The final aspect of the "mental game" I'd like to address is goal-setting. Any sports psychologist will tell you that setting the right goals are important to getting the right mental approach, but I'm hesitant to endorse this idea wholeheartedly.
However, I do have to be a pragmatist. Maybe in an ideal world you wouldn't have any goals other than "do your best," but that's just not realistic. Runners have times they want to hit, places they want to finish, and championships they want to qualify for. Even in workouts, you probably have goals or desires—you know you're supposed to be running 33.x for these 200s, but it'd be great if you could squeeze it into the 32s for the last few, right?
Goals and desires are inevitable, and in almost all cases, they're a huge part of what motivates a competitive runner to train. Whether it's a five-minute mile that motivates you or a spot at the USA Track and Field Championships, goals are an inevitable part of running.
Instead of the "high but achievable goals" mantra of sports psychology, I have had better success with a different approach, namely, setting two parallel goals, a "floor" goal and a "ceiling" goal.
Floor and Ceiling Goals
The floor goal is a basic marker of what you are sure you can run, even if conditions end up being less than optimal. It should be a time (or place) that all of your workouts have indicated is definitely within your grasp. The floor goal functions as a reminder that not every race is going to be your greatest race ever, even though you'd often like it to be. The floor goal should be challenging enough so that it'd take an honest effort to run, but low enough such that failing to hit your floor goal indicates a significant problem in your training approach or racing strategy.
The ceiling goal is the one most runners have when they dream up a target to aim for. The ceiling goal asks, "If everything goes near-perfect and I have a great race, what do I legitimately think I could run?"Ceiling goals are helpful because they can provide pacing guidelines. If your ceiling goal is to run a 9:00 3200m, you definitely shouldn't come through 800m any faster than 2:15 or so. This, along with motivation, is the function of the ceiling goal.
To walk through a simple example, let's say you're a high school sophomore just starting out your track season. As a freshman, you ran 5:20 in the mile, and this fall, you ran 17:30 for 5k XC. In your first track meet, an intersquad time-trial, you run 4:54 and felt like you could have gone faster. Two weeks later, you have your first real meet. How should you structure your floor and ceiling goals?