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Published On: Tue, Jun 7th, 2022

7-Time All-American Athlete and Psychologist Kristin Ihle Helledy on Development of a Mature Athlete and the Importance of Attitude

If someone randomly stopped people on the street and asked them what differentiates elite athletes, most people would likely respond with physical and mental qualities. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Speed, endurance and strength along with intelligence, confidence and intuition are all qualities that elicit excellence. 

But are they the most important differentiators in elite athletes? 

Seven-time all-American runner and retired pro-athlete, now a licensed psychologist, Dr. Kristin Ihle Molinaroli – who competed as Kristin Ihle and Kristin Ihle Helledy – offers her insights about the three prongs of a mature athlete. She argues that physical dominance and mental balance, while important, are not necessarily the most important factors in and of themselves. 

So, what is the third, and possibly the most critical, prong? 

photo/ skeeze via pixabay

Let’s start with the physical

Molinaroli pointed to a quote by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” 

According to Molinaroli – formerly Kristin Ihle Helledy – physical preparation is the first prong in the development of a mature athlete. She stressed that building good discipline around what athletes want to accomplish is critical from an early stage, as well as how they are going to achieve it. She suggests that at the beginning when an athlete is just starting the sport, they may not even recognize what they are doing to achieve success. As the journey continues, however, the what and how of physical preparation must be internalized and methodically followed by the athlete. 

“When I got started in my sport, I knew nothing. My strategy was run to the front and stay there. My coaches told me what to do and that worked well. Somewhere along the line I started asking questions – what’s the best way to train, when should I be resting – and I started expanding my horizons on what it meant to physically prepare as an athlete. As I did that I was performing at a high level with great consistency and started making U.S. teams. Mastering the physical aspect was a key building block for me.” 

She added that while the natural talents you are born with set the groundwork, it takes purposeful effort to consistently and exponentially improve your physical capabilities. “Patience with your body is so important. Gain as much knowledge as you can about your sport and how you need to physically prepare to excel at your sport. And remember, this will change over the course of your journey as you grow and reach new levels. You’ll become ready for new challenges over time; recognize and seize those opportunities as they came up to continuously advance your game.” 

Apply this concept to the notion of a casual runner who is used to running 3 miles several times a week. A marathon would be physically out of the question at that point in time. But, if, over the course of time, this runner trained for a 5k, and then an 8k, maybe a half marathon next. Then, with patience and steady physical development, this runner’s body would be prepared to achieve a marathon. 

Combine physical preparation with mental balance

The yips. Sophomore jinx. The jitters. Self-doubt. 

It doesn’t matter how physically prepared an athlete is if the mental game takes over their physical. That’s why mental balance is equally as important and is the second prong in developing as a mature athlete. 

“I fell victim to the yips as a college freshman. The issue I had is I would come through the mile mark at sub 5 minutes (4:50ish) and at that time it would have been my personal best for the mile. But I still had to keep running, and that got into my brain. Mentally I was thinking ‘I just set my mile personal record’ but physically I still had another mile to go. My training pointed to that being a proper pace but I still slowed down and lost my pace. I lost my pace because my mind could not handle what my body was ready to do.” 

A sports psychologist helped her overcome her mental imbalance. 

“Frankly, I was doubtful that a sports psychologist would help me. I was a runner. I just needed to go fast and take left turns. I didn’t even fully realize at the time that there was a mental element. The aha was not letting things automatically come to me, not letting my mind automatically take control, not having my cognitions and fears affect me. I learned how to reframe and use different language, such as ‘I’m right where I need to be’ rather than ‘I hope I can hang on for the next three and a half laps.’”

It’s important to understand what is and what is not in your control as an athlete, she said. “How you think about yourself, and yourself in the game, that’s in your control and that should be your focus.”  

Commitment is what ties it all together

Attitude overlaps everything. 

Molinaroli recognizes that along her journey to becoming a 7-time all-American athlete, a professional runner sponsored by Nike as Kristin Ihle, and earning her Ph.D. in multi-cultural psychology as Kristin Ihle Helledy, there were numerous people along the way who were far more gifted than she was, but who didn’t have the perseverance she had to differentiate herself. 

“Unless your attitude is right, it’s impossible to get to your mental or physical game. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.’ Do the work. Be persistent. Be resilient.”

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