Mindfulness techniques from Olympic triathlete Simon Whitfield
— By Rachel Sovka
There were only three words on Simon Whitfield’s mind when the famed Olympian approached the finish line of the most significant triathlon of his life: “Chase the ball.”
Of course there’s no ball in the sport of triathlon but to Whitfield it was a reminder that like a kid just chasing a ball, he could draw new energy and endurance from that same sense of carefree playfulness to make a legendary comeback.
He passed the leader at the last minute to win gold for Canada in one of the most memorable moments of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
CHASE THE BALL
Whitfield, 42, is known for his inspiring give-it-all-you’ve-got kick at the end of a race, coming back from behind the pack to seize the podium. Many athletes wonder how to harness this frame of mind; what does he tell himself in those moments of tenacity to push through exhaustion and finish triumphant?
The answer is mindfulness. Whitfield shares three strategies for tapping into your best athletic performance and your most fulfilled self, starting with learning to chase that ball.
“As a kid, I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons,” Whitfield says. “That made me better at vivid imagination than athleticism, and I became good at envisioning outcomes.”
When other competitors are pushing hard at the end of a race, Whitfield says he had already scripted it in his mind, and like many elite athletes who use visioning techniques, he watched the story he wrote come to life.
“I didn’t look at it as trying to push beyond a physical barrier. Instead I would remind myself, ‘I’ve already seen this, I’ve imagined this frame by frame.’ ”
But manifesting the vision he had played in his mind didn’t mean it wouldn’t hurt to go all-out at the very end of a hard race. That’s where the ball comes in.
“When you don’t think of it in terms of defeating a pain barrier but just like you’re a kid chasing a ball, it becomes fun again,” he says, “and having fun in training is so important.”
But even the ball-chasing master himself admits that we can lose our sense of play when the race of life gets tough.
“It’s hard to play when you’ve lost your joy or direction, that can feel isolating,” Whitfield says.
That’s why he likes to spend time centreing himself by stand-up paddleboarding on the ocean.
Like many mindfulness practices, Whitfield’s recommendation to maintain your joy in sport and in life is about changing your perspective.
As an athlete who enjoyed the meditative qualities of training by himself, Whitfield finds value in getting out on the water alone on his paddleboard away from all the noise.
“It’s an exodus, to step beyond yourself,” Whitfield says about the wide-open waters around Victoria, B.C., where he lives.
“Your story gets repeated to you a lot in the media, and it can be hard not to become infatuated with your own narrative because you can get a strong sense of self in telling and hearing your story, but the flip side is that you have to find space away from that to ask who you really are.”
Whitfield’s favourite place to do that and be “defiantly vulnerable” is floating among seals in the Pacific Ocean, with the mountain range in the background and the city fading away the further he paddles from shore.
“It’s a peaceful way to tune out, but it also acts as a recalibration when I take a dip into the cold water to neutralize,” Whitfield says.
He knows that when athletes are constantly engaged in skill attention and intensive focus during training, they can be so fixated on what they’re doing that it’s possible to lose a sense of their wholeness and an identity beyond themselves as an individual.
Whitfield’s advice is to get some space outside to think and participate in an activity that isn’t your main competition.
Specifically, Whitfield suggests establishing a daily yin yoga practice, as a commitment to having "empathy for your future self, and a goal well beyond the realm of competition.”
“Since it’s very hard for athletes to ‘turn off’ the preoccupation of skilled attention, yin yoga teaches us to dissipate that energy through breath control,” he says, encouraging athletes to make space for the “slow and measured release, as compared to the fire so often required to generate the energy forces required in any form of competition.”
For Whitfield, getting space also means reducing background noise like social media and unnecessary connectivity. In fact, Whitfield dislikes being tethered to technology so much that he uses an old flip phone, and his voicemail will inform you in friendly but no uncertain terms just how unlikely he is to receive your message.
“I really think people are on their phones so much that we’ve lost self authority of our own attention spans,” he says. “I don’t want to be told by Apple what to be interested in or captivate my discipline more than real life.”
Not being constantly online helps Simon to cut out distractions and remain present in each moment; he recommends the same for athletes trying to develop the discipline of attention required for training and performance.
LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO
But a mindful perspective is a precarious balance to maintain. Whitfield believes that maintenance is best preserved when you look where you want to go.
“Because ‘the world is what you look at,’ ” Whitfield reminds himself, a quote he attributes to Ralph Emerson, and contemplates frequently in his mindfulness practice.
“If you focus on the negative or things you’re afraid of, that’s what will happen,” he explains. “When you’re skiing and you don’t want to go off the cliff, don’t look at the cliff: look ahead, around the bend, look where you want to go. All that exists is what you give attention to and focus on; if that’s your vision for success, that’s what will manifest.”
Whitfield says that belief is the mother of all reality, and determination to be successful is all about who put their eyes on it the most.
“Everyone is in the same boat,” he says. “It comes down to adding up who thought about it, who saw it in their mind the most, and engaging that mindset or not.”
Instead of being beaten down by the mental strain of competition, Whitfield tries to recognize what he calls ‘the poetry of sport,’ something he learned from his father.
“When I came second in Beijing, I was only disappointed until my dad said, ‘Welcome to the poetry of sport,’ ” he recalls. “My dad told me that ‘Eight years ago when you won in Sydney, you out-sprinted a German who then inspired another German who eight years later got you back.’ That’s the poetry of sport.”
Seeing athletic competition in this odic ebb and flow is a generational practice Whitfield demonstrates for his own kids as well.
“As a parent, I never ask ‘How did you do?” he says. “True athletic competition is not about ‘Did you win?’ It’s about ‘Did you give a great effort, experience the freedom to express your gifts, and take joy in participating in the theatre of sport?’ ”
It turns out this question, as well as gaining a mindful perspective and performance, doesn’t have to be complicated or too poetic. When asked if he uses certain music or wearable data trackers to heighten his strategic mental performance, Whitfield replies with simplicity:
“Just enjoy and embrace your training,” he says. “If you need to focus on something, focus on maintaining your breath. Fear fears breath.”
It’s simple messages like these that appear to have influenced Whitfield the most during and after his career as an Olympic triathlete, and that he passes along to others. It’s easy to feel inspired from talking with him for any amount of time, that is, of course, if you don’t get his voicemail.
So whether you’re inspired to go out for a paddleboard, yoga, put down your phone, or embrace the poetry of sport, when you hit the wall of exhaustion physically or emotionally, just remember your sense of play in those three words: chase the ball.