What’s on this blog and how to find things

Welcome to my blog.

There are 52 articles here, each of which is at most a few screenfuls. They’re about strengthening the mental side of your riding, and how that can help strengthen you off the bike as well.

This page is your navigation page. Each article is listed by title and hotlinked (in blue) here, and grouped into the categories you also see on the right side of the page. The categories and articles:

Evaluate Your Mental Skills — This can be a good place to start, since the articles in this section have links to many of the other articles on this blog. Articles in this section:

Making a Difference in Your Mental Fitness — My most recent post, and a great launching point for your exploration of mental fitness; lots of links here.

Assessing Your Mental Fitness — Simple steps to self-evaluation.

The 5 Core Skills — In my work with athletes, I’ve found that five mental skills are central to mental fitness. Articles in this section:

Overview — Introduces the core skills.

Goal-Setting — How to set goals and manage yourself to them.

Effective Self-Talk — How to stop being hard on yourself.

Managing Emotions — Your nerves/stress/fears, in particular, can get in your way big-time.

Concentration — How to create, sustain, and regain focus.

Communication — Key skills that help you with teammates, coaches, and others.

Integral Elements — The building blocks of the 5 Core Skills. Articles in this section:

Self-Awareness — It all starts here. How to strengthen it.

Building Self-Confidence — It all ends here. How to strengthen it.

Breathing Techniques — A fundamental tool for focus and de-stressing.

Visualization — Another fundamental tool for focus and de-stressing.

Advanced Skills — Your work on the Core Skills, and their Integral Elements, gives you a foundation for building higher-level skills. Articles in this section:

Increasing Your Tolerance for Suffering — When the going gets tough, manage the pain longer.

Sustaining Motivation — How to beat back the downers.

Handling Pressure — Builds on Managing Emotions article re: managing stress.

Managing Your Will to Succeed — Not too little, not too much.

Setting and Challenging Limits — What are yours? How and when to push them?

Beating the Winter Blues — You might feel low in the winter months; here’s what to do about it.

Putting Failure in its Place — Everyone falls short sometimes. Don’t let it throw you.

Moving Forward by Letting Go, Part 1 — Sometimes it’s better to give in than dig in.

Choosing to Compete — How to make the decision.

Seize the Moment in Your Race — How to give everything at the crucial moment.

How Much is Too Much? — When to push through, and when to back off.

When Things Don’t Go Your Way– When the game changes, the mentally fit cyclist avoids common traps and quickly restores focus, motivation, and commitment.

Pre-Race Mental Preparation — How to get to the start mentally ready.

Relationships — Relationships can have a huge effect on sport performance: Coaches, teammates, competitors, even your relationship with yourself. These articles help you figure out how to get (and, sometimes, give) the support you need:

Self-Interest and Cooperation — Manage the tension between personal goals and those of the group, team, and sport.

Comparing Yourself With Others — It can be helpful, and it can be toxic. Here’s how to know.

Get the Most from a Coach, Part 1 — Keys to developing an effective relationship.

Get the Most from a Coach, Part 2 — Building blocks of good coaching, from coaches who know.

The Importance of Being Supported — The mentally fit cyclist knows which types of support to look for, ask for and put in place.

Supporting Yourself — Giving yourself what you need – and not giving yourself what you don’t need – affects your performance, fun, and results on the bike.

Leading and Following — Both on and off the bike, how to influence other cyclists for their benefit, for yours, and for the good of the team/group.

The Other Side of Competition — What can the heat of competition transform within you?

Injury — These articles help you prevent and recover from injuries:

Recovering from Crashes, Part 1 — Pro Steven Cozza, his coach, and his doctor tell you how he did it.

Recovering from Crashes, Part 2 – Here’s how you can do it.

Living With the Risk of Crashing — How to cope with the danger of our sport.

Recovering from Injury, Part 1 — The five-step process.

Recovering from Injury, Part 2 — Pro Ted King of Liquigas-Cannondale and Dr. Renee Newcomer Appaneal give you tips.

Integrating — The articles here are about integrating intellect, emotions, body, and spirit in sport, and some deeper things — such as desire, perfectionism, and anger — that we athletes can come up against in ourselves as we work on the mental side of our game. Articles in this section:

Integrating Body and Mind — When you improve the connection between body and mind, you can more effectively develop your mental skills.

The Power of Cyclotherapy — In addition to working so hard on your cycling, how about letting cycling work more deeply on you?

How Good Do You Need to Be? — The mentally fit cyclist knows how to silence the voice that says, “I’m not good enough.”

How Bad Do You Need to Be? — Being tough. Being aggressive. Getting angry. It could be exactly what you need.

Higher Power? — Connecting cycling and spiritual life may offer a powerful source of inner strength and fulfillment for the mentally fit cyclist.

Desire — It can make the difference between missing out and getting the most from your cycling – and yourself.

Interviews — A number of candid interviews here with mentally fit athletes. In this section:

Moving Forward by Letting Go, Part 2 — Laura Charameda, Frankie Andreu, and Dylan Casey help us understand what we can learn about letting go from their experiences leaving the pro peloton.

The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro Cyclist — Pros Katheryn Curi Mattis, Steven Cozza, and Ben Jacques-Maynes tell some surprising and inspiring stories.

More Minds of Mentally Fit Pros — Pros Amber Neben, Scott Nydam, Christine Thorburn, and Tom Zirbel talk about what it takes to succeed in a stage race, and how we mere mortals can apply that wisdom on and off the bike.

The Mind of a Mentally Fit EuroPro — Pros Andy Hampsten, Meredith Miller, and Amber Rais explain how mixing it up in Europe strengthened their mental skills.

The Mind to Ride Around the World — The amazing Roei “Jinji” Sadan describes the mental skills he used on his 40,000-mile journey.

Improving Your Sleep — A doctor and cyclist tells you how.

Teens — How to work with, and learn from, teen athletes on their core mental skills. Articles here:

Coaching Core Mental Skills with Teen Cyclists — A free PDF that can help you coach teens.

Beginner’s Mind, Part 1 — An updated version of the PDF.

Beginner’s Mind, Part 2 — Three teen cyclists talk about the mental side of their game.

Each of the articles has links — words in blue — that will take you to related articles (in a separate window). All of the articles, in some cases in slightly different form, were originally published on PezCyclingNews.com.

Please leave comments if you wish — I’d love to hear from you.

You can click any of the links in blue above, or this will take you back to my most recent post.

All the best, Marv

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.

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:

• How are you at managing your will and your limits – do you know when you’re pushing too hard, and when you’re not pushing hard enough?

• 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!

The 5 Core Skills of Mentally Fit Athletes

In a complete training program, the mind is as important as the body. Many top amateur and professional athletes know that mental fitness, as much or more than physical fitness, gives them an edge over their competitors. But just what is mental training and what is it not?

By Marv Zauderer

How’s your self-confidence on the bike? Your concentration? Do you ever have stress from being too hard on yourself, from goals that aren’t quite right, from dealing with crashes and injuries, or from relationships with other riders? We spend endless hours planning and performing our physical training, but many of us neglect our mental fitness.

Mentally fit athletes focus on these five core skills:

Goal-setting. Before I realized the importance of cycling to my well-being and to ultimate peace on earth, I worked in Corporate America. There I learned that objectives should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. Lo and behold, it applies to your cycling, too. If you don’t ensure that your goals are set correctly, you may be setting yourself up for needless disappointment, frustration, and self-blame, not to mention under- or overtraining and burnout. But, if you use your brainpower to set well-tuned goals, you’ll set yourself up to maximize your motivation and to build on successes.

Self-talk. Try this: the next time you’re on the bike, pay close attention to any chatter in your head. If the din isn’t too loud, parse out the things you’re saying to yourself. Things like, “I’m really feeling strong today,” “I’m definitely going to get dropped,” “I need to be in the front third of the field,” or “She’s much stronger than me today.” Are these thoughts helping you? Distracting you? Making you feel worse? Better? Thoughts affect feelings, and feelings affect thoughts. Becoming more aware of how you talk to yourself is the first step toward improving that conversation. Although you may hire a coach, you still need to be a good coach for yourself.

Arousal management. No, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not talking about the Daily Distractions or that “Cycling Men of Italy” calendar you saw at Borders. We’re talking about emotions: anger, disappointment, elation, frustration, fear. Take fear, for example. Fear, anxiety, stress, tension, worry, pressure: they’re all in the same family, and it’s a family that can be worse to be in than the Simpsons. If your stress level is above threshold, so to speak, or if you’re having bursts of unproductive anxiety during a ride or race, you may be paying a price. Anxiety can drive lapses in concentration, needless energy-wasting, increased heart rate, poor decision-making, panicky braking or swerving, and all sorts of other Bad Things. On the other hand, a bit of anxiety – as any experienced public speaker will tell you – can push you to be razor-sharp in your performance. Achieving that “edge” means not just managing but also using your central nervous system’s arousal. It can be a Good Thing. Your tools? Self-talk, mental imagery, and breathing techniques all come in handy when you’re working on managing arousal during a ride or race. And having an effective pre-ride or pre-race mental preparation routine can get you off to a great start.

Concentration. Managing your attention is critically important to your chances of attaining optimal performance. If you lose focus, you may miss your best chance to attack, respond too late when you’re being attacked, invite the risk of a crash, or just plain waste time in your workout. To improve concentration, it’s important to recognize recurring distractions, to know at all times where your focus should be, to manage your anxiety and reactions to stressors, and to have a refocusing plan (often involving self-talk) for each of your major distractions. And lapses in concentration don’t have to become catastrophes if you refocus well. It’s a bit like watching a singer: she may forget the words, but it’s how skillfully she recovers that determines whether the show grinds to a halt or gets smoothly back on track.

People skills. If you’re training with other riders, if you’re a member of a cycling club or racing team, or if you have a coach, your people skills are likely to have a direct effect on your enjoyment, stress, and performance. For example, you may feel the need to train alone in order to do your workouts effectively, but you may have team members who resent that. Or you may have difficulty telling your coach that his approach isn’t working for you. Or you may need to step forward and be the leader of your team. Assertiveness, communication, and empathy are only some of the people skills that you may need to improve if you’re going to reach your cycling goals.

What is NOT Sport Psych
In addition to knowing what sport psychology is, it’s also important to know what it is not. If you’re struggling with psychological issues that seem to go beyond what’s described above, don’t hesitate: get an assessment by a licensed mental health professional. Depression, anxiety that significantly impairs your work, relationships, or other aspects of your life, and eating disorders are three examples of clinical issues that should not be a focus of sport psychology work.

Any sport psychology professional worth their salt would know to refer you to a licensed psychotherapist, licensed counselor, psychiatrist, or other qualified mental health professional at the first sign of any clinical issues. If you want to pursue an assessment on your own, good sources for referrals might include friends, your doctor, or the Psychology Today “Find a Therapist” countrywide service.

Other Sport Psych Resources
Speaking of resources, what should you do if you want to work on these core Mental Training skills? If you want to study on your own, here are a couple of books that I’ve used:

U.S. Olympic Committee Mental Training Manual

Sport Psychology for Cyclists, by Dr. Saul Miller and Peggy Maass Hill

If you have a coach, s/he may be qualified to work with you on these skills. At a recent USA Cycling seminar that I attended, I heard a prominent elite-level cycling coach say that 90% of his work with his athletes was on mental training. If you’re looking for a cycling coach, the USA Cycling website has a national directory

You can also work on these skills with a Sport Psychologist or Sport Psychology Consultant. The American Psychological Association has published this guide to selecting a sport psychology professional.
Many professionals in the field work by phone and/or email as well as in person.

In upcoming articles, I’ll go into detail on the core skills, giving you practical tips that you can use on and off the bike. Do you have a specific topic that you’d like me to address? I’d like to hear from you. I want to know what – and how – you’re thinking (and feeling)!

Goal-Setting and Goal Management

Goal-setting is a common weakness for struggling athletes and a common strength for successful athletes. Do it wrong – or avoid it altogether – and watch your chances for success plummet. Do it right, and watch your motivation and self-confidence improve. For many athletes, it’s the key to enhancing performance.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, I introduced the five core skills of mentally fit athletes: Goal-Setting, Self-Talk, Arousal Management, Concentration, and People Skills. This month, I explore Goal-Setting in more depth.

Let’s start with a research-proven fact: if you believe in yourself, you’re more likely to be successful. I know that’s not rocket science. But ask yourself: what affects your belief in yourself as an athlete?

Many years ago, psychologist Albert Bandura defined, studied, and expanded the concept of self-efficacy: the belief that you have the power to produce a desired effect. If, for a particular task, your self-efficacy is high, you’re more likely to engage in that task. You’re also more likely to work harder and be more persistent. And, you’re more likely to attribute failure to external factors (“My training wasn’t tuned well for this race”) rather than low ability (“I suck”). How can you increase self-efficacy and keep it high in your cycling? Effectively set, commit to, plan for, manage to, evaluate, and re-set your goals. (Or, just win every race you enter.) If you set and manage your goals well, you create the conditions to maintain a strong belief in yourself.

Get SMART
In my former career as a corporate guy, the concept of Management By Objectives was repeatedly drummed into my brain. Surprisingly, it helped. Coined by management guru Peter Drucker, MBO stressed that all goals be SMART:

Specific. Rather than defining vague goals (“Get stronger”, “Do well in races”), strive for precision (“Climb Mount Diablo in under 60 minutes”, “Finish in the top third of the field in every race”). This will increase the likelihood that your plan to meet your goals will itself be specific enough. It will also make it easier for you to identify the resources you need to meet your goals.

Measurable. For each goal, ask yourself: How will I know I’ve achieved this? Once you’ve answered that question, make sure the answer is part of the goal.

Achievable. Be careful here. It’s important to have “stretch” goals – goals that truly challenge you – but don’t stretch too far; you may tear something. A leading cause of overtraining and burnout is maniacal pursuit of goals that are truly not achievable. (And don’t forget the converse: your motivation may take a hit from too many easy goals.) If you’re having difficulty honing in on the right level of challenge, use the “Three Bears” approach: pick a goal that you think is just too hard to achieve (“too hot”). Then pick one that you’re 99% sure you’ll achieve (“too cold”). Now pick a goal that’s hard to do, but in between. Evaluate it, and if it’s still too hard or too easy, go in between again. Eventually, you’ll find one that works (“just right”).

Relevant. Drucker actually used “realistic,” but I learned it this way, and I find it more, well, relevant. You could have a very specific, measurable, achievable goal (“Increase peak sprinting power 40% by August 1”), but if you’re training for Paris-Brest-Paris, that goal might be irrelevant or even counter-productive. One way of maximizing relevance is to have a small number of long-term objectives, and to ensure your short-term goals support those objectives. For example, “Set a new personal record in the 200K brevet” might support the larger goal of completing Paris-Brest-Paris in under 80 hours.

Timebound. The most common goal-setting error I see is not having the question “When?” addressed in the goal. Perhaps the goal-setter has not fully considered what needs to happen first in order for the goal to be achieved. Or perhaps the goal-setter hasn’t thought about whether the point in the training or racing season has an effect on the goal. “Climb Mount Diablo in under an hour” is much different from “Climb Mount Diablo in under an hour at the race on October 7,” which is different from “Climb Mount Diablo in under an hour by October 7.” Note that you may often have goals for a specific workout, and it may serve you to have goals even in the middle of a difficult climb (“I’m going to get to that ‘17% Grade’ sign at this pace,” “Now I’m going to get to that ‘Share the Road’ sign at this pace.”).

Once you’ve drafted your goals, check them over. For each goal, ask yourself: Can I do it? If you are too nervous about a goal, judge whether your anxiety means that you should change the goal, or whether you’re anxious for reasons – eg. fear of failure, lack of sufficient support or resources — other than the content of the goal. If the latter, there is likely a way to manage your anxiety without changing the goal. (I’ll be exploring anxiety management in an upcoming article).

Goal Management
Another common mistake, made even by good goal-setters, is to take your eye off the ball. Once you’ve set goals, it’s important to manage to them. As such, it’s wise to evaluate your progress against your goals regularly, acknowledge your successes, analyze times where you came up short, and re-set goals when appropriate. Effective goal-setting also involves these management techniques:

Make goal-setting a habit. Some athletes only focus on goals when things are going poorly.

Pay attention to process goals, not just outcome goals. Goals such as “Be relaxed at the starting line of all races,” and “Maintain good technique whenever I’m dropped on a climb” may not be sexy, but they could be critically important process-oriented goals that support a larger outcome goal (“Place in the top 10 at the Mount Tamalpais Hillclimb”). If you emphasize individual improvement or mastery goals – not just competitive goals — you give yourself broader opportunities for success, increased self-efficacy, and increased motivation.

Evaluate and potentially reset your goals if you get sick, injured, or change your schedule significantly. There’s no shame in retooling as a result of forces beyond your control. (Actually, there’s no shame in retooling as a result of forces within your control, either.)

Beware of goal-creep. Say you had a goal of finishing in the top third of a race field. You get to the finish, and you decide you haven’t “left it all out there”; you could have made the Top 10. So, you start to feel disappointed, and you start berating yourself for missing the break, or not going harder on the final climb. Although there may be truth to your analysis, don’t let this distract you from the fact that you did achieve your goal. Avoid lapsing into a way of relating to yourself where nothing is ever good enough.

Be a good coach for yourself. Experiment with your “coaching style”: when to push yourself, when to back off, when to reward yourself, perhaps even when to make yourself run laps. Notice how you talk to yourself about your performance. (I’ll explore self-talk in an upcoming article.) Use a training log to record not only your progress against your goals, but what you learn about coaching yourself. And if you have a coach, share everything you learn.

The right goals are rocket fuel. They can fire you up when you feel psyched about shooting for them and when you achieve them. They can keep you going with the direction and feedback they provide. And, they can give you a gentle (or hard) kick in the chamois when you might otherwise give up.

Effective Self-Talk

There’s a conversation that goes on in your head while you’re riding, and it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Take a look at it. Are you encouraging yourself? Worried? Beating yourself up? Self-talk can have a big effect on cycling performance. Increasing your awareness of negative self-talk and correcting it could become your most important mental skill.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, I explored Goal-Setting, the first of the five core skills of mentally fit athletes. This month, we look at Self-Talk in more depth.

I can’t climb… I didn’t podium, so this race was a waste of time… I rode badly in a century last month, so I’ll ride badly in this century today… I’m so nervous, I just know something bad is going to happen… I’m so much weaker than her – I’m really a weak rider… I can’t win this race, so why bother finishing…? I’m really a lousy climber – I was just lucky today… The team’s going to fire me if I keep doing so poorly… I should be a better rider by now…

Any of those sound familiar?

What you say to yourself needs to be directed toward improving your performance, not detracting from it. And if you don’t train your self-talk, it can get out of control. Then a challenging situation – being dropped, having a bad day, missing the break – may become insurmountable.

Where does negative self-talk come from? Well, yes, it does come from watching too many Woody Allen movies, but where else? A key source: anxiety. Anxiety – and its cousins: fear, stress, worry, tension, and pressure – tends to fuel negative self-talk, and negative self-talk tends to feed anxiety. There are many ways to manage and reduce anxiety; I’ll cover that in more depth in an upcoming article on regulating emotions. But for now, note that you can interrupt the cycle: stop the negative self-talk, and you remove an important source of anxiety’s fuel. With less negative self-talk, you’ll burn less energy on anxiety, you’ll be more focused, and you’re likely to have more fun.

Types of Negative Self-Talk
In the early 1960’s, Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, researched ways in which our thoughts affect us. He noticed that our minds distort reality at times (no, not those times), and that this can cause negative, unnecessary effects on our feelings and behaviors. He discovered that as we get more objective about situations, sensations, and feelings – what he called “correcting cognitive distortions” – we shift our thinking, and thus our feelings and behavior. Cognitive distortions represent the bulk of most negative self-talk.

Some of the most common cognitive distortions include:

All-or-nothing thinking. Seeing things in absolute, black-and-white terms. You didn’t podium, and so you think you wasted your time?

Being ruled by “should” and “shouldn’t”. You should be a better rider by now? Says who? This kind of self-oppression is sometimes also a sign of perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking, eg. “I’m no good unless I’m perfect.”

Jumping to conclusions. You can’t climb? So you’ve never ridden 100 meters over a 3% grade? You have? How about a 4% grade? A related distortion:

Overgeneralizing, where there’s insufficient (rather than no) evidence for your conclusion. You rode badly in a century a month ago, and that’s unshakable proof that you’ll ride badly in a century today? Hmmm. Sometimes this kind of thinking leads to another distortion: Labeling. You say you’re a “lousy climber?” Why? Because you’ve not yet beaten your friends up a 4-mile, 12% grade? Hmmm.

Magnifying or minimizing. Catastrophizing – dramatically overestimating the chances of something bad happening, like being thrown off the team – is a common kind of magnification. It tends to promote vigilance for the “worst case.” You climbed well today because you were “just lucky?” Sounds like you might be minimizing.

Focusing completely on the negative. Just because she’s stronger than you (today), you’re “really a weak rider?” Are you seeing the whole picture?

“I feel, therefore it is.” “Going with your gut” is a good principle, but taking it too far – “emotional reasoning” – can get you in trouble. Yes, you’re nervous, but that doesn’t mean something bad is going to happen. You may just be nervous.

These patterns of thinking often become habitual. Fortunately, they can be unlearned.

Correcting Negative Self-Talk

As with most everything within ourselves that we want to have a chance to improve, self-awareness is the key. On your next several rides, tune in to your self-talk. Without removing too much of your attention from the road, other riders, and road kill, pay attention to any bits of conversation you have with yourself.

For some of you, this may come easy. For others of you, self-talk may be difficult to notice at first. Try this: pay attention to your breathing. For thousands of years, meditators from a variety of traditions have found that paying close attention to the breath cultivates increased self-awareness, particularly of thoughts and feelings. Or, try this: notice any feelings that come up while riding, and see if you can remember any thoughts that came up before the feelings.

You may find it helpful to keep a log of your positive and negative self-talk. And, you may find it helpful to tell someone about it – your coach, a friend, your spouse – not necessarily to get their advice, but just as a way of “giving voice” to your self-talk. Sometimes when you hear it aloud, it can help you to be more sensitive to it next time.

You may also find it helpful to investigate what seemed to influence the self-talk. Were you happy, sad, scared, angry, tired, embarrassed, nervous, hungry, confident?

When you become aware of negative self-talk, you can use these techniques:

Thought-stopping. Some people use sheer force of will, some visualize a red light or stop sign. Whatever you use, shut that thought down.

Questioning. When you hear negative self-talk, wait. Ask yourself: What’s the evidence for what your mind is saying to you? What’s the proof?

Reducing your anxiety. Depending on whether you’re on or off the bike, use whatever you find soothing (and legal): breathing, meditation, imagery, music, being in nature, talking with a friend. You may not become relaxed, but you’re likely to become more relaxed, perhaps just enough to allow another technique to work.

Thought-replacement. Here’s your counterattack. What could you say (instead) to yourself that would be encouraging, supportive or motivating, while still believable?
Positive, reality-based counterstatements: (“Given my stage of training, I am climbing well.”)
Affirmations. (“I am strong and have a good team in this race.”)
Frequently-used cue words with positive associations. (“Calm and focused”)
Behaviors. (“I’m going to focus on having good form on this climb.”)

Sometimes, rather than being able to say something positive to yourself, the best you can do is to say something non-negative. For example, “I’m never going to win” could be replaced with “I’ll suspend judgment for the moment on how the race will play out.” That could be progress for you. In your training, notice frequent words and phrases of negative self-talk and develop a plan for responding to them. If you’re competing, review your plan as part of your pre-race routine.

The mind can be a dangerous thing. But you can use your mind to battle your mind – successfully.

Managing Emotions

Stress, anger, joy, worry, excitement: Emotions can help or hurt your cycling performance. What’s the optimal level for each of your emotions before and during a ride or race? Regulating your emotions could be the mental skill you need the most.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, I explored Positive Self-Talk, the second of the five core skills of mentally fit athletes. This month, we look at Managing Emotions – also known as Arousal Management — in more depth.

Quick: What comes to mind when you see the word “emotions?” Mr. Spock on Star Trek saying he doesn’t have them? Your significant other chastising you for not sharing them? Bill Murray as a lounge singer on Saturday Night Live, singing “feelings…..nothing more than feelings…..?”

According to one of the many “ABC” models in psychology, emotions have three basic components, each of which can vary hugely in intensity: Arousal, Behavior, and Conscious Experience. When we have an emotion, we become physiologically aroused in some way(s): heart rate changes, muscles tense or relax, and so on. We also have some behavioral expression of the emotion: we say something, we frown, we bang our hand (or head) on our powermeter. And, we have a subjective feeling: sadness, fear, anger, joy. When an emotion comes up in the midst of cycling, any of these components can be helpful, neutral, or harmful to our performance.

The Anxiety Family: Worse than the Simpsons
Stress, tension, worry, pressure, fear, anxiety; they’re all related, and they are by far the most prevalent emotional obstacles to optimal cycling performance. On the one hand, as any effective public speaker will tell you, a certain amount of anxiety contributes to peak performance. An optimal level of anxiety gives us a welcome “edge” that sharpens our focus and helps us get the most out of ourselves, Yet each of us has a point beyond which anxiety begins to detract from our performance: our anxiety threshold. What happens, in a ride or race, when your anxiety isn’t controlled and exceeds your threshold for too long? One or more of the following:

1. Distressing sensations or images. You may feel jittery, nauseous, light-headed, or tense. You may picture being dropped, or losing, or crashing.

2. Negative self-talk. As we saw in last month’s article, this perpetuates and fuels anxiety, which tends to fuel more negative self-talk. That’s the kind of cycling you want to stop.

3. Distraction and errors. It’s instinctive for us humans to divert our focus to anything we believe is threatening. Your distressing thoughts, images, or sensations may attract your attention away from the ride or race for too long, and that could mean missing the break, touching wheels with the rider in front of you, or just plain not having fun.

4. Energy loss. Anxiety loves to consume your energy. If it’s running wild, it’s eating into your reserves.

5. Avoidance. If something triggers our anxiety, it’s instinctive – unless we override that instinct – to try to avoid the trigger. For example, if descending at high speed is making you anxious, you may choose to descend slowly in every ride and race, rather than learning to manage your anxiety.

Manipulating Anxiety
So, when anxiety comes up in your cycling, how do you get it down below your threshold? And how can you increase the chances that it stays down?

1. Pay attention. Discover as much as you can about how your anxiety works during training and competition, and log your findings. When anxiety comes up, or at least as quickly thereafter as possible (e.g., debriefing yourself after a race), identify whether there were any triggers for it. If there weren’t any, note that. Note what effect it had – thoughts, images, sensations, behaviors. On the other hand, if you felt a useful “edge” before or during competition, note that, and note how it felt. You may have spent significant time and money identifying your lactate threshold; make discovering your anxiety threshold just as important.

2. Use your mind and body to reduce on-the-bike physiological arousal. In other words, get more relaxed. Not necessarily relaxed, but more relaxed. Your tools:

- Breathing. For some, deep abdominal breathing induces what Herbert Benson first called the relaxation response. For others, nose breathing – used by meditators from a variety of traditions over thousands of years – is more effective.
Imagery. You can train your physiology to respond quickly to images: of winning, of a calm scene, of a calming person, whatever works. Edmund Bourne’s Anxiety & Phobia Workbook is a good resource for visualization and many other anxiety-reduction techniques.
Stopping negative self-talk. At least interrupt the cycle, and at times replace the negative self-talk with calming thoughts, words, or phrases.

3. Reduce your baseline anxiety level. The higher your regular stress level, the more “triggerable” you’ll be. In your cycling, one of the most effective tactics you can use to keep your baseline anxiety level down is to develop and use a pre-ride/race routine. It might include progressive muscle relaxation (see Bourne’s book for guidelines), visualizing yourself performing well, or calming/focusing self-talk. And of course, how you sleep, eat, and otherwise prepare for your ride/race can have a big impact on your anxiety level at the start line. Incorporating regular relaxation exercises into your daily life can also make a huge difference. They strengthen your relaxation response just as intervals strengthen your climbing.

Last, But Not Least: Elation, Sadness, and Anger
Although the anxiety family dominates the emotion-management issues that we Mental Training types see, there are other common issues as well. Some tips:

1. Take care to distinguish between anxiety and elation/excitement. When are you effectively “psyched up” and when are you overly “hyped?” If you’re blasting Metallica in your iPod and whipping yourself into a frenzy before your ride or race, it may be detracting from your performance.

2. Sadness is normal, to a point. Overtraining and significant loss (e.g., of a loved one or job) can lead to depression. If you’re wondering, see a professional. Free, confidential depression screenings are held regularly across the U.S. There are also many online screening tools.

3. Anger is useful, to a point. Floyd Landis in Stage 17 of the Tour de France last year showed the power of controlled fury. Yet last month, I raced with a guy who berated a rule-breaker in the field for 30 minutes: a waste of energy. Assess what your anger triggers are, and what plan you will use if you are triggered during a race/ride.

As always, if your efforts to manage your emotions aren’t successful enough, get help. Coaches, sport psychologists and mental training consultants, psychotherapists, and doctors are all possible sources of guidance. Frequently, even a single evaluation session with a professional can give you actionable recommendations that make a difference. That’s good self-care. Even Mr. Spock would approve!

Concentration

Making or missing the move. Attacking at the right moment or hesitating. Avoiding a crash or being caught up in it. Often, the key in these cycling situations – and many others that you’re likely to face – is concentration. Maintaining, shifting, and regaining your focus could make the difference between falling short of your goals and reaching them.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, I explored Managing Emotions, the third of the five core skills of mentally fit athletes. This month, I look at Concentration in more depth.

Allow me to get intergalactic briefly. (Thanks.) In each moment, we can consciously choose – if necessary – where we place our attention. The more our attention is uncluttered by unneeded distractors, the more we can be fully present. And the more present we are, the more likely we are to be connected to everything within ourselves – strength, skill, experience – that we can bring to each moment of a ride or race. So, the more strongly we’re connected to ourselves, the more likely we are to be in the “zone,” what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls the flow of optimal performance.

(OK, I’m landing now.) In cycling, sometimes we maintain our focus naturally; it flows without us having to work at it. At other times, we lose focus and have to regain it, or we have to shift focus – for example, from a rhythmic climbing tempo to an attack – to be successful. Concentration, then, is the process of attending closely to internal or external cues: thoughts, feelings, sensations, the weather, the hottie in the feed zone. If you lose concentration, you may miss an opportunity, waste energy, or waste time. If you maintain concentration, you maximize what you’re bringing to each moment of your ride or race, increase your ability to respond quickly and effectively to unexpected events, and increase your ability to initiate decisions on the bike.

Many of us mental training types base our work with athletes in this area on Bob Nideffer’s work. His research shows that every athlete’s optimal focus style has two dimensions: width and direction. A narrow focus is on a single point: your anxiety level, breathing, pedal stroke, the wheel in front of you. A broad focus is a panoramic view: your bodily sensations, your self-talk, the weather, the pack. And as you can see from these examples, the direction of your focus can be internal or external. Since there are four unique combinations of the two dimensions, there are four focus styles.

6 Steps to Improve Your Concentration

Your second step in assessing and improving your concentration on the bike is to determine your focus style. To do that, you have to take the first step: you need to know when you’re focused. During your next several training rides, try devoting part of the ride to observing yourself. Notice when you feel focused, and remember everything you can about the sensation. Is it a lack of thoughts? A single thought? A feeling? A sensation of being consumed by driving power into the pedals? After each ride, jot a few words down that describe or evoke the sensation.

Remember Mr. Miyagi, the wise karate teacher in The Karate Kid? (It’s OK if you admit seeing the movie. Really.) Each time he observes his student, Daniel-san, getting distracted (usually by a pretty girl) during training, he says, “Steady….concentrate. Focus power.” The third step in improving your concentration on the bike is to define your recurring distractors. On those same training rides, or on different rides if need be, notice when you lose focus. What’s the catalyst? Something internal, like a thought (eg. “I’m gonna get dropped”), a feeling such as anger or anxiety, or a sensation that your performance is decreasing? Something external, like a bug, another rider, or a mechanical problem? And how were you feeling just before the distractor appeared? Tired? Anxious? Focused? As you jot notes in your training log over time, identify your 3-5 top recurring distractors, and any patterns you notice in how you’re feeling just before the distractors snag you.

The fourth step is to strengthen your basic concentration skills. You can do this by:

• Continuing to monitor and jot notes periodically about your focus, and lack of
focus, on your training rides.

• Regularly take a brief, all-senses inventory during the experience of feeling
completely focused. This can contribute to your automaticity: becoming more naturally and continuously focused, a kind of “muscle memory” of concentration.

• Just as you (may) have physical intervals in training, create concentration
intervals. Define a specific period of time – 30 seconds, a minute, 5 minutes, 30 minutes – and maintain a competition-level focus during that time. Recover as needed, then do another. Experiment with the number and duration of these intervals. Log a few notes after your ride.

• Build awareness of the focus cues – whether they’re internal or external, narrow
or broad — that work well for you.

• Debrief yourself, or do so with a coach or mental training consultant, after races
or important rides.

• Consider experimenting with any form of meditation or mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness traditions have been helping people build self-awareness, focus, and concentration for thousands of years. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s and Eugene Gendlin’s materials are good starting places.

The fifth and sixth steps in your quest to improve concentration are to create a refocusing plan for each of your top distractors and to create a pre-ride or pre-race focusing routine. Some tips:

Effective goal-setting can create excellent targets for focusing, refocusing, or shifting focus.

Positive self-talk is one of the strongest tools you have. Self-talk can direct your attention quickly, and it can strengthen your attention with the positive feelings it generates.

• Speaking of (and definitely not singing about) feelings, we’re more likely to lose
focus when our old friends anxiety, fear, stress, tension, or worry are hanging around. So, your plans may include what you’ve learned about managing anxiety on and off the bike. More than likely, at least some of your recurring distractors will have less power over you if you’re better at managing the anxiety they trigger, if you’re less stressed to begin with, or both.

• For many of us, the most powerful group of anxiety-triggers on the bike, and
thus the most powerful group of distractors, is adversity. And one of the leading sources of adversity on the bike is pain – not from injury, but from exertion, struggle, and fatigue. Notice in training how your attitude toward pain may make it harder or easier to deal with. (In an upcoming article, I’ll cover the topic of pain in detail.)

Optimal performance flows atop the river of concentration. As you build this critically important mental skill, you eliminate barriers between your potential and the challenge of the road ahead. Mr. Miyagi, may he rest in peace, would be proud.