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.

Communication

Our riding and racing can be profoundly affected by how we conduct our relationships. Teammates, competitors, training partners, coaches, employers, significant others: all can play important roles in the progress, fun and success we experience in cycling. As a result, communication is a crucial skill for the mentally fit cyclist.

By Marv Zauderer

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

Let’s briefly look at the big picture: our relationships play a central role in our life experience. They bring us joy, they bring us pain, and they bring us up against the opportunities for growth we find – if we have the courage to look – in ourselves. Relationship expert David Schnarch is fond of saying, “we don’t work on our relationships; our relationships work on us.”

Your cycling, like everything else in your life, exists in the context of a web of relationships that have meaning for you. To varying degrees, all of the people in your web have an impact on you. And what you think, feel, and do has an impact on them. (Actually, to be completely cosmic for a moment, many people feel that all of us on this planet are interconnected. This is what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing and the scientist James Lovelock calls the Gaia Theory. )

Coming back to Earth, or at least your local roads and trails, here are some common ways in which relationships can present challenges for your cycling:

• Your spouse, significant other, or children want more time with you, or you feel
guilty about taking time away from them, or both;

• A rider cuts you off or causes you to crash;

• Your teammates are acting like “married singles”: working too much for
themselves rather than working together;

• The workout you had planned for the day is not what your riding partner wants
to do;

• Your boss or your colleagues at work are becoming resentful that you take
some Fridays off to race;

• You’re ready to step up as a leader on your team, and you need to ask for
your teammates’ support;

• You’re in a race or ride and want to get people from other groups/teams to work
with you;

• You’re in a breakaway with a teammate near the end of a race, and need to figure out who’s working for whom, and when;

• You don’t feel you and your coach are “on the same page.”

Improving Communication Skills
All of the above situations call on you to communicate. Some tips:

1. To the best of your ability, know what’s going on within you, and why.
The more self-aware you are, the more likely you are to communicate effectively. Are you feeling angry, tense, nervous, worried, happy? How can you tell? Where do you feel it in your body? Make sure you notice. Are any of your “hot buttons” being pushed? Recall from the Positive Self-Talk article that hot buttons often generate anxiety, and anxiety can distort your thinking in at least 9 major ways. For example, anxiety can fuel “emotional reasoning”: feeling “sure” of something just because you feel angry or sad or scared. Ever see that happening in yourself?

In working on your communication skills, improve your ability to respond rather than react: if you can detect a “knee-jerk” communication habit that isn’t serving you, you can intervene, interrupt, and stop/change it. Perhaps counterintuitively, this may require you to put more attention on yourself, rather than on the person you’re communicating with, in order to communicate better. Calming and focusing techniques such as breathing and positive self-talk may help you here. Also, personality self-tests such as the Enneagram and Meyers-Briggs may help you identify your hot buttons (if someone is not regularly reminding you of them already….).

2. Listen and empathize.
Basic, right? And yet so often whatever’s going on inside of us – thoughts, feelings, sensations – gets in the way of listening well. Plus, just because you’re listening attentively doesn’t mean you really get it. So, clear your obstacles out of the way, and practice tuning in. Try to receive all of the feelings behind the other’s person’s words. And check sometimes to see whether you do get it, perhaps by telling the other person what you think you heard them say, and what you thought you heard – no, felt – behind their words. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication is an example of what might be a good, straightforward refresher for you on this crucial skill.

3. Be assertive.
Sometimes we can be afraid to speak the truth about what we want, how we feel, or what we’re thinking. Ultimately, our fear often boils down to a fear of harming or losing a relationship, of being excluded, of being alone. Sometimes it’s a fear of not being able to tolerate whatever the truth stirs up – in the listener and in ourselves.

To be fair, sometimes it’s good judgment that’s keeping us from speaking up. But remember what Mark Twain said: How do we acquire good judgment? Experience. How do we acquire experience? Bad judgment. So, unless you’re sure this is a good time to keep quiet, speak up. And when you do, try to start your sentence with “I.” Not as in “I feel you’re a jerk” – assertiveness is different from aggressiveness – but as in “I feel really bad about what’s happening on the team,” or “I feel guilty about taking time away from you,” or “I don’t like it when you wait until midnight the night before to give me the next day’s workout.” And be careful how you use the word “you.” Blaming, accusing, name-calling, and the like tend to throw communication off-track.

These so-called “I-statements” are often a hallmark of an effective communicator, and, as leadership expert Jeff Janssen notes, an effective team leader. For you ladies in the audience, Pamela Butler’s Self-Assertion for Women is an example of a good resource for those of you who want to improve your assertiveness.

4. Manage conflict with both feet on the ground.
As John Gray has explained so skillfully, there are often gender differences in how we communicate, and there are ways to tune our communication – particularly in conflict – depending on whether we’re speaking with a man or a woman. ( Kathy DeBoer has written extensively on how this comes up in sports.) But regardless of whether a conflict involves men, women, or both, the most common misstep I see when I work with people on managing conflict is rushing. When you enter into a conflict, it’s natural for your anxiety to go up, and it’s natural for you to want it to decrease as quickly as possible, because let’s face it: anxiety doesn’t feel good. What’s our natural assumption about the fastest way to feel better? End the conflict! One way to end the conflict fast is to avoid it, so be careful with that one. Another way is to try to “fix” the conflict as fast as possible. Sometimes that works, but occasionally in your haste you may not understand the other person, and that person may not understand you. So, especially if you see “problem-solving” isn’t working, first attend to any anxiety/stress/tension/worry/fear that you’re feeling, and get it under control. Then, strive for understanding before leaping towards resolution. If you slow things down, work to understand the other person, and work to be understood, you’re likely to find that the next step – moving towards a solution – will go much more smoothly.

5. Do your best to relax.
Just after my wife and I were married, we wandered into a convenience store in search of chocolate. The elderly cashier saw us “discussing” what to buy, and she said, “I’ll bet you two were just married.” “Yes,” I said, “have you been married a long time?” “50 years,” she replied. “What’s your secret?” I asked eagerly. She smiled and said, “Say ‘yes’ a lot, and don’t take things too seriously.”

So, in any of your relationships, notice how much your communication can be affected by how riled up you get. It’s certainly fine to have feelings and to be emotional; we’re not robots. But if you’re managing any emotions – particularly anxiety – that create obstacles during your communications with others, you’ll tend to communicate more effectively. Calming down, slowing down, not taking things personally, not taking things too seriously: all of these are ways you can stay relaxed – or relaxed enough – and communicate well with people who can have a big effect on your cycling.

The Mentally Fit Cyclist: Next Steps
We’ve come to the end of our series on the 5 Core Skills of Mentally Fit Athletes. We’ve covered Goal-Setting, Positive Self-Talk, Managing Emotions, Concentration, and now Communication. Thanks to all of you for reading, and to those of you who’ve emailed comments, suggestions, and questions. Stay tuned for my next series, Responding to Adversity: how to deal with pain/fatigue, overtraining/burnout, injury/crashes, and last but not least, pressure. Now, where does my wife keep the chocolate?

Handling Pressure

You feel it from others, and you feel it from within. Either way, pressure can help you to reach your potential, or it can suck the life out of your cycling. Drawing on the five core mental skills, the mentally fit cyclist manages pressure effectively and uses it as fuel for optimal performance.

By Marv Zauderer

Last month, continuing our series on Responding to Adversity, I discussed how you can sustain your motivation for cycling by noticing and responding to potentially demotivating aspects of your personality, behavior, and environment. This month, I explore Handling Pressure, the fourth advanced skill of the mentally fit cyclist.

Where’s the pressure in your cycling? Is it in your training? Your races? Your first century? The sprint for the City Limits sign? Your teammates’ expectations of you? Your conversation with your spouse before you walk out to the garage to get your bike?

Or perhaps it’s in your thoughts. The way you talk to yourself, the way you talk about yourself – is it there? When you think about your goals, your performance, your skills, your challenges – is it there?

It’s certainly not unusual to feel pressure in any aspect of life, and cycling’s no exception. Performing, having fun, and succeeding under pressure comes easy to some, but for most of us, pressure can sometimes detract from our performance. Learning to handle pressure – and even to use it – can make the difference between achieving your goals and falling short. And learning to handle pressure starts with learning how it works on you – and in you.

Sources of Pressure

Let’s look first at some of the sources of pressure in your cycling. How about the people in your life with whom you have important relationships? Your spouse, significant other, kids, parents, friends, coach, boss, teammates, competitors, sponsors – you might feel pressure from any or all of them. Pressure to….what? Win, improve, cooperate, give up, give in, rest, spend time with them, reduce/increase/justify your commitment to cycling?

Another source is what I’ll call reality. For example, you might need to achieve certain results to be recruited to an NRC team, or to be invited to the Olympic trials, or to get that certificate they give out at the top of Alpe D’Huez. Nobody’s pressuring you; that’s just the way things are.

Or are they?

Before I have a first meeting with an athlete, I ask the athlete to complete a brief self-evaluation. One of the questions asks the athlete to identify and assess people from whom the athlete feels pressure. I’ll bet you can guess which person is consistently at the top of the list. That’s right: Self. Many athletes I work with say that being too hard on themselves detracts from their performance. To quote my teenage daughters, what’s up with that?

The relationship we have with ourselves often mirrors, for better and for worse, the way important adults related to us when we were younger. As I noted in an earlier article, your self-talk is a prominent sign of the kind of relationship you have with yourself. When you think about your cycling, are you overly critical, judgmental, pushy, or negative at times? If so, do you “sound” like anyone you’ve known? Who? Strong, influential voices tend to stay with us.

The legacy of our contact with toxic people is not the only source of the pressure we put on ourselves. Let’s not forget our old nemesis anxiety, and of course its siblings: stress, tension, nervousness, worry, and fear. It’s kind of like the Stress Family Robinson, and pressure is a charter member, too. We have a natural, instinctive, and sometimes impulsive reaction to anxiety: control. If we’re able to see – or at least assume – what’s triggering our anxiety, we frequently try to exert some control over the trigger, in the hope of feeling less anxious. For example, that’s often why we interrupt others in conversation. It’s also why you might fall prey to what my colleague Josh Horowitz calls the Zone 3 Syndrome: if you’re anxious about your fitness, why not ride harder and longer with less rest? That’ll get you stronger more quickly, right?

If we don’t (or can’t) see what’s triggering our anxiety, we sometimes aim our control at something else. For better and for worse, this often provides some relief. Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons trusting dogs and cats can get abused by stressed-out adults (more on that in a moment). It also may be the reason that you grip the handlebars so tightly on a tricky descent, clean the house from top to bottom instead of doing that training ride that you’re dreading, or….put too much pressure on yourself. Pressuring yourself is exerting a certain kind of force, a certain kind of power, a certain kind of control. If you’re doing too much of it, your self-pressuring may be fueled by anxiety. In that case, you’d be better off finding a different way to get some relief from your anxiety, whether the anxiety comes from cycling or elsewhere. That would likely take the “edge” off of not only your pressure, but your pressuring as well.

Going Deeper…

Let’s take things a bit further: When pressure has an extra “edge” to it that’s fueled by anxiety, where does the anxiety come from? Uh-oh. Now we’re in danger of becoming consumed by one of the most important existential questions of our time. (For those so inclined, Rollo May’s book The Meaning of Anxiety is a classic.) So I won’t go too deep, but I do want to give you a few ideas to consider.

What might be triggering your anxiety? How you might feel when/if you don’t reach your goal? Having too much riding on the future when you don’t have full control over it? How you might feel if the person who’s pressuring you doesn’t get what they want? The power these things have over you may have something to do with how you feel about yourself.

Remember the Queen/David Bowie song, Under Pressure? (“Pressure pressing down on me/Under pressure/That burns a building down/Splits a family in two/Puts people on streets”) Some fans believe that through this song, Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury (who later died of AIDS) was conveying the pain he felt from not feeling accepted for who he was.

Perfectionism is a common consequence of not feeling OK as we are. When applied to ourselves, perfectionism is pressuring ourselves to do more, to be more; having too much of our hoped-for well-being attached to the “carrot” we’re chasing. Perfectionism has a bad reputation, and for good reason: although it can be a great asset when properly managed, it can drive us (and others) into the ground.

It may be fruitful for you to evaluate how much of the pressure you feel, and particularly the pressure you feel from yourself, comes from trying to fill or transform something within yourself. There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to grow, evolve, and change. The questions are: how much urgency is there to that journey for you, and is there too much? And are you aiming your energy in the right direction?

Last week I attended a benefit for A Leg Up Rescue , hosted by the Pez fans at Risibisi Restaurant, at which Levi Leipheimer was the guest of honor. In between offering tons of time and autographs that were auctioned to benefit dog and cat rescue efforts, Levi chatted with many of us. I was struck by how humble, affable, and calmly self-assured he was – not the norm, it would seem, for one of the world’s elite athletes. And yet he’s clearly a fierce, focused, and accomplished competitor who has handled huge amounts of pressure with great skill.

Handling Pressure More Skillfully

I suspect Levi’s the kind of guy who’d be uncomfortable with a “Be Like Levi” campaign, so I’m not going to suggest that here. Instead, I’ll suggest a number of steps – including drawing on the 5 core skills of mentally fit cyclists – that might be of help to you in handling the pressure in your cycling.

1. Increase your self-awareness, if necessary. Particularly if you’re a person for whom pressure has been a long-term way of life, you may not always be aware that it’s operating in you. How do you know when you’re feeling it? Where do you feel it in your body? How does it affect your mood? Your behavior? Your relationships? How, both positively and negatively, does it affect your cycling? Does it affect the sense of urgency you feel on the bike, your self-talk, how hard you train, your pedal stroke, your positioning in races, your focus? Do you seem to react more to pressure from others, from reality, from yourself, or all of the above?

If you have a tendency to be too hard on yourself, ask yourself how that’s serving you and how it’s not; ask yourself what’s driving it. You may have the opportunity to replace the tendency with another, calmer way of relating to yourself, without sacrificing any of the satisfaction, fulfillment, and results you’d like to achieve. Teachings that may be of use to you here include Pema Chodron’s concept of shenpa (“being hooked”), Harold Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be, and personality self-tests such as the Enneagram.

2. Reassess your goals. As noted in the article on goal-setting, are your objectives specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound (SMART)? If not, they may be activating unnecessary pressure. And if not, why not? As I mentioned in the article on recovering from injury, are you trying to get your cycling to deliver too much of your identity, self-worth, and fulfillment?

3. Communicate. When you’re feeling pressure, talking about it can be useful, at least as a way to make yourself more aware of what’s actually happening, if not also to get some valuable understanding and input from a trusted person: a family member, a friend, a coach, a teammate, a training partner. I realize that for some of us men (and perhaps some of you women), talking about something that we’re feeling can be akin to pulling teeth. Check out the article on Communication for ideas if need be.

4. Improve your ability to maintain, regain, and shift focus. Particularly with pressure that’s “just reality,” concentration skills can be key to performing under pressure. The article on Concentration has a number of suggestions, including practicing competition-level “concentration intervals” in training.

5. Notice, stop, and correct any negative self-talk. When you’re under pressure, coach yourself as you would like to see any athlete be coached when s/he is under pressure. Be forthright yet supportive, encouraging, and positive. There’s no (good) reason for you to treat yourself more harshly.

6. Manage your emotions effectively, particularly your anxiety. Pressure creates anxiety, and anxiety creates pressure. Reduce your on-the-bike and off-the-bike stress where possible. Investigate whether anxiety – and sometimes, the resulting perfectionism and pressure – is a sign of avoiding something deeper in you that, if you were to confront it, might bring you some relief. (For an example of some wise words on this topic, see John Welwood’s writing on the concept of spiritual bypass.)

Perhaps Queen and David Bowie give us the most important step of all at the end of Under Pressure:

“Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking/can’t we give ourselves one more chance/why can’t we give love one more chance/why can’t we give love/’cause love’s such an old-fashioned word/and love dares you to care/for people on the edge of the night/and love dares you to change our way/of caring about ourselves/this is our last dance/this is ourselves under pressure.”