World Champion Triathlete Joanna Zeiger: Mental Toughness, Confidence & the Perfectionism Dilemma

Joanna Zeiger is an Olympian and professional triathlete who placed 4th at the Sydney Olympics in the Triathalon and went on to become the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Champion. Joanna is also the founder of Race Ready Coaching, where she mentors endurance athletes in running, cycling, and triathlon. Joanna earned a Ph.D. in Genetic Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University and is the founder of the Canna Research Group, a consortium of researchers and medical professionals who study the relationship between cannabis and chronic pain. Joanna is also the author of she is the author of “The Champion Mindset, An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness.”


Lawrence Rosenberg: I’m going to quote you here “There was a time when I used to believe that excellence was primarily based on putting in the work. Those who touched the wall first in swimming, or broke the finish tape in a running or triathlon competition, just trained harder than everyone else. There is no substitute after all for hard work. At least that’s the lesson that was continually drilled into my head during my formative years. At some point, though, as I continued to achieve higher and higher levels of success, it occurred to me that the prevailing wisdom was just plain wrong. How so?

Joanna Zeiger: Well, of course, hard work is needed. I have seen plenty of talented athletes not put in the hard work, athletes way more talented than I ever did not achieve the same success. And so, yes, you need hard work. But it’s not train until you drop. You know, that was my coach that I had when I was in high school. I mean, that was his philosophy, swim until your arms fall off, go till you blow, no pain, no gain, that was sort of the prevailing wisdom. But one of the things that I like to tell people is that part of mental toughness is also knowing when to stop and when to back off, and when to say, hey, I’ve had enough, because you see, so many athletes get injured and they get burnt out, or they lose their edge. And a lot of that comes because they’ve just trained too hard. And the body can only handle so much. The mind is infinitely malleable, it can handle so much, but the body can’t, eventually it’s going to break and it’s just going to say, ‘hey back off, I’ve had enough’ and some people heed that and some people don’t, and this applies to work as well … And the other component besides knowing when to say when is, one of the common themes among all of the people that I’ve interviewed, and in the podcasts I’ve listened to, was joy, they all had joy. And if you don’t have joy, in what you’re doing, you’re not going to be successful at it or as successful as you can be. So the prevailing wisdom of just go hard, that will take you to a certain level, but you also have to have these other things, enjoying what you’re doing, like true joy for it, and it’s not joy every day. I can’t say that every single time I went out to train, I was like, whoo, I’m going out to train today, this is, this is amazing. I mean, I trained in terrible weather, I trained when I wasn’t feeling well, I trained when I just didn’t feel like it, most of the time, I loved what I was doing, and I loved racing, and I love the competitors. And, and in the book, a lot of people who went through slumps said, that they went through a slump because they lost the joy. And, once they got the joy back, they were able to find their stride. And so it’s knowing when your body has had too much, and also the joy along with the hard work.”

Lawrence Rosenberg: Quoting you from the book: at the tender age of 18, I understood the difference between a realistic goal and a foolhardy goal. The overused adage of you can achieve whatever you want, if you try hard enough, is the crux of the American dream. We’re told from a very young age that we can be or do anything we want. I believe that is false and misleading. You cannot achieve whatever you want. There. I said it.” That’s a hardcore statement. I want you to delve into that because certainly there have been accomplishments that are outlandish by the standards of most, but they get achieved because there have been people that have dared to dream extraordinarily big. How do you know that you can accomplish something grand if you don’t believe that anything is possible, or at least attempt the impossible?

Joanna Zeiger: “I think the human race and any particular individual can do amazing things and have amazing capacities. And you know, we see it across sports or we see it in business. There are business people that have done amazing things and created amazing things, but as a single individual, we all have limitations. And, if I had chosen the sport of running instead of triathlon, I would not have been an Olympic marathoner that wasn’t going to be my fate in life, I am not a good enough runner to do that. So we all have a particular potential that we should be able to maximize, but not all of us are going to be Olympians or world record holders or a LeBron James, you know he stands out there on a pedestal because he is who he is, and everybody else in the NBA may aspire to that, but they aren’t going to get there because they don’t have his gifts. And so when we say that you can do anything you want to do, well, you can try to do anything you want to do, but we all have limitations in what we can do. And so our goal should be well, what do I think my maximum potential is and that’s what I want to achieve.”

Lawrence Rosenberg: You mentioned earlier extrinsic versus intrinsic goals. Can you elaborate on that?

Joanna Zeiger: Extrinsic goals are goals that are coming from outside of you. So, if you’re a professional athlete, it’s making money or achieving awards. For a lot of the amateurs it’s beating their opponent or getting accolades on social media. It’s things that are outside of yourself, okay, I want the T-shirt, I want the medal. Intrinsic goals are things that are coming from within you. I love the sport. I want to improve upon my skills. I want to get better. I want to see how far I can go … intrinsic goals are going to get you further … So if you are racing for medals or glory, or for pats on the back or kudos, there’s never enough. It’s like getting likes on Facebook, it’s how many is enough, I had 100 likes last week, now I need 150, and you’re always chasing this thing that is coming from outside of you that you can’t have any control over. Whereas, if it comes from within you, then you’ve got the joy and you want to perfect yourself and you want to make yourself better. It just is a more powerful way of achieving your goals. And, I think you end up with more joy for what you’re doing.”

Lawrence Rosenberg: You also talk about not being a perfectionist. Right. And this is really hard for the go-getters out there, the strivers, the high achievers?

Joanna Zeiger: “Perfectionism, I think can be very negative. And ironically, one of the things I have found in doing a lot of mental skills coaching is that there is an inverse correlation between perfectionism and mental toughness. And that people who are perfectionists generally tend to score lower. I actually developed what I call the Sisu quiz, sisu is the Finnish word for grit. And the link for the quiz is in the book. And people who score in the lowest strata of mental toughness are usually perfectionists. And this happens every single time, particularly I see this a lot with teenage girls. Okay, and they actually do very well in school, often they’re straight-A students. They’re very good athletes. But they have very low self-esteem. They have very low confidence. So a lot of the domains of mental toughness that are tested in that Sisu quiz, they score low on. And the problem is, when you strive for perfectionism, and to be perfect, there’s no such thing, you can’t be perfect. And so what I say to people is a mantra that I want them to repeat. ‘I’m not perfect, because nobody’s perfect. All I have to do is try hard.’ And when I have them say this, and have them repeat it, and even with adults, I do this with kids and with adults, and I ask them, ‘how do you feel after you say that?’ And they always say to me, ‘gosh, that feels really weird.’ And I say to them, ‘well, is it liberating?’ And they say ‘yes.’ And I say to them, ‘write this down and tell yourself this all the time.’ Because robots aren’t perfect, our computers aren’t perfect, nothing is perfect. And as human beings, we are imperfect, we make mistakes. And so if you’re striving to be perfect, you’re going to constantly be disappointed. And of course, that’s going to make your confidence go down, your self-esteem go down. So yes, you have to try hard, and you want to hone your skills, but you’re never going to be perfect. Let’s take basketball, for example, they don’t make every free throw, and there’s nothing impeding them, and they’re being paid millions of dollars, and they’re standing there, and there’s no reason why they should miss, yet they do, because they’re not perfect. There’s just no such thing as perfect. And so that’s why perfectionism ends up being almost inversely correlated with mental toughness.”

Lawrence Rosenberg: You also talk about the confidence cycle and that confidence perpetuates confidence. But I want to ask, in your opinion, from what you’ve seen as a coach to many, many athletes, how does one develop confidence in the first place if you don’t already have it?

Joanna Zeiger: “Get rid of perfectionism. So a lot of people that have low confidence are perfectionists, and they can’t achieve that. Something else we already talked about is the daily wins and keeping track of that because when you amass a lot of daily wins, your confidence is going to go up. And the other thing is teaching somebody something so that if you’re an expert in something, and you can teach somebody else how to do it, you’re going to feel more confident. So you just have to boost yourself up. And once you start boosting yourself up, the confidence comes more easily. But I would say probably one of the biggest things that derails confidence is perfectionism.”


Joanna Zeiger:
Race Ready Coaching:
The Mental Toughness (Sisu) Quiz:
Canna Research Foundation:




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