Nathan Jay, Professional Ironman, on his Mental Performance Training

Jun 22, 2023

Embracing the Uncomfortable as the Path to Performance Empowerment

In an interview with professional IronMan, Nathan Jay, we revisited our first season together. From grappling with consistency to finding mental resilience, our discussion dived deep into the mental performance strategies Nathan embraced this season, which transformed his approach to his sport.

We covered:

  • The importance of finding consistency in your performance to fuel motivation.
  • What’s on the other side when you break through resistance, it can be uncomfortable but empowering.
  • By transferring the knowledge acquired from mental drills in training, Nathan learned to trust his competition process.

And the most significant lesson Nathan learned from mental performance training which revolutionised his approach to competition season, and also to his daily life.


Interview Transcript:

Dave: Thanks very much for agreeing to spend some time with me today and just talk about the journey that you've been on this season. Tell me a little bit about your your career over the last ten years.

Nathan: Yeah. So, in juniors, won under 19s IronMan and swim at state. Got a few medals in the swim previous years before that. A fair few medals in teams and stuff. And won a few Aussie golds in teams as well. Then won a few open races, particularly run swim run swims, a couple of irons, just at small local carnivals.

Dave: Okay, so why IronMan?

Nathan: It's just, I find it the best sport because there's four different legs and it's unpredictable no matter what it is. You get waves, sometimes race in eight foot, sometimes race in dead flat, it's different every race.

Dave: Yeah. And growing up here in Cronulla, did that have much of an influence on choosing that?

Nathan: Yeah, of course. So I was in Nippers when I was under nines. Ever since then, I've just been at the beach pretty much nonstop.

Dave: How would you describe your career? Before we did our season this year, how would you have described your competitive seasons before that?

Nathan: Very inconsistent. Up and down, I'd go from winning a race to losing the next one.

Dave: And what was that doing for your motivation? What was that doing for getting up in the morning? Because you guys do crackers things like 05:00 a.m. Swims and stuff, don't you?

Nathan: Yeah. So it's just very frustrating because I wasn't really realising what was happening and I just couldn't figure out why I was doing what I was doing. And now working with you helped me kind of step back and see everything and all the patterns that are happening. So, yeah, with motivation, it was tough sometimes because you go, Why is this happening? Okay, I'm just going to train through it and then kind of hope for the best every time, which doesn't work.

Dave: You can say that now, can't you? Because 12 months ago, when we had this kind of conversation, you wouldn't have said that, would you?

Nathan: No. Definitely not.

Dave: All right. Why did you choose this season to do it different?

Nathan: I think frustration was a big part of it. I just wasn't getting the results I wanted and the results I think that I deserved after all the work I was putting in. Obviously, Simmo recommended you, so I jumped on it.

Dave: When we first started, it's fair to say there was a little bit of resistance, would you say?

Nathan: Yeah, because it was so like, I haven't done anything like it before, so it was completely outside my comfort zone and just something completely new.

Dave: Do you remember our first session when we did the balls and looked at the grid?

Nathan: Yeah, I remember being very tired after it.

Dave: Very tired?

Nathan: Yeah. Just because I couldn't stop thinking about it the whole time. Just kind of first time I kind of realised how far behind I was on the mental side.

Dave: It's interesting thing you say that, because do you think you're behind in the mental side or do you think that wasn't optimising your tendencies?

Nathan: Wasn't optimising mine. I was thinking far behind as the very top people in the sport, not the majority.

Dave: Okay.

Nathan: I was thinking of the top one, two, three.

Dave: Yeah okay. Because there is definitely a difference in the mindset of people that are consistently winning compared to those that are in that tipping point trying to get in there, aren't there?

Nathan: Yeah.

Dave: So as the athlete standing on the beach before you go, what is it you see different in other people?

Nathan: I just notice the different behaviours and then their language as well. As soon as someone starts talking negative, you see they've lost straight away, before it even happens.

Dave: Yeah. And that's we go back before we did this, this season, that was part of the the cycle that you were in, the negative language, reacting to your environment and that's not a reflection of who you are, it's a reflection of how you've been brought up in this kind of sport, or every sport, really. Humans are reactionary creatures, isn't it?

Nathan: Yeah.

Dave: So when we had some of those early day resistances, there was a tipping point where you kind of broke through that, didn't you? Can you remember what that was? Can you remember when you kind of went, okay, I'm not going to fight this anymore, I'm going to work with this?

Nathan: I remember being very frustrated and then could see why I was, which is kind of the first time, and then if I could see why, then I can fix it, sort of thing.

Dave: Yeah. So it's quite empowering, isn't it? When you recognise this, it's uncomfortable but it's empowering.

Nathan: Yeah.

Dave: If Simmo hadn't of said to you this was a good option for you, where do you think your career would have gone? Would you have carried on doing the same things?

Nathan: 100% I would have been stuck in the loop, just I think just doomed to repeat it. I might have got a couple of good results but definitely do not think I could have sustained it.

Dave: Yeah. And do you think that would have, you would have moved on from the sport or do you think you would have just slugged it out?

Nathan: I think I would have just slugged it out but I believe I would have been in the middle of the pack my whole life, which was somewhere I did not want to be.

Dave: Yeah. And listening to your language, one of the things that was really evident working with you was some people you have to, not dance around but, be very selective in how you deliver the information. I found with you that the more honest I was with you, the more bang for buck we got from each session. Would you agree with that?

Nathan: Yeah, 100%. I'd rather just have a straight conversation than you try to protect my feelings and then I'm not getting what I want out of it. More than happy for you to insult me, if I can improve on my sport, I'm happy for you to say whatever you want.

Dave: That's good. What do you think, as I said there was a little bit of resistance, if Simmo hadn't have done that and prompted you? Why do you think most athletes don't look for mental performance coaching when you have such good physical and technical coaches?

Nathan: Honestly, I didn't really know it was a thing. You kind of hear bits and pieces, just kind of rumours that someone's doing it and then kind of, yeah, I heard what it was, but I wasn't 100% sure what it actually is.

Dave: How would you describe it? Now you've done a season with me, if people turn around and said, I know you've just been on this mental performance journey, what is it? What would you say to them?

Nathan: I'd start off with saying it's probably the most important thing. Now that I know what it is, I'd probably find it pretty hard to sum it up and do my best. It kind of helps you find better motivation, you're more process-driven and it's how to keep your emotions in check and kind of understanding them and using it at the right time.

Dave: So when we first started working, it's fair to say that there was some of the exercises that I introduced that were very unusual for you. What are some of those earlier exercises that you thought were a little bit strange?

Nathan: So the drill, moving the tennis balls in a pattern when you're blindfolded and got the balls against the wall and on the ground. It was a bit weird because I didn't really understand it at first and then kind of got explained to me. And then after you understand it, it's not so weird because you go there's method to the madness. Also the blindfold going through your technique, closing your eyes, visualising it and then going through at a start, you kind of go, I look like a complete weirdo. After, you realise how beneficial it is and what you're doing each time is just another training session.

Dave: So how do you see it different now?

Nathan: Well, I understand. Before you go, like, bouncing balls, you go, Well, I'm visualising a technique. I've got three words that I'm repeating, so I'm forming a process of each one so I know exactly what I'm doing and it just becomes subconscious. Moving the balls blindfolded, why am I doing this? And then you realise, it's all about making it a process, which that transfers to racing. So, yeah, have your process when you're racing and just use that.

Dave: You said just a minute ago that before we started working, it was like an untold little secret that some people had out there. How would you change that? Now that you've been through only one season, but how would you change that for other athletes?

Nathan: You just kind of spread it, like spread the word. And everyone can see in your results why you're doing what you're doing. There's obviously an increase and then they can see you're more clinical and you're approaching everything differently. So I feel once they start to see that big change, they can go, what are you doing that is different? You just be honest and tell them.

Dave: What's been your biggest improvement this season?

Nathan: Probably, I reckon just debriefing and figuring out what I did wrong and what I did right each race and what I could have done better. I feel like that was the biggest gain for me because I didn't really make the same big mistake twice.

Dave: That's interesting, isn't it? Because humans are very good at following patterns. It doesn't matter if it's a good pattern or it's not a good pattern, we tend to follow those. The fact that every time something occurred, you fixed it or you found a solution or a strategy around that so you didn't repeat that. There's obviously a natural growth that comes with that. Do you feel like it's been although you haven't got all the results you wanted, do you feel like it's been a good season?

Nathan: 100%. I look back at it now and go, this is the season I've learned the most and I probably learnt more in this season than all the other seasons before that. Very eye opening.

Dave: So now you got a bit of a break, although you guys don't get a lot of a break, do you? You're still training. What are some of the things that we did that you still do, even though you're doing some downtime?

Nathan: I've been working on ownership, so I started doing everything myself at home. I feel like that's the biggest one.

Dave: How's that going?

Nathan: It's alright. The food I'm eating doesn't taste as good. Dads a pretty good cook and he's cooking up everything, where I'm cooking just chicken with a bit of seasoning and some vegetables on the side, where they're having seafood paella or something. It sucks because I'll be eating at the same time they are and I can smell it, but no, it's going well.

Dave: Biggest lesson from this season for you?

Dave: Just how important the mental side is. I never realised how big that is and now I realise it's the most important bit. You can be the fittest, fastest person in the race. It doesn't matter if you're not mentally prepared.

Dave: Good call. What's the future look like for you?

Nathan: I'm pretty excited for what's happening, what's ahead for me.

Dave: Working with you, I'm fortunate enough to work with a lot of athletes and when you come across an athlete that is so receptive, it's very exciting for me as a coach to be able to work with someone like that. And the fact that we can have very open, honest conversations just expedites the process so much more. So, from my perspective, as somebody who's been on this journey with you this season, it's been an absolute pleasure to do that, because, yes, we've had some challenging times. I've seen the way you've looked at me sometimes, but I've also seen such growth. And, like, you're 20 years old, you're not at the end of your career. This is really the tipping point into it, so it's quite an exciting aspect. What would you say to a younger version of you?

Nathan: Probably seek you out earlier. But also, you've got to really own it. This is your journey, this isn't anyone else's. You've got to be the one driving the bus. I feel like I just sat at the back of the bus for too long. Just get up the front and start driving.

Dave: I like it. I like that. This season, I've been the one asking all the questions. Have you got a question for me?

Nathan: Not off the top of my head.

Dave: You're the only person I've ever done this with. No, I don't. Normally, people have got a catalogue of things they want to ask me. That's cool, that's good. I think that means we've been very open and honest with each other the whole time.

Nathan: Yeah.

Dave: All right, so we know what the season in front of you looks like. You're already realistically working on that, day to day. How do you build mental performance, not only into your training, but into the rest of your life?

Nathan: Like I said before, taking ownership I find is the biggest one. So I'm doing everything. If I'm not doing everything, I'm letting everyone know what I want to be done. Also, I found having a standard, so I'm doing everything to my standard. I want to be proud of it. So waking up, make my bed every morning, I didn't just throw the sheets over the bed and just left it messy. I want everything to be perfect. No creases or anything like that. Sheets folded over, tucked in.

Dave: Nice. How are your parents finding this?

Nathan: They're starting to love it. For the first time I've haven't got them doing everything for me.

Dave: And that's not an unusual thing for an athlete who are very busy, is it? The parents are normally very bought in and they play a huge part and a role in that, but they don't necessarily always realise that can be detrimental, too.

Nathan: Yeah, I think they're always just trying to help, so they don't realise that kind of helping too much is counterproductive. I think they've got good intentions. Just didn't realise how it was affecting me. I didn't either.

Dave: No, absolutely. We don't know what we don't know, right?

Nathan: Yeah.

Dave: So what would you say to other athletes who are seeing what you're doing? Who have seen the shift in you? I know your coaches have seen that shift in you and clearly your parents have, too. What would you say to younger athletes out there who are looking to follow you into your career?

Nathan: You've got to figure out what works for you, so you've got to figure out what you need, whether it is a mental coach. So you've got to figure out what works for you. I would recommend a mental coach because I found I didn't realise what didn't really work for me at the time. And now working with you, it's helped a lot and I've figured out what I need.

Dave: Being through one season with you, I'm looking forward to the next season and making sure that we compound everything we built this season. It's been a real pleasure working with you. Like I said, I know it's not always been easy and I know I've not always been easy on you, but the growth in you this season has been phenomenal. To watch that any young athletes is quite inspiring. So I look forward to watching you next season dominate the ocean.

Nathan: Yeah. Thank you.


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