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58 | Mental Skills for Endurance Sports with Jay Barrett: Skill Mastery vs Performance Focus

Jay Barrett is the second returning guest of the show, and for good reason, as he brings a wealth of sport psychology knowledge. He is a mental skills coach working with top athletes and corporate leaders. Today Jay talks about how we can equip ourselves with the mental skills necessary to deal with a changing schedule--whether it is in racing, training, or life.

Jay explores the three key, interrelated areas of sports psychology: orientation, motivators and mindset. We then explain how these factors can be applied to some common scenarios athletes find themselves in and how to best react to the Covid-19 pandemic as an athlete.

"When you're lacking confidence in your fitness, adopting a growth mindset will help you more than having a fixed mindset. There are always positive take-aways from any event."

Three Factors:

As an athlete, we can adopt either the mastery orientation or the performance orientation. Mastery orientation is about being focused on developing a skill and the satisfaction this brings, whereas performance orientation is about being focused on the outcome or result.

Jay explains that those adopting the mastery orientation tend to be better at self-evaluation and are able to adapt their focus and strengths to the exact demands of an event. Will suggests that this adaptability will mean that an athlete could then be more resilient to adverse conditions or bad luck within the race as they wouldn’t let that detach them from their desired performance. If focus needs to be realigned, Jay recommends a RE/SET to take a setback or bad thought and use learned mental skills to come back to your optimal focus.

Motivation can be broken down into both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is similar to the mastery orientation, where the athlete is self-driven by fun, development or learning. Extrinsic motivation is similar to the performance orientation, where the athlete is competitiveness driven by results or podiums. A balance of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is required for optimal performance. The need for balance is emphasised by the “flow state” or optimal performance state. Flow state tends to be reached when you are enjoying what you are doing and you are concentrated on the task at hand. Both of these are more likely to be achieved with intrinsic motivation and mastery orientation of mastering a skill. Somebody who is only extrinsically motivated, may be distracted by the outcome and will struggle to achieve their optimal performance state and potential.

Fixed mindset is when somebody believes that their ability is fixed and won’t change. However, a growth mindset is shown when somebody believes that their ability could be developed. Growth mindset means that you are willing to learn and push yourself, so adopting this is very important for improving sports performance. Matt and Will are both strong believers in training zones, but Will poses the question: Are training zones limiting us to a fixed mindset? Jay explains that they are still very much the useful training tool that we know them as, but that it comes down to how we think about them. For example: “I might not be able to do ____ now, but what must I do to be able to?” He suggests that in a race situation, we could use other indicators and feelings to ensure that you aren’t unnecessarily limiting yourself and your performance to a number that you may define yourself by.


As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a big break from racing and sports events. With the resulting scepticism of events taking place, a common motivator for athletes has been taken away. They explain how to realign focus and be ready if events go ahead by finding intrinsic motivators and adopting the mastery orientation.

A common effect that upcoming events can have on athletes is performance anxiety. As racing resumes post lockdown, Matt shares his worries about an upcoming winter series club race. He trained really well throughout lockdown and was performing well, but has struggled since. He recently completed a power test and thinks that he isn’t fit enough to race and plans to not even go! Jay advises Matt to shift his focus away from the performance orientation of his current power output and potential race result to what he can develop or learn. Matt knows he won’t be as fit, but that he can focus on cornering smoothly and pacing well to still have a good race.

It is also common for an athlete to have set in their head the result that they expect to achieve prior to a race. As an example, Jay could be planning to get 3rd in a running race but two of the top runners in the world then make a surprise entry. If Jay is purely extrinsically motivated, he may either run far beyond his ability in an effort to hold 3rd place for as long as he can before he blows up and drops backwards, or he may not even try because he doesn’t think he can place 3rd anymore. However, if Jay was able to adopt a mastery focus, he could still run the same time that he is capable of and achieve his potential!

Lastly, Jay gives key Action Points for the listeners to use prior to an event:

  1. Write down your performance orientations and goals for the event

  2. Then write down your mindset and what you are able to learn and develop in the event

  3. Lastly, write down your motivators for the event.

Listen to the episode here:

Here is a short snippet from the podcast where Jay discussed using Skill Mastery for Matt's upcoming MTB XC race:

Learn more about Jay Barrett's Consulting Services HERE


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