Mental Skills for Training and Racing
Being physically gifted is only one attribute of a successful
athlete. There are many others that are not so easily quantified
such as drive, ambition, determination, and the ability to
focus mentally through adversity. These mental skills are
not genetically imposed, but are learned from a variety of
sources such as parents, coaches, sport psychologists and
other athletes. Learning and refining your mental skills can
give you an advantage over more talented but less focused
athletes. The ability to focus mentally is equally important
in training and racing, and can make each work out more productive.
Mental skills are an often neglected part of training. It
is advantageous to develop and refine your mental as well
as your physical skills.
There are many internal and external stimuli that can invade
your psyche and cause you to lose focus. Examples of external
stimuli are weather, a chronic injury, or a malfunctioning
bicycle. Internal factors that can reduce focus are fear (crash),
self doubt, anger at another competitor, or simply a wandering
mind. There are a variety of techniques to combat these stimuli.
They include scanning, self coaching, reverse conditioning,
Scanning is the practice of regularly monitoring and adjusting
yourself as you train or race. If you use a heart rate monitor
you must periodically check to make sure you are in the proper
heart rate zone. Have you ever looked at your monitor and
found yourself 10 beats out of your range? Scanning can prevent
this from happening. Safety is a foremost concern, so make
sure you are scanning the upcoming terrain, the course for
obstacles or road debris, the riders around you, and traffic.
Scanning your environment is especially important in a pack
or pace line where you are riding in close quarters. Assuming
you have a work out that considers heart rate, cadence, and
timed intervals you must monitor and be aware of all these
systems as you ride. Practice scanning this data at regular
intervals and it will become a habit. You can also scan your
riding for bad form, or to remind yourself to eat and drink.
If you have particular techniques that need improvement, check
your form every few minutes. "Is my back straight?" "Am I
in proper climbing position?" Dehydration can drastically
affect performance. You can set a watch alarm to remind yourself
to drink every 10-15 minutes.
Have you ever talked to yourself as you competed or trained?
You can develop the voice inside your head into a self coach
by preparing mental responses to various cues or situations
as you ride. If you have worked with a coach he or she observes
your form and gives you instant feedback which, hopefully,
you respond to and correct yourself. You can recreate these
same coaching responses to cues and follow them with positive
feedback. Take cornering for example. When you approach a
turn (cue) you may repeat this sequence "SET IT UP (meaning
choose your line), LEAN (into the turn), STAND (on the outside
pedal), NOW HAMMER! (out of the turn)." By repeating this
sequence you go through the mental process of properly cutting
a turn, and are less likely to make a mistake. You already
know mentally what to do, you just follow through physically.
If you have a particular technical weakness, try to come up
with a word sequence or sentence to talk yourself through
the process. Mainly what you are accomplishing is creating
a conscious habit. Eventually it will be performed automatically,
and will become subconscious. As you complete a skill, give
yourself positive feedback and encouragement as a coach would
such as "good climb," or "time to sprint." If you did not
complete a task to satisfaction, objectively evaluate what
went wrong and provide yourself specific feedback for improvement:
"I hit my brakes too late in the turn."
Just as positive reinforcement helps you improve, negative
reinforcement holds you back by fixating on your weaknesses.
Negative thinking is like a headwind; it allows self-doubt
to creep in and allows you to lose focus. There is nothing
to be gained from this type of thinking, and it can reduce
your performance or shut you down completely. Take the two
phrases, "I can" and "I can't." If you were to perform two
challenging climbs repeating each phrase over and over, which
climb would you perform better on? Everyone has negative thoughts
enter their mind. When they do, reverse conditioning can help
combat that negativity. Simply come up with a counter phrase
to combat the negative thought. Suppose you show up for your
race and it starts to rain, instead of thinking "this will
really slow me down," tell yourself "this will really slow
the other riders down." Have a catch phrase or word to halt
negative thinking before it enters your psyche such as "nothing
is slowing me down," or "forward!" Do not fixate on that which
is out of your control (weather), and stay focused on the
current process (not the awards ceremony). Be specific in
your reverse conditioning. If you are struggling on a climb,
combat "I am not a climber," with "FORWARD! Smooth, steady,
keep your spin up, and watch your form."
Visualization mentally prepares and focuses you on the job
ahead. By walking through, and practicing a process in your
head you are more likely to perform it properly in reality.
An area I have found visualization particularly useful in
is transitions. By visualizing each component of transition
in order, dismounting, removing your helmet, shoes, etc.,
it will become more automatic in a race. Ride the course a
day before the race, and then go over it in your head the
night before. Where are the hills? Where are you strongest?
Where should you attack? If you have a particularly difficult
work out, visualize your effort and the outcome (improvement)
before you start.
Essentially, the more intense the work the more important
these mental skills will become. It is far easier to stay
focused during an easy foundation work out, versus a hard
tempo pace. The more specific the work becomes the more monitoring
and mental focus is required. Racing is the most intense work
you will do. If you have yourself mentally prepared and conditioned
before the race you are already ahead.
Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes around
the country and internationally. He currently holds licenses
by USAT, USATF, and is an Expert level USAC coach. Matt has
coached athletes for CTS (Carmichael Training Systems), is
an Ultrafit Associate. Visit www.thesportfactory.com
for more information.
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