You get dropped – for good. You get a flat and there’s no follow car. Your mind is willing but your body isn’t. Suddenly your goals for the day may become – or at least appear – unreachable. And then what? When the game changes, the mentally fit cyclist avoids common traps and quickly restores focus, motivation, and commitment.
By Marv Zauderer
We’re into the fifth year of this Sport Psychology column; I thank you for reading, asking questions, making suggestions, and for emailing the link to your friends. With all of the mental skills that we’ve covered here under our belts (or perhaps our heart rate straps), it’s time to step back and see how to combine many of those skills to solve a common problem in cycling.
You have a race. Or a century. Or a group ride where you’re out to prove something to yourself. You’ve followed your training plan, set and reality-checked your goals for the event, handled your stress effectively, increased your tolerance for suffering, and skillfully attended to all of the relationships that can affect your performance. Perhaps you’ve even been doing some brief visualizations a few times each week. You’re ready. Then, in the middle of the event, a setback:
• You give everything you have to stay with the group, but you’re dropped. Like an anvil.
• You puncture or have a minor mechanical, and there’s no help in sight.
• Someone attacks at a critical point, and you miss the move.
• A rider passes you in a TT. And then another rider flies by.
• There’s a crash, and although you avoid it, you come to a stop. The front group is gone.
• You miss an important time goal in the middle of your century, double, or brevet.
• Your body feels sluggish. At least thus far, you’re having a bad day on the bike.
Is this a disaster? A test of your mental fitness? How will you choose to see it and handle it? And how quickly?
In the weeks, hours, and minutes leading up to an event, you’re doing what you need to do to get to the start line mentally prepared for peak performance. (Or, if you’re not, check out the article on pre-event preparation.) But once the event begins, stuff happens. Stuff that can completely throw you off your game. Wait a minute…I need to correct that. It’s not the stuff that can throw you. It’s you. When things don’t go your way, you can get weak and stay weak, or you can stay strong and attack the adversity. Let’s look at how to do that.
Six Steps to Stay Strong
1. Don’t let Failure kidnap you. When things don’t go your way, it’s natural to feel disappointed. But you’re in the middle of an important event! If you feel disappointed for more than a flash, you’re working against yourself. Set the disappointment aside for processing after the event. And certainly set it aside long before it morphs into feeling (like a) failure, self-pity, feeling like a victim, and hopelessness.
Self-consciousness is another common trap at a moment like this. Let go of how others (might) see you, of comparing yourself with others, of worrying whether you have what it takes. If you do any of those things, you don’t actually have to face responding to the adversity, right? Don’t hide! Move your attention back to the present. Be consumed by your present experience of the race (or ride) rather than judging, evaluating, and wallowing in what just happened. There will be plenty of time for healthy reflection later. Your ego wants to dominate your attention; fight it. Bring your attention to something your ego can’t mess with. Your breath, for example. Or perhaps a positive word, phrase, or image. Or, as Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, a half-smile. Try it.
2. Support yourself. You may need some quick emotional support in order to fight off Failure’s claws. If you do, look to yourself first, even if a friend is nearby.
When you support someone in your life who’s struggling, you need to know something about who they are and what they’re going through to support them well, right? So, ask yourself what you’re feeling and what you need to hear, and give that to yourself. If you don’t know what you need, think of a person who’s supported you effectively – a friend, family member, coach, mentor – and what they’ve said to you when you’ve struggled. Now say that to yourself. And mean it. The rug’s been pulled out from under you? Put it back under your feet.
3. If necessary, let go of some or all of your goals for the event. You’re in the middle of a transition: from being focused on the goals you were pursuing, to whatever you’re going to focus on next. Sometimes you have to let go of some or all of your original goals. But if you had too much riding (sorry) on those goals, you may dig in your heels when you’d be better served by letting go. You may hold tightly to your goals – giving yourself a superficial feeling of control – when you’d be better off facing and metabolizing the feeling of releasing control (don’t worry, you’ll get it back shortly). Don’t delay your transition to what comes next. It’s time to (wo)man up and get to it.
4. Refocus on your goals, setting new ones if necessary. You might just need to refocus on your original goals. Or, you may need to shift focus to some new goals. They might be outcome goals, such as, “I’m going to beat this rider (or group) that’s with me to the line,” or “Whatever happens next, I’m going to cross the line with nothing left in the tank.” They might be process goals, such as “I’m going to catch every rider I can,” or “I’m going to make it to the next rest stop.” This is a moment to seize, not a moment to seize up. Use your goal-setting skills quickly, redefine the event for yourself, and then it’s time to…
5. Fire up your engines. You’re in the middle of an event! You love to ride, love to compete, love to see what you’re made of. You can still do that. Tap back into your desire, your passion, the competitive fire you have for riding or racing. If something just happened that made you angry, it may be to your advantage to use that anger to feed the fire.
6. Keep the fire hot, but not too hot. Fear or anxiety may threaten to douse the flames. Is there a voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough? Good enough for what? To achieve your goals? To face your feelings if you don’t? To deal with the stress of competition? Stop the negative thoughts and quash the anxiety. You’ve got work to do (and fun to have).
Especially if you’re still angry about things not going your way, you may need to manage your revitalized will and take care not to push too hard. Remember, your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness.
And particularly if there’s a long way to go in your event, you may need to work with yourself to sustain your motivation. In our sport, suffering has a way of sapping desire, if you let it. Don’t. Use everything you’ve learned to fight against its grip: staying focused on your experience and your goals, using positive self-talk, managing your stress and anxiety effectively. You do not have full control over your power decreasing as you suffer. But you do have full control over your desire. And that will keep the power up as high as it can be.
Adversity on the bike is not just a test of your mental fitness. It can be strength training for the mental side of your game: keeping you strong and making you stronger. It’s a critically important opportunity for you to use and deepen your diverse set of mental skills.
Stuff happens on the bike. That’s not something to defend against – before or during. It’s something to face up to with all of the confidence you have within you, however much or little that is. It’ll be enough. And you’ll have more next time.