Zen masters let go of ego; teenagers are in the middle of creating one. That makes it a good time to coach mental skills with teens, and also a good time for you to learn. In that spirit, Pez talks with some unusually gifted young cyclists about the mental side of their game. Strange as it may seem, young people can help you improve your mental fitness on the bike.
By Marv Zauderer
Last month in this Sport Psychology column, in step with the founding of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, we explored how to give mental skills guidance to teen cyclists. Coaching teens is a powerful, fun, and inspiring way to give back to the sport and make a difference in young riders’ lives; sometimes, we can learn as much from them as they learn from us. This month, we talk to some unusually gifted teens about the mental side of their game:
• Will Curtis, 17, is a senior at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California. He has competed in the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Racing League since his freshman year, finishing second in the Varsity race at the State Championships last season. He also races on the road and MTB for the Whole Athlete junior team. Last summer, he joined the USA Development Team for races in France, Germany, and Switzerland, and has twice attended the US Junior National Talent ID Camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
• Coryn Rivera, 17, is a junior at Pacific Coast High School in Tustin, California and races for the Proman Women’s Cycling team. She has won 24 national championships in road, track, and cyclocross racing. In 2009, she took her first win in an NRC race, the Cascade Classic Criterium, competing against elite professional road racers. She has just returned from the UCI Track World Cup races in Manchester, England, where she competed against the world’s top track stars.
• Alex Stevenson, 17, is a senior at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. The upcoming season will be his fourth on the school’s MTB team, and he aims to build on last year’s podium finish at the California State Championships. He has an interest in psychology and plans to have a career that is focused on helping others. He expects to take his cycling further after high school.
Pez: Which mental skills have been most important to you in training and racing?
Will: Self-talk, concentration, and visualization. In my sophomore year, I went through a stage where I analyzed myself a lot and was having trouble focusing. I was focusing on the bad parts of my riding.
When I was a year old, I had a benign tumor removed from my left leg. It also removed a lot of muscle. [When I was having trouble focusing] I worried that my left leg wasn’t going to produce enough power, and I was worrying about my pedal stroke. My problems became exaggerated. I realized it was my mind [doing that], but I didn’t know how to get out of that.
I started trying to focus on the big picture – on what I wanted to be. I put an image of [2004 and 2008 Olympic champion] Julien Absalon in my mind, and used that as a basis. He’s the smoothest bike rider who’s ever ridden. I also talked to my coach, and he helped me see that I had been developing negative pathways in my thinking – I would screw myself over in my head. So instead, I focused on keeping a good image in my head.
Pez: When you’d switch to focusing on that image, what would happen?
Will: My whole body relaxed and my riding got smoother.
Coryn: Discipline. In order to get the training done, know your competitors, etc. you have to stay focused and be disciplined. If there’s a party, but you have a race the next day, you can’t go. [I tell myself] “I know I have a race; I’m going to go to sleep and get ready for the race.”
Also, perseverance. Even if you don’t achieve your goal, you have to keep fighting. I really wanted to do well at the Junior World Championships in Moscow, but I didn’t do as well as I wanted – I didn’t reach my goal. At first I was pretty depressed, but then I talked to my coach and my parents – they’re really a big part of my cycling. Once I left Moscow, I realized I couldn’t leave my goal there.
Pez: How did you develop discipline and perseverance?
Coryn: I learned discipline from my dad – he always preached that. Perseverance? It’s something that’s in me. I don’t want to give up. I’m not going to stop until I get it.
Pez: That sounds like, “I’m not going to give up on myself.”
Alex: Positive self-talk and self-awareness. If I tell myself I can do something, I really can, like focusing on a goal while I’m racing. Last year at the state championships I got my best placing ever. I was focusing on my goal: getting on the podium. I had to push through intense pain, fatigue, dust…I remember at one point, I was bombing a hill and I hit a sign with my arm but kept going. You should be saying to yourself, “I’m succeeding, I’m going to do this.”
The way your brain works, you can say a word [to yourself] and your subconscious mind will have a lot of associations with it. So, the word “can’t” will have many negative associations. It’s important to use positive words when talking to yourself. My teacher, Robert McKnight, has taught me so much in our African-American Psychology class. Many people are still enslaved mentally – it’s destroying their self-worth and self-esteem.
Pez: So the negative self-talk is a type of enslavement?
Alex: The negative self-talk can perpetuate more negative self-talk – that’s the bondage you would feel. It takes a lot of concentration and focus to get yourself out of that. The positive self-talk is a kind of freedom – a way out.
Which mental skill is still challenging for you? How have you been trying to strengthen it?
Will: Managing my emotions. I’ve been stressed lately with homework, work, college applications, cycling…occasionally it’s hard to let all that stress go. When I’m stressed, it’s hard to focus on riding. For example, I’m in the middle of an interval and my mind starts to wander.
Pez: Then what do you do?
Will: I tell myself, “this is the time for biking, and you need to focus on that now.” I’ll focus on my heart-rate monitor, or I’ll put an image in my head and think, “that’s all I can focus on right now.” Also, I tell myself, “this is the best part of my day.” I should enjoy it. And when I get home, I’m not stressed any more.
Coryn: When I went to the UCI World Cup [in Manchester], that was all about [getting] experience. That was hard to understand at first. Usually, I want to win or help a teammate win. Manchester was laid back – I had to adapt.
Pez: So you had to have an unfamiliar goal.
Coryn: I had to change my mindset – how I came into the race. I didn’t have any experience with the women in the field. I was a little bit nervous – I’d never competed with that caliber of female cyclists.
Pez: So you were a little out of your comfort zone – you had to deal with nerves.
Coryn: Yes. This was the best of the best.
Pez: What helped you?
Coryn: Just realizing that there was no pressure coming into the race, it was all about experience and just soak it all in, that helped calm the nerves.
Alex: Goal-setting. I’m not consistently pushing myself to set new goals. Recently I’ve been training just by going on rides. I haven’t had a context to set goals. During the season with our team, we have time trials and other things that make it very clear what my goals are. It’s been good to have reference points – “I’ve going to shave off X number of seconds.” That’s worked.
Pez: So when you’re in the situation of generating goals on your own, rather than having an external situation define them for you, that’s been harder.
Alex: Yes. Mostly my goal has been “try to ride as much as possible.” Now I’m hoping to set up a program with a coach.
Pez: How have you been working on your goal-setting skills?
Alex: I’ve been more careful with my diet. Every morning I fill up a water bottle so I stay hydrated. I’m going to start doing some stretching. I started doing some drum lessons, but slacked off – now my teacher has been getting me to do drills 15 minutes per day. Also, I’ve been more focused on getting my homework done.
Pez: So you’re being more self-disciplined – not only setting specific goals but also holding yourself to them.
Alex: It’s a key aspect of cycling that you can apply to your life.
Pez: What’s an experience you’ve had that has contributed significantly to your mental fitness?
Will: At first I could only hold it [concentration and a positive mental image] for a little while. The first time I really got it right was at the Mt. Tam Hillclimb last year. I remember thinking, “I’m not going to mess up another race because of this.” After I was able to hold it all the way up that hill – then I knew I could hold it, and it became easier. Now, whenever I see something that can distract me from racing, I remember overcoming that.
Pez: What did you overcome?
Will: I think I overcame myself – fears of failing…the whole episode was self-inflicted. I overanalyzed everything because of insecurity over insecurity. I didn’t know how to make it better. Overcoming that has given me a lot of confidence.
Coryn: You have to lose to learn how to win. When I didn’t do well at Moscow, I had to take a step back. I learned how to cope with the situation. Usually, races go the way I want them to go. It was almost like I was put in my place.
Pez: What do you think you learned to cope with?
Coryn: Not getting what I wanted. I wanted to win the world championship and I didn’t. I was depressed for a little bit, but then I stepped back.
Pez: Sounds like you learned to handle disappointment.
Coryn: Yes. It really smacked me in the face.
Alex: After every race, I feel good and that I did my best. When I ride with my team’s coach, Austin, if he says something on a climb like, “you’re killing me,” that feels good. And when my teammates say, “you’re hella fast,” that makes me feel good, unless they’re feeling bad that they’re not as fast.
Pez: So it’s great to hear compliments from people but not when it’s at their expense.
Alex: Right. At the expense of their self-concept.
Pez: So now we’re back to enslavement.
Alex: Right. “I’m not going to be as good as that kid, so why bother?” It can be a negative thought process that leads to your destruction.
Building Your Mental Fitness
How can you use what these young cyclists have learned? Here are a few things to notice:
• Alex mentioned – and demonstrated – the critically important skill of self-awareness. To strengthen your mental skills, you need to be aware of what they are, where you’re strong, and where you want to improve.
• All three have worked to strengthen what is, arguably, the most important of the five core mental skills: Effective Self-Talk. You are your constant companion on the bike. What kind of coach are you for yourself?
• Coryn and Alex illustrated how two of the other core skills, Goal-Setting and Concentration/Focus, often go hand-in-hand. Setting goals effectively and holding yourself to them: a big part of mental fitness.
Consider reading the Pez Toolbox articles – just click on the words in blue above – on these and related topics, evaluate whether you need to strengthen any of your mental skills, use the tips and links in the articles to integrate mental training into your physical training program, and get help if you need it. And, consider volunteering your time to help junior cyclists – through your local cycling club or junior team, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, or USA Cycling’s junior programs. You will receive much more than you give.