Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Sir Chris Hoy are three completely different bike riders, each with their own unique riding style, training techniques, attitudes, views
But they all share one thing in common – apart from being hugely talented – and that’s an extremely strong set of psychological skills. To some people the world of sports psychology is quackery; a nonsense that holds no bearing over performance.
But it can’t be a coincidence that cyclists at the top tier possess very similar skills and traits – that self-belief, single-mindedness, willpower and obsession to achieve. The ability to remain so calm under pressure, to block out distractions and to not choke.
It’s not just cyclists either. Look at any sport. Rugby’s Johnny Wilkinson, football’s David Beckham, or possibly the greatest example of an athlete with strong psychological skills, golf’s Tiger Woods – it can’t be a coincidence.
There is an argument that sportspeople are born a certain way, or environmental factors have shaped certain characteristic traits that gravitate towards sporting success. And this is true in some respects. Some people are born natural leaders, while others, through life experiences, build that inner drive and determination to succeed.
But there are many skills that can be learned, trained and honed, just as you would when mastering specific techniques on the bike, such as descending or cornering.
And what’s more, you don’t have to be gunning for the leader’s jersey to be able to benefit from them, as lower level cyclists are able to gain a significant advantage from a strong core of psychological skills.
Meet the doctor
Dr Jim Golby is a name that frequently pops up in the world of sports psychology and is enormously respected. Golby has worked in this field for over 30 years, and has written numerous research papers covering almost every angle of sports psychology. He is also the author of A Complete Guide to Sports Psychology and has just recently retired from his position as head of research in sport and exercise at the University of Teesside.
“I think in top athletes, and particular cyclists, if you look at the S factors; strength, speed, skill and stamina, they are very equal,” says Golby. “But the other S – phonetically speaking – psychology, is the one that determines how well the others function. It is psychology that covers them all.
“It’s fundamental at the top level, but amateur athletes can gain a significant advantage from having a strong set of psychological skills as well.
“I personally believe if other things cancel them out, such as ability and external factors, then the mind could be the difference between winning and losing. But if someone were bigger or stronger than you in a physical respect, then they would probably win.
“However, the more physiologically similar athletes are in terms of performance, such as lung capacity, speed, reactions and so on, the more it is the psychological ability to maximise that potential under pressure which determines success.”
Could I have made it?
It’s a question we have all asked ourselves. Heck, some even believe they ‘could’ve made it’ it weren’t for bad luck, not getting that break or that dodgy knee. But ask yourself, how much did you really want it?
The cyclists you see on your TV screen didn’t by chance become professional. They worked day and night for it, no matter what was thrown in front of them, their motivation bordering on obsession.
“I think one thing that sets apart the elite from the amateur is motivation, for sure. People performing at a lower level are not generally as motivated as those at the top. So they are never going to beat them or achieve the same heights and standards,” says Golby.
Were the successful born to win? “That’s a very interesting question. I’ve written a few research papers to try to find out whether we are genetically mentally tougher or if it is acquired. I’ve done some work on the ratio between the second and fourth finger, which is indicative of testosterone levels in the womb.
If you have a negative relationship between the second and the fourth finger, you have had more testosterone in the womb, which tends to make you more aggressive and more determined. Those with the right ratio were mentally tougher, optimistic, more aggressive and had a better coping style. So there is an indication of a genetic predisposition towards it.
“We also looked at genetics, to find out whether that had an effect on mental toughness but the results were inconclusive. But there is a strong lead to a physiological basis of mental toughness, which is tempered by experience and the environment in which you live.”
Did we, the amateur cyclist, ever stand a chance? “The way I try to explain it is that we are all dealt a hand of cards. What we’ve got to do is to learn how to play them to our advantage. That’s where good psychological preparation can help.
For example, the what ifs – what if this happens? What if he makes a break now, what am I going to do? How am I going to deal with it? What if I lose at this race, how am I going to come back stronger? It is those kind of questions that you have to find a way to answer and deal with.
The professionals have already learnt how to do this, and a lot of it comes down to training techniques.”
So we can train the mind like we would train our bodies? “Of course. The mind can be trained like a skill, absolutely. There’s quite a volume of academic evidence to support that. You can change psychological performers and it results in physiological improvements.
“I think psychology should be implemented into athletes’ training plans. From a coach’s point of view, it’s too late when you’ve invested years and years of training just to see them crack under pressure because they haven’t been prepared to handle it.
“I think there should be psychological skills training for elite performers from an early age. Psychology was so overlooked but I think we’re slowly catching up in the Western world. The Russians and the West Germans got on to this long ago and we’re now beginning to realise the importance of psychological preparation and psychological skills coping to deal with pressure.”
Practice makes perfect
“Some examples of psychological skills training would include relaxation, goal setting and mental rehearsal. These are things you can work on, and they will help you.
“The best way to practise is through the help of a coach or someone who knows what they are doing. Self-knowledge and emotional intelligence help to some degree. Do you know yourself? Do you know what your failings are and can you put plans together in order to overcome them? Now some people can do that naturally, but others need some help to identify these factors.
“A lot of it comes down to different strokes for different folks. It sounds like a cliché, but it sums it up quite well. We all have a collection of failures, but it’s about identifying and correcting them that you might need some support with.”
Do the pros possess failures? Do they ever fear outcomes or experience the anxiety or nervousness an amateur cyclist may feel?
“There’s no question that elite athletes possess thoughts of self-doubt,’ says Golby. “But they are able to deal with them far better. And by using the techniques we mentioned earlier, it allows them to deal with the questions they have about their own ability. You’ve got to deal with failures and you’ve got to practice your psychological skills to allow you to succeed.
“Elite athletes are able to deal with challenges, and be able to control themselves, using skills such as visualisation and self-belief. Amateur athletes react differently when things go wrong. They tend to attack external factors, such as officials, rather than accepting what’s happened and looking at themselves and correcting the failures.
“Examine what you want from the race or event you are participating in. Remember, only one person can win a race. Are you going to win it? If not, what are you entering it for? Set yourself personal goals and standards you can match. Aim internally rather than externally as this will remove the worry of competition.”
Visualisation for success
Also known as imagery or mental rehearsal, visualisation is the process of creating a mental image or intention of what you want to happen or feel. It can have a number of positive effects; it can help relax and calm you down and even increase your confidence. By imagining a time you previously performed well, remembering what you did, how you felt, both mentally and physically, will help you repeat that performance by simply stepping back into that situation.
Constantly ‘going over’ what you did, will train the mind and the body to perform the same skill again.
Try it. Think back to the last time where everything went right. What did you do? What were you thinking at the time? How did it feel? Try to be as detailed as possible. Next time you race, try to recreate those thoughts and feelings.
It may sound simple, but it’s something that amateur athletes struggle to do well. A lot of cyclists will set unrealistic goals, putting too much pressure on themselves, and then give up quickly when they aren’t seeing the results they want to.
Goals should be realistic but challenging. You should also set shorter-term goals that you can tick off as you make your way to your main objective.
For example, you want to win a third cat race by the middle of summer. Now ask yourself how you are going to achieve that. Stepping stone goals could be to obtain your third cat license then experiment with different race tactics in third and fourth cat events before targeting a race where you know the course really suits you and giving it 100 per cent effort.
Also set goals that are flexible. Sometimes life gets in the way of what you want to do, so it’s good to be able to change and adapt targets as and when these circumstances present themselves.
The pro’s view
Ed Clancy, Olympic gold medallist
“There’s no doubt that a lot of elite athletes have that motivation and drive to train, race and succeed built in. Now, I’m not saying I’m not hugely motivated, and don’t get me wrong, I want to win more than anyone, but my drive genuinely comes down to just my love of riding a bike.
“It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. When I’m not training or racing, I’m doing something on two wheels. I think if you love something, your passion and drive will come through.
“I think it’s really important to set goals, no matter what your level is. Obviously, if you’re riding for a team, there are targets that have been set for you. But it’s good to hit certain levels whether that’s professionally or personally, as it keeps you on the right path, and something to strive for.
“I’m always doing a lot of riding, whether that’s road or on the track, so I’m always working. But having targets or races you really want to do well in, that are pre-set, helps push me that little harder.”
Kristian House, Rapha-Condor-JLT lead rider
“I don’t go through a process. I think it just comes naturally. Whether that’s correct or not is a different story. Sometimes, to relax before a race, I will watch TV or read a book. I use these kinds of things to mentally chill myself out.
But during the race, it just happens. There is an element of it that is built-in, I think. Also, if I look at myself now compared to 10 years ago, I’ve come a long way in that sense. So some of it can be taught as well. You learn from the people around you. I look at who I’ve raced around: guys like Paul Manning, Chris Newton, seriously intelligent bike riders and I like to think that I’ve picked up mental skills from these people. There’s no denying that you can learn psychological skills, but I think a lot of it, you’re born with. The key is to able to unlock it.”
Up-and-coming riders’ view
Olympic Development Programme rider
“Psychology is a big part of my riding. Last year was a massive learning curve into how I approached races. I think often during races your psychological approach is more important than how your legs feel on the day.”
“The key thing during races, I found, is riding your own race, yet being able to be adaptable and decisive. When things possibly start going wrong, don’t get stressed and let the red mist take over. That’s when your mindset goes and you often end up wasting energy.”
Karla Boddy Winner 2013 Cheshire Classic
“Before races, I don’t have much of a routine or anything. I like to not really think about it too much and not stress. During the race, there’s only so much you can do, and I try not to sweat the small stuff. Then, with about 4km to go, as a sprinter, a switch flicks in my head and I become a lot more assertive and I begin to move up.
“I think psychology is a big factor when it comes to the difference between pros and amateurs; it’s their mindset that makes the top pros good at what they do. There are so many riders at lower level that have the physiology to win races, but they just don’t have it mentally.”
Negative thoughts are one of the biggest contributors to performance anxiety and can even lead to incorrect decisions during your race.
More often than not, for amateur athletes, the race has been lost before you have even started, all because of the negative messages you are sending to yourself.
“My legs don’t feel great today,” or “I didn’t get a good night’s sleep,” are just a few examples of talking yourself out of it. These thoughts need to be turned around. “I have a good feeling about today,” or “I’m up for this race, no matter what’s thrown in front of me” are simple statements that have a big impact. Especially if repeated.
Research has indicated that those who continually practise positive self-talk will improve their performance. But make sure the statements are realistic. Repeating to yourself on a climb that you’re going to drop the field in your wake and become the next Bradley Wiggins is unrealistic and will have less of an impact. So keep it relevant and specific to you.
This article was first published in the May 9 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us.