What good are skills if you can’t use them under pressure?

I just received this email from a student:  “Hi Gene,
I’ve really started to feel the effects of your camp and my technique has got a hell of a lot better, when I’m racing i feel so confident and fast in practice

But then when it gets to seeding and race runs this all goes out of the window and i just end up falling off, I’m not riding outside of my limits and i know that i can ride well enough to be threatening the top spot in my category but i just seem to not be able to manage the pressure and the mental side of things.

Any tips on race mentality etc??”

This a tough thing for many racers and as I mentioned a few times in
my camp, what good are all the skills if you can’t use them when
needed?

You need to toughen up your mental game. First, remember there is
no difference between a race and a practice run, same track, same
racer, same bike, same goal.  The only difference between your race
run and a practice run is the pressure YOU but on the run. Treat your
race rub=n as another practice run (especially if you are doing timed
practice runs using a stopwatch)  then read these two blog posts:
http://betterride.net/blog/2010/are-you-tough-part-1/ and
http://betterride.net/blog/2010/are-you-tough-part-2/ and most
importantly ready, study, practice, master one of these books from
your homework assignment:

The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical
Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists
by James E. Leohr, Chris Evert, Dan Jansen,

Excellent book with work sheets to help you practice what it teaches.

The Mental Edge: Maximize Your Sports Potential with the Mind/Body Connection
by Ken Baum, Richard Trubo,

Excellent book with work sheets to help you practice what it teaches.

Body Mind Mastery: Creating Success in Sport and Life
by Dan Millman,

Really, really great book that goes a little deeper into why you
compete in sports and helps you integrate sport and life (helps you
see and create balance in your life so the sport does not take over
your life).

Most importantly have fun!  That’s what keeps Steve Peat and Minnaar on top.

Mountain Bike Descending body position 101, video demonstration

As you may have read in my mini-course the correct descending body position involves standing and staying centered with your weight on the pedals (not getting way back), legs relaxed and bent (not squeezing your seat) and arms bent in a half push-up position.  Remember, I didn’t invent these skills I have been fortunate enough to learn from the best (World Champions Marla Streb, Greg Minnaar, etc.) and learn from the great riders that I coach (Ross Schnell, Mitch Ropelato, etc.).  I am simply passing on what I have learned.

New Video!

In these videos taken by a student in my Philly mountain bike camp a few years ago you can really see one huge reason (there are many) why centered is good and getting back is bad.

In this how to mountain bike video, it shows me riding off a curb with my weight back and arms extended. Notice how I get “pitched forward” as my arms are yanked down the curb.  Also notice how my entire body weight drops the same height as the curb, Ker plunk! Imagine if the obstacle was a little bigger and I was on steep hill! Imagine how much worse this would of been if I was  squeezing the seat with my thighs. Have you ever had the feeling of being pitched forward on a descent?  

In this video,  I am centered on my mountain bike with all my weight on my pedals and my arms bent, ready to extend my arms and legs so my entire weight doesn’t drop off the curb. I simply extend my arms and then my legs and the bulk of my weight (from my hips up) just keeps moving forward on the same plane. This is a much smoother, in control and in balance way to descend. Again, imagine if it was a steep hill and bigger drop.

Here is a shot of me staying centered on a much bigger drop in Moab in 2004.

Mushroom Rock in Moab

Gene with Weight centered!

Now go out and do the same two drills yourself and compare the results!

Railing Corners, maintaining body position while braking for corner.

Interesting braking and cornering question asked by one of my students:

“Just a quick follow up question.  I have been having a problem getting out of position before cornering, primarily caused by hard braking (especially if there are rough terrain before the corner or if I come in too hot).  As I brake, my body gets behind the center and lower as well, and by the time I start entering the corner, I am out of the “attack” position.  My front wheel feels light, and it becomes difficult to get in the correct cornering body position.

If you have suggestions as to how to properly transition from braking into cornering (especially under hard braking), I would appreciate it.”

Interesting question, I have been working on the same issue, especially last weekend at Snowmass. The problem stems from getting back while we brake, getting low is good but we need to stay more centered so when we release the brakes and the bike accelerates we are centered and ready to attack the corner.  I was taught the old school, “get way back while you brake” which does help the rear brake a bit but actually hurts the effectiveness of the much more powerful front brake.  Getting back also puts me out of balance and makes it hard to corner correctly.  My entire focus at the last two races has been to stay centered as I brake, use A LOT of front brake and then let off and attack the corner. Believe me, the entrances to these corners are really rough and brake bumped, but you can still stay centered. When working with Greg Minnaar he really stresses this. It sounds scary but once you do it you realize two things: 1. you can brake in a much shorter distance with more control (less front wheel slide) 2. you are in a much better position to corner when you let off the brakes. This is another reason to practice the braking drills from the camp you took.

As always it comes down to doing drills to master skills then practicing with purpose and a focus on quality!

Create a railed corner (or two)!

Mountain Bike Mental Game, Are you tough? Part 1

In mountain biking and other sports the most “talented” or “gifted” athlete is rarely the most successful. At the higher levels of competition most competitors have a similar combination of skill, talent and fitness. To out-perform competitors or simply ride your best you must be mentally tough. James E. Loehr, Ed.D, world renowned sports psychologist states, “Toughness is the ability to perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances”. If you are not riding or racing to your potential it is time to get tough and work on your mountain bike mental game.

Being tough sets you for peak performance on race or ride day. Ever have your focus and confidence slip away on a race or ride day because of a previous crash, injury or the weather? How did you perform that day? My guess is you probably didn’t race up to your potential. Have you ever had a weaker and/or less skilled rider beat you or out ride you? Those are painful examples of not being tough. To have peak performance, you must reach what my snowboard coach called your “optimal performance state.” This is the level of focus, arousal, relaxation, and confidence where you perform best. Tough athletes can reach this state consistently and quickly return to it after a mistake or let down.

I consider Nicolas Vouilloz and Julie Furtado two of the toughest mountain bike racers. Nico faced very skilled competitors like Steve Peat, Nathan Rennie and Cedric Gracia. Week after week, he was able to out perform them. The same can be said for Julie Furtado. Her competitors Alison Sydor, Susan DeMattai and Paula Pezzo were all very strong riders, yet more often than not, Julie was on top of the podium. Julie and Nico didn’t simply dominate the competition by huge margins though; they won a lot of close races, had a few second and third places along with the occasional poor showing. What made them tough was their ability to be tough and come back from that rare bad race to win again.

Consistently performing at your peak like Nico and Julie is easier said than done. Life tends to send you with falls, injuries, emotional upsets and the stress of trying to train 10 to 20 hours a week and balance that with a career and a social life. Creating a healthy balance between the rigors of training and life challenges is a must if you want to get tough. Being tough requires physical strength and stamina as well as mental and emotional flexibility.

It is hard to be tough when you are exhausted. Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” He’s right—being fit, rested and ready for the challenge is very important. Most cross country racers are physically tough but some downhill racers could use improvement. Most downhill racers have trained their anaerobic system required for the five minute sprint of a typical downhill race, but they are often worn-out from the days of practice leading up to the race. To improve your ability to recover physically from training and racing be sure to develop a strong aerobic base in your training.

Controlling and using your emotions is an important element of toughness. Many different emotional states contribute to being able to perform at our best. Unfortunately, emotional stress takes away our focus and drive; emotions that have nothing to do with your competition like feeling sad because your dog passed away or feeling upset from a bad break up of a relationship can have a negative effect on your energy level. Dwelling on mistakes and negative self-talk lead to feelings of helplessness, despair and anger and put you in a less than optimal performance state. Being detached will protect you from emotional upset, but you will also miss out on the positive emotions that lead to and come from success. Emotional flexibility means being able to summon the emotions that you need to perform well while taking care of the ones that hold you back.

Can you handle the mental stress of training and competition? Mental stress can be just as tiring as the physical stress of racing or training.  The focus of riding tight singletrack, thinking about race strategy or visualizing your race can wear you out and take away from your performance. Consider the following —You are leading the point series and need to simply finish eighth or better in the final race to win the series. Thirty seconds before the start of the series final, your number one competitor (who is the previous year’s champion) says incredulously, “Oh, you’re using those tires,” and rolls his eyes. You may laugh while reading this, but it actually happened a few years ago.  What happened is a lesson in mental and emotional strength: the series leader had such a bad run that the title was lost. Being able to handle the mental stress and head games and dealing with competition is one of the toughest challenges to an athlete. In this situation the racer lacked the mental strength to control his emotions. Had the racer been tough enough to say (and believe), “of course I am using these tires, they hook up great and roll fast” the outcome would have probably been quite different.

The good news is you can get tougher. To get tougher you need to be able to handle more stress, physical, emotional and mental stress. You probably already know the training theory that by gradually increasing our physical workload combined with adequate recovery we will get stronger.  The same holds true for mental and emotional training.  Often cross country racers who do a lot of their training on the road aren’t subjecting themselves to enough of the mental stresses of trail riding to become mentally stronger.  Downhill racers have the opposite problem, riding downhill trails exposes them to a great deal of mental stress but they don’t effectively recover from the stress. One way to increase your mental toughness is to practice imagery  (visualization). Start with three, two minute imagery sessions followed by recovery (emptying your mind, reducing mental stimulation). Work your way up to three, ten minute imagery sessions while decreasing your recovery time between sessions.  Taking emotional risk through entering races and facing your fears creates stress.  Recovering from these risks strengthens your emotionally flexibility. Emotional recovery comes from having fun, laughing out loud, watching a movie or having a few beers with friends.

Mountain bike racing requires fitness, talent and skill. However, the racers who perform best are the toughest, the ones who can access and use more of their fitness, talent, and skill than their competition. Toughness is based on physical strength and endurance; it is hard to be tough when you are exhausted. The next component of toughness is being emotional flexible and in control of your emotions. A strong and resilient mental game able to handle the pressure and stress of competition is the final component of toughness. Your mental game and emotional flexibility can both be strengthened and I will focus on more ways to do this in Part 2.