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!


Assessing Your Mental Fitness

With a season break upon many of us, and base-building ahead, this is primetime for taking stock of mental fitness. How – and how well – did you apply your mental skills this past year? Which skills are strong, and how will you use them going forward? Which skills need work, and how will you strengthen them? Improving your mental fitness can be the key to more fun, fulfillment, and results in your cycling.

By Marv Zauderer

Lance Armstrong, in his book “It’s Not About the Bike,” writes:

There is a point in every race when a rider encounters his real opponent and understands that it’s himself.

His coach Chris Carmichael, in their book “The Lance Armstrong Performance Program,” writes:

What’s the critical difference between athletes who succeed and athletes who go home empty-handed? Those who succeed have blended the mental aspects necessary for success into their physical training programs.

And in her guest column on Pez last week, this year’s National Road and Criterium Champion Brooke Miller identifies her biggest strength as a cyclist:

I train hard. I like to think that I have some physical talents – but I will tell you, without hesitation, my head is my biggest strength…. it has been my new approach to racing from the mental perspective that has made the biggest and most sudden change in my career.

In your cycling, how much of a strength – or weakness, or both – is your head?

For many of us, this is a time for taking stock (and maybe for papering our walls with it, unfortunately); a time of self-reflection and setting intentions. The ten-day Jewish observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the month-long Muslim observance of Ramadan, have both recently concluded. (For those of you who have just experienced those holidays, don’t worry; I’m not going to suggest another fast.) In Ayurveda, India’s 5000-year-old natural system of medicine, this is the time of year for the transition from our Pitta to our Vata energy, a time for the rebalancing that is central to the ayurvedic system. And of course, this time before fall/winter base-building is often a perfect break – sort of a Sabbath, continuing with the spiritual theme – for taking stock of our cycling as well.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Selma Civil Rights March, called the Sabbath “a palace in time.” And the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew origin of the word “sabbath” comes from the word “rest” and also the word “cease.” How can you take a break from your cycling in a way that is restorative, rejuvenating, and focuses you clearly on the year ahead? And what might you need to cease?

In the last several weeks, my colleagues Josh Horowitz, Bruce Hendler, Matt McNamara, and Stephen Cheung have skillfully covered many topics in our Toolbox series on the off-season. So let’s add to their guidance by focusing on the mental side of your “palace in time.” Let’s check in on your use of a few of the five core mental skills, some of the Integral Elements of those skills, and some of the advanced mental skills of the mentally fit cyclist.

Using and Strengthening Your Core (Skills)

To begin, let’s look at your goal-setting and goal-management over the past year. Did you set goals for yourself at the beginning of the year? If not, you may be missing out on an important tool for setting direction, for regulating your effort and rest, and for having more tangible experiences of progress and success.

If you did set goals, which of them – the ones that remained relevant – did you achieve? Which new goals that you set during the season did you achieve? What other skills did you build, progress did you make, satisfaction did you gain, fun did you have? Did you get the most you could out of all of your experiences?

Back in my high-tech days at Apple, I was asked to make a presentation to the CEO and his staff. I was nervous, rehearsed repeatedly, and when the time came, my boss came with me. After the presentation, he said to me, “That was great. Now, the three things you need to do better next time are….” Wait a minute, I thought, can you go back to the “that was great” part for a minute? Some of us focus too much on what needs to be improved, and not enough on what’s already…enough. Take a minute to feel good about what may seem obvious: you set goals this past year, and you achieved them. You made progress. You had fun!

It’s a good thing to set goals, and an even better thing to manage yourself to them effectively. How well did you do that? Were your goals specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound? Did you reset your goals when needed? How was your follow-through? Did cycling have the right role and place in your life throughout the season?
Now’s the time to begin work on your goals for next season. Remember to include not only outcome goals (eg. “finish with the pack in all races,” “complete my first century,” “improve TT power by 20 watts”) but also process goals (eg. “maintain good form and attitude whenever I’m dropped on a climb”). Check out the article on goal-setting for more tips. And with all of this emphasis on goal-directed behavior, please don’t forget: rest and recovery are where the training adaptations happen. Sometimes you can get further by letting go.

Speaking of attitude, how was yours this past season? What attitude did you have toward yourself when you were succeeding, and when you were struggling? The way you talked to yourself, the thoughts you had, the way you coached yourself…did it ever remind you of someone else? Strong voices in life often stay with us.

Thoughts affect feelings, and feelings affect thoughts. The way you talk to yourself – your self-talk – plays a critical role in your self-confidence, your emotions, and your focus. Take a hard look at your self-talk. Were you too hard on yourself at times? Are you letting yourself off the hook too often? When? Effective self-talk begins with self-awareness: noticing how you’re coaching yourself, and under what circumstances. If – and that’s a big if – you notice negative self-talk, you can stop it, and even replace it if need be.

If you see room for improvement in your self-talk, vow to work on it this year. Make improving your self-talk a goal not only for the year, but for specific rides or races. You deserve to be challenged in your cycling, and you also deserve compassion and respect. Set your intention to treat yourself that way.

Let’s look at managing emotions next. (C’mon, guys, it’s not just the ladies who have feelings.) Here’s Brooke Miller again:

In the past, I was not confident enough to take control of a race. I realize that I had been afraid of what might happen if I took a risk, attacked too early, too hard — afraid that I would blow up or lead out the other sprinters: Afraid of big risk and big reward.

Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Sadness. Depression. Are your emotions contributing to or detracting from your performance? How effectively do you manage your emotions on and off the bike?

Looking forward for a moment, there are days of less light and worse weather coming. Particularly if you depend on your cycling to help you maintain your mood, what do you need to do to avoid the Cyclist’s Winter Blues? It’s important to have a plan now, especially if you need some time to acquire some of the trappings of winter cycling (trainer, DVDs, training partners, podcasts, Sudoku books….).

In my work with athletes from all sports, anxiety and its siblings – fear, nerves, and the like – are the most pervasive obstacles to success and satisfaction. As you look back on your year, what have you been afraid of, if anything, in your cycling? What’s the worst that could happen? How likely is that, honestly? What makes you more vaguely anxious in your cycling? What takes the edge off of that?

It’s certainly wise for you to assess whether you can manage the anxiety family (or any other emotion) more effectively. Effective self-talk and breathing techniques are only two of the skills that may help you with that. But here’s a more subtle point: what can you do to keep the fear/anxiety from coming up, or coming up as often/intensely, in the first place? Here are some ideas:

• From whom, if anyone, do you get emotional pressure in your cycling? Can you reduce that in some way? Do you need to improve your communication skills in order to accomplish this? (Or maybe just by wading into these emotional waters, that’s the way to improve your communication skills!)

• From whom do you get emotional support? Do you need more? Do you need to ask?

Building self-confidence and increasing connectedness with others are often the most common routes to reducing fear and anxiety – in any aspect of life. If need be, think about how you can follow those routes more purposefully next season.

Heschel writes, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” I wish you a relaxing break from which you emerge clearer, stronger, and ready to take on the challenges – inner and outer – of the coming year.