Psych It Up! The Mental Game
We have spent a lot of bandwidth over the past 2+ years honing your physical fitness. However, that’s only part of the story. Your legs may be made of steel, but if your brain is made of oatmeal, you’re not going to get very far in a sport as tough as cycling. The difference in my breakthrough first-ever win in a race was not having great legs, but the incredible mental focus I had throughout every single metre of the entire race. As mental fitness is often the key determinant to a peak performance, let’s start a series looking at ways to sharpen your noodle to take advantage of that awesome fitness…
Keys to Success
As amateurs and weekend warriors, the great thing about the sport of bicycling is that we can get pretty much the identical gear as our pro heroes. Besides how to style, the other critical thing we can learn from the top athletes in the world is their mental approach to the game. The field of sport psychology, even more so than exercise physiology, learns a lot from studying what makes top athletes so good. What are some of the key differentiating characteristics of Olympic and World medalists?
Self-awareness and Innovation
Great self-awareness along with a “let’s try” attitude is a hallmark of top athletes in all sports. Over years, they have developed an excellent self-awareness in terms of knowing what physically, psychologically, and technically works best for them. For example, they (and their coaches) are excellent at monitoring themselves, and know when to take it easy and when to push their training. They have developed mental routines and warmup plans that work for them, and basically know exactly what they need to do to achieve a peak performance. At the same time, they are also open to experimenting with new ideas and are not stuck in a rut for its own sake.
You’ve seen this over and over with Lance the past six years. He knows precisely how to get himself into top shape for Le Tour year after year and he is not afraid to stick with this plan, regardless of what anyone else in the sport may think or want.
The best example of the “let’s try” attitude was Greg LeMond, who took an “American” approach to the traditions of European cycling and almost single-handedly ushered in the modern era of the sport with his drive to innovate and do things that work for him. Aerobars, clipless pedals, sunglasses, big salaries, focusing on select races, power monitors, even full-zip jerseys – the list of things Greg changed or popularized is astounding.
Commitment to Excel
At the upper reaches of the sport, there simply is no faking it. The top pros dedicate themselves to their athletic goals, and everything in their lives revolves around achieving these goals. This includes not just commitment and focus during your planned workouts, it means molding your entire life and lifestyle to your athletic goals.
OK, you’re saying, the pros get paid to ride and that’s their entire job. They don’t have a full-time job in addition. Fair enough, up to a point. However, the clichй of a 24/7 athlete is a clichй because it’s absolutely true regardless of whether cycling pays your wages or the other way around.
If you want to get the most from your training, you cannot just leave the sport behind when you hang your bike up at the end of a ride. Too much trouble to stretch? Not getting enough sleep? Haphazard or lousy diet? Not planning your training and just going riding? Have no mental or physical warmup plan? Falling completely out of shape over the winter? These components of the athletic lifestyle remain the same for every cyclist, and deserve your full attention if you truly wish to unlock your genetic potential.
The Road Ahead
Neither of these characteristics are developed overnight or at the flick of a switch. Like our physical and techical skills, mental fitness requires training and repeated practice.
The Toolbox gang will be starting a series on sport psychology topics over the coming months to get you started towards the 2005 season on the right mental note. Some of the topics we will cover include mental preparation for competition by developing pre-race mental rituals, sustaining mental focus during races, visualization and imagery, arousal and attention, performance blocks and distractions, and other topics poking into this fascinating object called our brain.
Got any other sport psych topics you’d like to see? Drop me a line!
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and his brain has yet to turn to mush despite too much kids TV with his two boys! Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].