Toolbox: Mind of a Champ
The sport science of cycling primarily gets focused on the physical aspects of performance. But ask any elite performer and they will tell you that it is mental strength that allows them to truly compete and win. Long time contributor Josh Horowitz sat down with Levi Leipheimer to discuss his mental approach to racing and its evolution over his career.
More than the Engine
At the 2006 Interbike trade show, Levi Leipheimer and I got together to discuss sports psychology and his mental approach to racing. I gave him a copy of my product, ‘The Ultimate Cyclist’ CD and he quickly incorporated it into his training program. Since that meeting he has won the Tour of California twice, the U.S. Pro Road Championship, stood on the podium at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana and brought home a bronze medal from Beijing.
Levi is extremely focused and precise in his physical preparation and he concentrates on every aspect of his conditioning both on and off the bike. That being said, a string of successes like his cannot be credited to physical prowess alone. It takes incredible confidence and mental strength to go almost a month without a single mistake or misstep in a Grand Tour or to handle the pressure of a one day do-or-die event such as the Olympic Time Trial.
So, what really goes on in the inner workings of the mind of a world-class athlete? It’s a question that aspiring winners all want answered. Recently I sat down with Levi and asked him some pressing questions about his road to victory.
Pez: How has your approach to mental training developed over the course of your career?
Levi Leipheimer Mental strength is the definition of experience. Mental strength is knowing your abilities and the abilities of the competition. Then you are confident and secure to make the right decisions. My experience is a huge edge on the competition. Every year I become stronger physically but even more so mentally. I have learned how to set myself up to be mentally ready for an important race. I can better visualize and prepare for races. Mental training is like a muscle, it takes a lot of training to become strong. And just like training the body, I can always improve all aspects of my mental game.
Pez: What’s going through your head while you are sitting in the starting gate of a Grand Tour Time Trial?
Levi If I have prepared as best as possible then my head is usually clear and focused on the effort and the pain that is about to occur. In order to win, you have to suffer more than anyone else and you have to believe you can win to push yourself to that point.
Pez: How does your mental approach to a prologue time trial differ from that for a 40 km time trial, and do you have any mental tricks that keep you focused or help you push through the pain in a long time trial?
Levi A prologue is like a long time trial in most ways except you have to arrive at the start mentally and physically hot. You need to feel and taste that red line a little beforehand. Believe you can win! Believe in achieving a new level
Pez: Have you ever mentally given up on a race that in retrospect you know you could have won?
LeviFor sure, although that happens less because after you experience it a couple of times that feeling becomes the motivation to not let it happen again.
Pez: Do you still get nervous and if so, when?
Levi Yes. For the big races, the races I have set as goals and looked forward to for a long time. I’m not afraid to be nervous, I believe it’s a good sign and I try to think of it as a positive thing.
Pez: Do you ever get to the point where you absolutely dread getting back on the bike? You’re tired and burnt out. How do you deal with that?
LeviYes, there are easy days immediately after big events and half travel/ training days that I dread getting on the bike but I know it’s part of the big picture and I remind myself that not every day can be a great day on the bike and those “dreaded” days are part of the formula for success.
Levi and Josh at Interbike, with the little cd that changed his mind.
Pez: Were you ever formally introduced to sports psychology and if so when?
Levi Yes but very late in my career. I had to learn positive reinforcement the long and hard way. The past few years, I’ve also used The Ultimate Cyclist CD in my training. I use the CD in the afternoon when I am recovering from a training ride or race, during massage is an excellent time. It has taught me to relax at every possible moment, physically and mentally. Even in the races if there’s a small downhill when I’m not pedaling I try to relax my muscles one by one and turn everything off. I learned about positive thinking, focus and relaxation the long and hard way. I especially have trouble sleeping in stage races when it’s hard to relax after the race. This is where the CD can help short term. I have no doubt I could have improved at a faster rate had I used the Ultimate Cyclist from the beginning.
Pez: Do fans at the races psych you up, stress you out, or do you tune it out all together?
Levi No, in the race I don’t think about that, I’m focused and I forget about everything else. They psyche me up but for the most part they are tuned out.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com.