Toolbox: Making a Difference in Your Mental Fitness
Amateur and professional cyclists spend a great deal of time, energy, and money on physical fitness, and rightly so. And yet, it is often mental fitness that makes the difference in riding, training, and competition. When you assess the mental skills you need on the bike, and begin improving the skills that aren’t yet strong enough, you’re on your way to getting much more from the sport.
By Marv Zauderer
Earlier this year, I attended an impassioned presentation by the great actor, director, and photographer Leonard Nimoy (best known as “Mr. Spock” from “Star Trek”). In one of his final public appearances, he touched and uplifted an audience of thousands by telling vivid stories from his life as a performer. In the 1950’s, he told us, he moved to Los Angeles from Boston to try to make it as an actor, working all sorts of day and night jobs to get by. One night in 1956, driving a taxi, he was asked to pick up a man at the Bel Air Hotel. Senator John F. Kennedy climbed in.
They got to talking: about their shared history in Boston, about the adversity and disappointment the struggling Nimoy was facing in his career. “There’s a lot of competition in your business,” said Kennedy, “just like mine.” Nimoy nodded. “Just keep in mind,” said Kennedy, “there’s always room for one more good one.” At that moment, Nimoy set his mind to becoming one of the best – accompanied, during every challenging time, by JFK’s words.
For athletes, like actors, the body may be ready and willing to perform, but the mind… not so much. Self-doubt, nerves, uncertainty, frustration, distractions, hesitation, fear, intimidation – all of these are obstacles to accessing your full physical potential. The body that you work so hard to train can be derailed, in a moment, by a limitation in mental fitness. But what does “mental fitness” mean, really? The effortless integration of body and mind, working in harmony to produce a feeling of flow, of being in the elusive zone? Well, yes, that’s a glorious experience when (if!) it happens, and working on your mental skills makes it much more likely that it will. But for most of us, mental fitness is most often about using your mind on your mind. It’s about using images, feelings, thoughts, memories, actions, relationships, and words – including, perhaps, words from someone who believes in you – to clear the obstacles out of the way.
Five years ago, I began this Sport Psychology column with this: “In a complete training program, the mind is as important as the body.” Now, 52 articles later, it’s time for me to leave the terrific PEZ team and move on to new writing projects – on my blog, where you can find all of the articles, and beyond. I leave the column in the very capable hands of Jim Taylor, who will begin in February. So today, let’s take a tour of what we’ve covered over the last five years, and sum up how you can strengthen your mental skills on and off the bike. (For those of you new to PEZ, words in blue are links to articles that give you more details on building mental fitness. And welcome to PEZ!)
Strengthening Your Mental Skills
To develop a plan for strengthening the mental side of your game, you need to be honest with yourself. What are your mental and emotional strengths? Where do you struggle? Your self-awareness is crucial, and it’s not just about self-assessment. It’s about self-confrontation. Why? Because exploring your mental/emotional limitations and how they’re affecting your experience on the bike… well, your ego may not like that process. If it feels threatened, it may try to hide some of the truth from you, or keep you away from the territory altogether. The strongest part of you – the part that wants you to grow and knows you can handle how it feels to really know your limitations – needs to override your ego. And if at first, you need some help with the process – from a friend, a family member, a coach, a sport psychology professional, or a psychotherapist – so be it. Sometimes others can see things about us that we can’t – or won’t. And sometimes others have just the right suggestion, if only we give them a chance. In this kind of work, it takes strength to feel and show vulnerability. And that just leads to more strength within.
In taking stock of your mental fitness, first evaluate your proficiency (say, on a 1 to 10 scale) with the 5 Core Skills:
• Goal-Setting: Do you have goals for your riding, training, and/or racing? Do you monitor your progress and modify your goals if need be? Is cycling in balance with the rest of your life? Do you overtrain? As management guru Peter Drucker taught, set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. Set not only outcome goals (eg., “Finish in the top 10,”) but process goals as well (eg. “Keep good form and contact with the group on every climb.”) Check in regularly to make sure your goals are still right for you.
• Positive Self-Talk: Does the voice in your head sound like a good coach or a bad coach? Are you using your self-talk to help you perform at your best during challenging times? Or is it making it harder for you? Does it often compare you negatively with other people? You can learn to stop negative thoughts, to reduce the anxiety that fuels them, and to replace negative thoughts with the kinds of questions, counterstatements, affirmations, cue words, and positive actions that make your self-talk work for you, rather than against you.
• Managing Emotions: Do you manage – and use – anger and aggression effectively? Do you get nervous on descents, while cornering, in packs, in pacelines? Have trouble sleeping before events? Do you ever hesitate or back off when you should attack or sprint? Ever get pre-race or pre-event jitters? How do you handle pressure? How do you handle the risk of crashing? Stress, anxiety, tension, nerves, fear: they’re the most common bugaboos for amateur and professional athletes. Your positive self-talk and breathing techniques are tools you can use on the bike, and you can add in such tools as visualization as part of effective pre-event stress management.
• Concentration: Can you stay focused when you want to? How quickly do you refocus when you get distracted? Do you know which one of the four focus styles is yours? It’s critically important to know your top distractors and have a plan for what to do if they arise. And many athletes can tell you that it’s wise to have a pre-event preparation routine that gets you to the start line focused.
• Communication: Do you speak with others – family, friends, teammates, coaches, competitors – from the heart? How well do you embrace and manage conflict? Does anxiety about communicating – with certain people, in certain situations – get the better of you, or do you notice the anxiety and manage it?
Then, assess your mastery of the more advanced skills:
• Speaking of which, how much can you suffer? Can you always give everything to stay on a wheel, stay in a break, catch back on, ride solo to the finish?
• Can you sustain your motivation for training, riding, or competing if anything threatens to dampen it? How do you respond when things don’t go your way? And specifically, how skilled are you at recovering from injury and crashes?
Write down all of the above skills and the score you’re giving yourself for each. Make sure you’re not being too hard or too easy on yourself. Most likely, if you work successfully on any skill that’s a 7 or below, you’ll see an impact on your riding. Developing a plan to do that work involves knitting together the steps that feel right to you from the articles referenced above. And there’s more.
Bringing it All Back Home
Much of performing at your best is about having self-confidence. And much of sport psychology is about building it. What can erode self-confidence? Yep, our old nemesis, anxiety, and its band of siblings: fear, worry, nerves, and the rest. What’s the anxiety about? Well, on one level, it’s a fear that something bad will happen – failure, disappointment, a crash, pain, embarrassment – and a bracing against that. What’s the strongest antidote for anxiety? Connection.
How about getting a coach, or if you already have one, working to improve that relationship? Maybe you’d do well to join a team, or if you’re already on one, to get more strongly connected by assuming a leadership role. Or, you may need to ask for more support from others in your life.
But your feeling of connectedness starts with your connection with yourself. Ask yourself this: What does supporting yourself really mean? Maybe it’s time for you to put failure in its place: to not let the times where you fell short of your goals continue to have such power over you. Maybe you, like many, need to quiet a longstanding voice in your head that whispers, “I’m not good enough.” Or, it might be tapping into the rocket fuel of desire – to grow, to get stronger, to win – that connects you more strongly with yourself. It might be connecting with a higher power. It might be choosing to compete and allowing the intensity of competition to bring you in closer contact with yourself. It may be seizing the moment alone on a climb, on a group ride, in a century, or in a race, and discovering what you’re made of.
That’s the power of cyclotherapy – the power of our sport to build your self-confidence, help you grow, and bring you some of the most meaningful experiences of your life. With cycling, you have the opportunity to experience the deepest parts of yourself: desire, fear, darkness, suffering and survival, aggression, awe, and joy. Make it your business to go there and get the most from our beautiful sport.
I thank you all for your attention, contributions, and support over these past five years. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to write for you, and I wish you good health and good riding. See you out there!
Marv Zauderer, in his sport performance coaching practice, works with amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for peak performance. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marv co-leads the Mental Skills Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to athletes. Having had a 20-year career in high technology previously, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. He is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. You can email Marv at [email protected] His website is www.marvinz.com and his blog is marvzauderer.wordpress.com.