The Psychological Advantage

If you think you can you can, if you think you can’t you’re right.  Rule number one of life!  Okay it might not be, but you’ll find it works for almost all obstacles you will ever face.  Once you have it in your mind you can do something, you need to make plans regarding how you can bring about the results you’re after.  To do that you need a goal.  If you read our goal setting factsheet in conjunction with this one, you'll vastly increase the chances of realising your potential. 

This factsheet is a little longer than the rest; that's a reflection of the importance of the mind in relation to the performance of the body.  Everything you read here is a guaranteed "supplement-free" performance enhancer that is available for absolutely no cost to yourself.  What have you got to lose by spending ten minutes reading it?  I know: ten minutes!

Focus on the goal, not the suffering
Once you have a goal the suffering you’ll endure while training towards that goal, through carefully placed sub-goals, becomes bearable.  You now have something upon which to focus that allows your body to be pushed to, and beyond, its limits.  The ability to suffer comes down to the strength of your mind, not the strength of your body.  The level at which you begin to suffer is down to your body!  How you let that suffering affect you is all in your mind.

Everyone suffers, the champions are the ones that can suffer the longest and the hardest.  Ulrich has astronomical physiological figures, reputedly much greater than Armstrong’s.  Yet Armstrong can suffer more, focus more and has a mental toughness of which Ulrich can only dream.  Still, don’t take my word for it, look at their Tour results and their individual reaction to setbacks over the past years.  Look how Armstrong reacted when he was taken down by a spectator’s musette in 2002.  What would you have done?

Ignore Distractors
So how do you mentally toughen up? 
The only way to become mentally tougher is to make a conscious decision that will allow it happen.  You then need to block out all external de-stabilizers and filter out internal noise.  This is far, far easier said than done.  But saying it, and believing it, is the first step to making it happen.

External De-stabilizers
To ignore distractors, first you have to be aware of when and how they may be used and treat them for what they are; unwanted noise.  There are certain basic ploys used to destabilise athletes and their preparation.  We all do it and we all have it done to us.  Most de-stabilizers are subliminal and most are probably missed at the time of launching.  However, our sub-conscious picks them up, constantly replays them in the background and begins to use them against us.  But only if we let it.

Listen to two cyclists talking when they first meet.  “Doing much?”  “Nah, you know, pottering, junk miles, ticking over, that sought of stuff.”   “Doing any intervals?”  “Nah, too early for speed work.  Just concentrating on base, steady rides, club runs and stuff, you know.”  “Yeh, me too.  Just taking it easy really.”   You can see that both are messing with each other’s mind and trying to gain an advantage through destabilization.  Neither is willing to admit that they’re training hard and looking for a win.  Each is trying to lead the other to believe that they are not a threat.  It’s not a conscious decision to lie, it’s just the way things are.  It’s tradition. 

If I had a pound for every time I’d heard a cyclist say, “I’m screaming.  I’m like a coiled spring, I’ve done all my intervals, I’ve tapered and I’ve prepared well.  I’m due to peak on Sunday for the Island Championship, which I’m sure I’ll win”, I wouldn’t have enough to buy anything in the pound shop!  But isn’t that what we’re all either trying to do or dreaming of?  If not, why are people riding round for hours on end in the dark and wet in the middle of winter?

Other external de-stabilizers are more insidious and direct.  Recognise them for what they are, the last ploy tools of a beaten person.  If anyone starts talking to you during a race there’s a fair chance that they’re more worried about you than you should be about them.  Stick to your plan, ride your race, let them ride theirs and smile.  Because once you smile, you have the upper hand!

Internal De-stabilizers
The monster within us all, the inner voice.  We all have it and more often than not it’s telling us what we can’t do.  Even now as you’re reading this your inner voice has been talking to you, distracting you from the message.  “I must get some milk on the way home; has the dog been fed; did I switch the gas off!”  If it can do that when you’re sitting comfortably, reading, what’s it going to do when you’re hanging on as another attack goes up the road?  The probability is that the person going up the road is as on-the-limit as you.  They’ve just chosen to ignore their inner voice; that’s what makes them a winner.  The weak voice say’s, “I’m tired, try to hang on”, the strong voice say’s “we are all tired, let’s attack”.

Keeping a balance
Morale and confidence are two mighty weapons to have in your armoury.  They are however fickle and ethereal bedfellows.  When you have them you’re almost unstoppable, if you lose them (through a lack of mental toughness) your self belief goes and with it your results. 

Winning is a habit.  Watch the vets races.  People who’ve been hanging on to the seniors and getting a kicking for a few years suddenly become one year older and now become an influence on the race.  After a while they win one, realise what they’re capable of and start winning a few more.  Before you know it they’re disappointed with third place!

Whatever is happening in your own little cycling world, it isn’t going to last.  If you’re winning everything, then sadly the run will come to an end.  If you’re mis-firing and the results aren’t coming, if you work hard (not too hard) and keep things in perspective you will come through the other side. 

Mental toughness is a great comfort at this time as you already know that things will get better.  Once you start thinking things will be better, very soon they normally do.

Over Competitiveness
To some this may seem an anathema.  But it is possible to be over-competitive!  Even in a sport such as ours.  Unlike the immortal words of Bill Shankley, cycling at our level isn’t a matter of life or death; it just seems like it sometimes.  Over-competitiveness leads to a selfish approach to those around you which one day will bite you back.  Do not become obsessed with winning.  We’re here to enjoy ourselves and if you win then you get to enjoy it a little bit more than the rest.  I know this sounds something of a contradiction but keep everything in perspective and you'll find winning will come to you.

Avoid the Middle Zone
Gestalt psychology refers to a situation called the middle zone.  In cycling this can be seen as a situation where during training your thinking of what everyone else is doing or focussing on the race and how you’ll perform.  While during the race you’re worrying that everyone else seems stronger and begin to wonder if you’ve trained enough.  Recognise this destructive situation and get out of it. 

If you find yourself in the middle zone there are loads of tools such as reframing techniques, pattern breaking, positive anchors, NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) swish patterns to name quite a few really, that can quickly break you out of it.  But that’s for another day.

When you are training concentrate solely on that.  Your training no one else's.  Do not stray into a world of doubt.  Have a training plan and go out and give it everything.  If you see a mate, wave and keep going.  If you join them you’ve lost that session and taken a step to the middle zone.  Your training has now become their ride.  You've compromised your plan.  The first step to the middle zone.

When you’re racing, have a plan and contingencies, and use them.  Do not let distractions enter your mind.  Focus all your energies into what you are doing and make them positive.  When you race, race; when you train, train and when you rest…, you get the picture.  Stay out of the middle zone, it’s full of trolls and slow people!

Coping Strategies
As you know, we like this word on this website.  The more things for which you have a strategy the less chance there is of anything catching you by surprise.  So how do you prepare for something as quick-changing and as varied as the vagaries of the mind?

Be Patient
Do everything in moderation.  Train hard or train long, don’t train long and hard.  If things aren’t going to plan, doing more of the same isn’t going to help.  Take the long view and plan for an objective.  You aren’t going to win your first race back after three weeks of sickness or injury.  Be patient, create a SMARTS goal, target an event in the future and work towards it.  The cliché “patience has it’s rewards” has never been more appropriate.

In the days when I raced cars rather than bikes, I used to spend hours in the bath, thinking “isn’t nature wonderful” and practicing laps of the circuits I was to race at the weekends.  I can still do it now.  I can shut my eyes and visualise every bump, ripple and inch of Silverstone, Donington or Oulton Park  and do a practice lap in my mind that is within a second of my actual lap times back in the good old days when I didn’t have to pedal. 

What you’re mind visualises, you’re body can recreate that’s because your senses can not differentiate between what is real and what is imagined.  To see a classic example of this, type “Pavlov’s Dogs” into Google.  It's not the same but it's the same, if you see what I mean.

How many times do you thing Boonen and Van Petegem visualise storming the Koppenberg, scaling the Muur and powering up the Bosberg? 

Every day from January 1st until the first Sunday in April, that’s how often.  Did you notice the words that we used?  They didn’t ride they stormed; they didn’t climb they scaled and they didn’t float they powered.  Just try it for a while, use strong, powerful, bold visual images and see what happens. 

You could even crack La Redoute like Dianne on the right.

Positive Listings
Anyone who is serious enough about their sport to join a club and put their body through the stresses of training and competing should be serious enough to keep a training diary.  If you don’t have one, get one.  Tomorrow.  If you’re unsure what to do send me an email.

Sports psychologists use the technique of positive listings to refocus their athlete’s mind during times of doubt.  Try it yourself.  Sit down and write out twenty, thirty, sixty! positive things that you’ve done from the end of last season to wherever you are now.  If you have a training diary read through it.  Don’t look at it, read it!  How can you have any doubts about yourself when you look at all that work and effort that’s gone in to making you a better athlete? 

Your diary is your positive list.  Keep it up to date and write something positive each week.  If you can’t write something positive then your doing something wrong.

Know Yourself
What happens when the hammer goes down, the speed goes up and the elastic finally snaps and you’re dropped?  Do you, a) crawl back to the finish; pack and save yourself for next week; b) take a quick drink, compose yourself then chase to get back on; c) ride as hard as you can to stay away from your chasers; or d) get motivated to go off and do some extra speed work to come back stronger in a month's time. 

None of the options are right or wrong, they are just potential responses to a set of circumstances of which only you, and possibly your coach, have the answer.  Don’t let anyone mess with your mind by saying you should of done this or I would have done that.  If you want advice ask for it, take it, reflect on it then use it to form your own opinion and outcome.  Everyone may see the result of your actions but only you know the question you asked of yourself.

The Message
In competition, you are either being made to suffer, or making someone suffer.  Even if the level of suffering is exactly the same, the perception of it is totally different depending on whether you're dishing it out or receiving it.  And all of that is to do with the state of your mind.  You're either the hammer or the anvil; decide which it's going to be and ride accordingly.

Inner Barriers are one of your biggest hurdles to success.  In the three sides to the performance triangle; physiological fitness, skills & technique, and psychological strength, it is the latter that will determine the successful application of the former.  You can train has hard and as long as you want and be genetically gifted in the extreme, but unless you have your race head on come race day, it’s all for nothing.  If you want to win, start thinking like a winner.  It cost’s nothing and they can’t touch you for it.

Be mentally strong and don’t let anyone else control the way you think.  What goes on in your head is all down to you.  If you feel negative thoughts entering your mind, combat them with positive affirmations.  Negative thoughts lead to negative performance.  Guess what positive thoughts lead to? 

Although we share the processes of hard work and endeavour, we all have a different set of strengths and weaknesses and we all progress at our own pace.  Until you reach your stated goal, be professionally dissatisfied with your performance, but don’t beat yourself up about it.  Once it's achieved, be happy, rest and enjoy the rewards of a job well done and look towards a new adventure and a new goal.  Don’t keep doing the same things and expecting different outcomes.  Life just doesn’t work like that.  Either in the body or the mind.

Happy Riding.