change over time.

Many studies have shown that internal motivation is thought to be preferable for most athletes because it’s more within your control and less dependent on what other people do (for example, how well they do on the day or whether they acknowledge your performance). So it’s generally more reliable.

For instance, an internally motivated triathlete would feel good about their performance if they performed well compared to their own standards – by setting a new personal best – irrespective of whether someone else (or many people) went faster than them. This triathlete might think, ‘This is great! I’m getting faster and faster. My performance is really improving.’

For another triathlete – one who is more externally motivated – the same situation might result in disappointment despite a new PB because they didn’t win. This externally motivated triathlete might think, ‘What am I doing this for if, no matter how fast I go, I still get beaten?’

What motivates you?

As you can see, there are a number of important reasons why triathletes train and race, and different factors motivate them to get out on a cold winter’s day. You should ask yourself why you train, why you took up triathlon and why you’re still a triathlete. As well as reminding yourself of your answers to why you train and compete, here are some other ways to boost your motivation…

Set effective goals

At the risk of labouring the point, this is the most effective way to boost motivation – just do it.

Note and celebrate progress

It’s great to see yourself improve and progress towards your goals. So set up training to improve each key area – endurance, speed, strength, technique, flexibility, nutrition and positive mental attitude. Monitor your performance in these key areas during training – don’t just leave it to race day. Look for improvements and, when you see them,
take pride in your progress. But remember: training has its up and downs. So don’t become discouraged if you reach a plateau. Instead, look for ways that you can make improvements again.

Persist: Remain committed to your goals. Believe in yourself. Be patient and persevere.

Train with others: Meeting others to train with helps to motivate you to turn up and often makes the session easier to do. This is what one of Britain’s greatest triathletes, Julie Dibens, says about her winter rides, “Some weekends I make sure I have guys meeting me down the road. They’ll call me if I’m not there, tell me to hurry and wait until I turn up. That always gets me out of the door.”

 Enter a competition: It’s a fact: most triathletes like to compete. It’s summer now and there are many opportunities to compete. It might not be the same in the depths of winter but there are still numerous chances to satiate your competitive urges. What about entering a race in your gym, a swimathon, a mountain-bike race, off-road duathlon or cross-country, fell or road-running races? You probably won’t be in peak condition, but the events will give you focus, a reason for training and a competitive outlet.

Mix it up: Following the same feet or black line in the pool, riding the same route or running the same roads can be dull. Counter this by introducing variety – swim in a different pool, move down a lane if possible and focus more on technique; bring a map and explore different rides, jump on your mountain bike or go away for a weekend to ride; run in some other part of the UK.

Book a winter or spring training camp: This will give a clear focus to your training to be in good shape for going away. The prospect of better weather, a change of scenery and a break from work are things to look forward to. And, in this day and age, it needn’t break the bank.

Develop your imagery skills and ‘see’ yourself perform: Athletes spend a lot of time thinking about performing better and reaching their goals. However, few spend time using their imagery (or visualisation) powers effectively. One example is by drawing on each sense to create vivid images or applying them to a broad range of areas. This is one psychological skill that can really help athletes and be practised at any time of the year. Why not develop this skill now and use it to boost your motivation and improve the prospects of getting out to train?

You’re going to have to use your imagination here so think creatively… The day you’re due to do a long evening run, you could pause during your lunch break or when you’re sitting on the bus on the way home from work, close your
eyes for a few moments and see yourself arriving home.

You’re keen to get changed into your running gear and you’ve already chosen what to wear. Imagine yourself getting changed right away, doing some preliminary stretches and warm-up exercises, then heading out the door. See yourself run whatever the weather (cold, cool, still, windy, dry, damp or wet), feel the weather on your body and be fine with this.

If your session is going to include some drills, hill reps or fartlek running, see yourself complete this. Notice how it feels when you run. Imagine completing your planned routine, and notice how rewarding it feels to finish another quality training session.

If you do this type of imagery during the day, you’ll arrive home primed to get changed and out for your run. You’ll be less likely to dither or find other things to do and possibly skip your session. As you can see, imagery can help you do much more than dream of having an awesome race.

Too motivated?

It may surprise you when I say that yes, you can become too motivated. This is because if you’re too motivated you’ll keep training and push no matter what, which will almost certainly lead to under-recovery, overtraining, injury, increased chance of illness, returning to training too soon and, not surprisingly, poor performance.

Over-motivation isn’t a problem for most but, if you have the tendency to push too hard, ignoring what your body might be telling you, then it would be useful for you to put some checks in place.

These might include ensuring that your programme has sessions with lower effort (be it a slower pace, lower heart rate or less perceived exertion), periods with lower effort (set aside easier days, weeks and months in the year) and by using cues to signal impending difficulties (check your waking heart rate or get feedback through regular sports massage).

It’s important to point out that there might be times when you can’t turn things around by working on your motivation alone. There might be other, more substantial, physical barriers to overcome, such as those faced when returning to the sport following an injury or some other significant setback, depression or a loss of confidence.

If this is the case, more comprehensive help can be very useful to get the athlete back to performing and enjoying their sport. Details of such help can be found at

What’s your personality?

So we’ve covered the relevance of goals and motivation. However, it’s also relevant to think about how your personality affects what you do and, more specifically, how you train. But first, what do we mean by personality? Personality is thought of as the set of characteristics that influence what you think, feel and do.

These characteristics begin to show during childhood and remain with you throughout life. They are the blend of characteristics that make you unique and no two personalities are the same.

By better understanding your personality, you’re in a stronger position to predict what you’ll think and do in certain situations. We’re talking serious self-analysation here! We’ve taken it a step further and thought about how some relevant personality characteristics relate to your triathlete personality – how you are likely to think, feel and behave as a triathlete.

Do you still remain to be convinced that personality is important? If so, it will help to read what some of the elites said when we asked them about the importance of triathlete’s personality on the triathlete’s performance…

“It’s important, of course. You have to have the physical abilities but your personality has an influence on how may per cent of your abilities you can use,” Faris Al-Sultan.

“Personality is very important; any athlete needs to be incredibly persistent to achieve success,” Stephen Bayliss.


Click here to find a triathlete personality questionnaire you can take to find out what type of triathlete you are