Cycling has come a long way over the past 10 years. The emergence of sport science has helped us understand our bodies, the importance of correct nutrition, and how to cope with and recuperate from injury. We now know far more effective ways of training, and how to go about getting the best possible results in as quick a time as possible.
However, there is still one aspect of sport science with a cloud of confusion hovering over it. An element of performance that still hasn’t been quite mastered yet is one of the most important parts of a cyclist’s make up: the mind.
What makes elite cyclists so mentally strong? Are they bulletproof to pressure and self doubt? How do they stay so motivated and concentrated when the chips are down and the odds against them? And can we, the average athlete, the regular fan, possess and improve our own thoughts and drives?
We spoke to Tim Holder, an accredited sport and exercise psychologist who has worked as an applied sport psychologist with performers within a wide range of sports and through national governing bodies: “The psychological characteristics that make someone more likely to be successful in sport are not easy to predict – each athlete has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The good thing is, performers are able to learn psychological skills to help them to perform at their best in the same way that people will learn the skills of riding a bike. These skills take time to learn and build into performance on the track or the road.
The sort of psychological skills that can be developed are self-confidence, anxiety control, self-awareness, and optimal concentration.”
How far will the mind get you on the bike? “Unfortunately, with all the psychological skills in the world, if you do not possess all the other characteristics of a great cyclist [physical fitness, optimal nutrition etc] then you may still not be a winner but you will be able to get closer to achieving your potential.”
So how do top-level athletes possess such a huge self-belief and confidence? “It is my experience that top-level athletes do not always possess huge self belief and confidence – what they do possess is a belief in their ability to perform in a sporting situation,” says Holder.
“How this has been developed is through hard work and persistence over time, often decades of training. Nobody felt confident riding a bike when they were born – they build their confidence over time.
The training and competition experiences help performers to achieve small successes on a regular basis, be it a brilliant training session or a win in a time trial. These successes build over time and help the performer to believe that they can repeat those successes in future performances.”
According to Holder, he says we can learn certain psychological skills. Let’s have a look at these specific skills, the theories behind them, and how we can utilise them and put them into practice.
In everything we do, we must pay attention. We must stay focused. Whether we’re working at our desk, cooking dinner, or riding a bike, we must concentrate. Have you ever been on the phone when someone is talking loudly behind you and you haven’t been able to concentrate on the phone call? Why?
Now to put it into cycling context; imagine Thor Hushovd when he is sprinting for the line, riding in excess of 40mph having to react to the dozens of other sprinters around him. Or Andy Schleck climbing in the Alps trying to concentrate with thousands of fans screaming and waving flags a few feet away from him. How are they able to shut all this out? It isn’t luck.
Attention can be broken down into three parts, your orienting response, attention span and selective attention.
Orienting response This is your mind’s tendency to focus on anything new that comes into your awareness.
How long you focus on something.
How your brain focuses itself and the ability to focus on certain things while paying less attention to others.
Out of the three, selective attention is probably the most important cognitive ability of a successful athlete. Being able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant cues could be the fine line between success and failure. Focusing on things that are relevant in what you are doing is vital to sports performance. However, width of attention and direction of attention are two important aspects to consider as well.
A broad focus may be needed for a road race; a cyclist needs to be aware of fellow competitors, the weather (wind) and the surface they are riding on. A narrower focus requires concentration on a limited number of important cues, such as an individual pursuit or time trial.
Can be internal or external. If external, attention is directed outwards on the events happening around them, such as the riders and the lines you are taking. Internal is the need to analyse what is happening, your strategy for example, and when and when not to attack.
Unsurprisingly, most of us have the same recurring problem when it comes to attention; inappropriate attention focus, or in other words, distractions, be it through emotions or physical events. We find it hard to maintain concentration for long periods of time. But why?
Yerkes and Dodson created the ‘inverted U’ theory in 1908. Despite it now being over 100 years old, it still helps best describe how our attention shifts from broad, to specific, to narrow. They believed as arousal increases, so does our performance, but only to a certain level. Further increase in arousal will cause a decrease in performance.
At low levels of arousal, performance is poor – in relation to our attention, it will be broad. It’s as if we’re bored. You’re not engaged in activity, and your mind wanders. How many times have you been complacent on your commute home? You ride it every day, and you just aren’t paying enough attention to your surroundings.
As we reach our optimal point of arousal, we’re in peak performance. Everything is going right. However, we run the risk of now becoming over-aroused, which will result in tunnel vision, leading to deterioration in performance. Ever got so angry, or so enthusiastic, your performance goes quite literally out of the window? You can’t concentrate, instead you zone in on one thing in-particular, ignoring potentially relevant information. It’s clear that we have to control our arousal.
Maintain arousal to improve concentration
Self-talk Although quite difficult to master, it can help in both raising and lowering your arousal levels. It’s extremely important that self-talk remains positive. It can be extremely easy to talk yourself out of competition. The best thing is to avoid ‘over emotional self-talk’ and focus rather on self-instructing, motivational content. When you are having doubts during a race, combat this with positive thoughts. Come up with four or five statements and repeat them to yourself. Remember don’t let mental thoughts control you. You are in control of them.
To keep arousal levels constant and your attention high, many sport performers break their game into ‘chunks.’ In road races, you may be in the saddle for four to five hours, and this no doubt will affect your attention span, as it will be very difficult to concentrate for so long without your mind wandering. Instead, break down the route into sections with appropriate changes in focus of attention at various points. This will keep your mind fresh and fully focused on each section individually.
Controlling the uncontrollable
We’ve all been there. We make mistakes and can’t let it go. Try not to dwell on them. None of us are perfect and mistakes will happen. Move on, and focus your attention to the present and something you can control.
Accept your distractions
When we practise for an event, we usually ride the routes we are familiar with. Or in some cases, we ride in our living room on the rollers. Although this might get you fitter, there are very few distractions present. Try training in different locations and environments, where distractions are present. By being exposed to these, in time you will become immune to them, and give yourself the chance to fully concentrate on the task at hand.
Motivation and drive
Another aspect that separates the elite from the rest is their motivation and huge inner drive. When it comes to motivation, there are two personality types: Need to Achievers (NAch) and Fear of Failures (FOF).
People who posses a need to achieve personality will thrive on a challenge. They are determined and take risks and tend to think of things in terms of goals and accomplishment. People who hold a FOF personality avoid challenges, and do not want to take risks. You would think that all elite cyclists naturally hold a NAch personality, however, this isn’t always the case.
Take Victoria Pendleton. In March of this year, when speaking to the Telegraph, she famously said: “I’ve never enjoyed the racing. You’re on the track, your heart’s going to beat out of your chest, the crowd are making so much noise you can’t hear yourself think and everyone is expecting you to win. If I come third at the World Cup, it’s a disaster, an absolute failure. How’s a human being supposed to live up to that?”
Pendleton is racing because she is good at it, and while there is no doubting that she used to enjoy it, that has now changed. Due to previous experiences, and the huge pressure that is heaped on her to win, she now races to avoid failure, not because she relishes the challenge. It is this fear of failure that can cause athletes to play tentatively or defensively, which will inevitably hinder performance.
How does one get over this? Well, there is really only one answer; compete for yourself and ignore what others think. Or in other words, self-confidence.
A great example of this is Mark Cavendish. The guy has great self-belief and confidence in his own ability. Some mistake it for arrogance, but it’s not. It’s total self-assurance.
Remember back to last year where he won five stages of the Tour de France? He didn’t have the best start to the year, what with an infection due to a toothache, and his big crash at the Tour of Switzerland.
It got to such a point that people were questioning whether he would be able to complete the three weeks, let alone win a stage. And when we saw him going backwards during stage four, losing out to Alessandro Petacchi (despite having his customary lead-out) we all feared the worst.
How many of you would’ve given up after that point? How many of you would have lost heart? How many of you would’ve feared failure? For Cav to come back and win the following day encapsulates the importance of self-belief and confidence. Whereas Pendleton seems nervous to race due to the huge expectations, Cav embraces it, and it could be a reason why he is so successful despite his relatively young age.
In fact, much research has shown confidence as the most influential factor that distinguishes between successful and less successful athletes.
Sport psychologists define self-confidence, as the belief that you can successfully perform a desired behaviour. According to Albert Bandura, situational self-confidence, otherwise known as self-efficacy, is based on four primary sources. Using these four sources will help build self-confidence.
What we have achieved in training and competition. Understandably, repeated success leads to positive expectation of further success, which results in enhanced self-belief. However, this could also be a performer’s downfall. Constantly not achieving what you set out to will knock your confidence back, and set you on a downward spiral.
It’s imperative that you set attainable goals. Sometimes, it’s even helpful to set goals on an ‘easier’ level. Providing it’s put into context, achieving or succeeding on a smaller scale will help increase confidence, and will enable you to look back on past performances and see what you did right.
“The key here is to set targets or goals in training and competition that are challenging but achievable,” says Holder. “Other ways to develop confidence are to get feedback from others around the performer such as the coach on how training is progressing and finally to replay good performances from the past in your mind when you have time to do this – you could do this last thing at night before going to sleep.”
Also known as modelling, it is believed that athletes can gain confidence from viewing performances of others at a similar level.
For example, if you’re a second-cat rider, and you know someone who was in a similar position to you and found it difficult to win a race after crashing badly, it’s worth finding out what they did to overcome this problem. Viewing others will enable you to see that, with effort, success is attainable.
Having people show confidence in your ability is hugely beneficial and will make goals seem more achievable. Self-talk is another form of verbal persuasion, which involves the athletes convincing themselves that success will follow. This is why you may often see sportspeople talking to themselves before or during the competition.
Although it doesn’t have a huge effect on confidence, perceiving physiological symptoms in a positive way rather than negatively, can increase overall confidence.
For example, to some, an increased heart rate and sweaty palms may be a sign of nerves and apprehension. However, perceiving this in a positive light, as the body’s natural preparation for high performance, will change your thinking and help improve your skills.