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In last month’s Dirt Rag I explained that talent and skill alone won’t help you race at you best.  To excel as an athlete you must be tough and I defined toughness as being able to perform at or near your peak no matter what life throws at you.  To do this you must be able to reach your optimal performance state (OPS) in training, before your race and maintain it throughout your event.  Your OPS is a physiological state that involves being relaxed, confident, challenged and energized at the levels where you perform best.  I’ll provide strategies for reaching your OPS and getting tougher in the three critical areas that effect it; mental strength, emotional flexibility and physical stamina.

The level of relaxation, confidence, challenge, focus, fun, control and energy required to reach your OPS is different for everyone.  Too relaxed and you are sloppy and not focused enough, too energized and you try too hard and lose your flow on the trail.  Finding the level of challenge where you perform best is a great starting point.  You must find the point where you are on the edge of control keeping you focused by feeling your skills match the challenge.  Have you ever cleaned the toughest section of a trail only to wreck in an “easy” section right after it?  Being on the edge of control in the tough section kept you focused but when you felt completely in control you lost focus.

You can experiment to find the right combination of confidence, challenge, focus, fun, control and energy you need to attain your OPS. The best way to do this is to use a set challenge (a short section of trail) and time your runs through it at different levels of the above variables. Adjust one variable at a time and you times will tell what levels work.  Another way to do this is with a “Past History Search” which is just as it sounds, go back in your mind and relive your greatest moments in competition. In a relaxed setting, such as a sitting in a dimly lit room by yourself pick your three or four most proud moments and really feel how you felt at the time.  Both of these exercises should give you a great idea of where you need to be mentally, emotionally and physically to reach your OPS.

Once you find your OPS you must be able to reach it consistently.  Everyone has race weekends when they didn’t get enough sleep, are jet lagged or just plain worn out.  To do well on those days you can’t let how you really feel get in the way of how you need to feel.  You must be able to summon the feelings needed to reach your OPS on race day, no matter how you really feel.  A great way to do this is to develop a second personality, your inner racer.  This is literary the person you become on race day (and in practice) and is completely separate from your everyday personality.  Your inner racer feels confident, strong, energized and relaxed despite how you actually feel. You do this by physically acting confident strong and energized the physiological response to acting this way is to feel this way.  Use a role model for this, copy the behavior of someone who is confident and fast.  I try to channel Cedric Gracia (chin up, chest out, looking people in the eye, smiling, standing proud) this makes me laugh (relaxing me) and feel confident.  You do this mentally by remembering and almost reliving in your mind the feelings after other successes in your life.  This process can be streamlined by creating what Sports’ Psychologists call performance cues, actions that help you become your inner racer quickly.  These cues are anchored to the feeling and emotions you need to feel as your inner racer.  A performance cue is typically a physical action tied with a thought or short phrase, such as making a fist and saying, “I’m the King!” or touching two fingers together and saying, “super fast”.  In relaxed setting, such as a sitting in a dimly lit room by yourself relive three past experiences where you felt the feeling and emotions that bring on your OPS, one experience
at time.  When you really start to feel your OPS do and say your performance cue and repeat this with each experience for a total of around twenty minutes.  All you need is 20 minutes a day twice a week and soon you will be able to move from any state to your inner racer instantly.  Using performance cues is also the quickest way to return to your inner racer after a mistake or crash.

Now that you have found out how to reach your inner racer at will you must be able to stay there.   Part of staying there is becoming mentally strong, not letting other people, events or things you can’t control affect your self confidence.  A clear cut goal of what you want to accomplish and confidence in your riding ability helps you stay tough by keeping things in perspective.  This really helped me years ago in one of my first Norba National races as a pro.  When John Tomac sat up his rollers on one side of me and current world champion Mike King started warming up on the other I was really nervous for a minute.  Thoughts like, “I don’t belong here” and “those guys are going to kill me” popped into my head.  Then I remembered that my goal was simply to have my best run and that I was racing the clock not these “gods” of the sport.  Johnny T. and Mike King both finished well ahead of me but by focusing on my goal I and not worrying about what I had no control over (the other racers performance) I was able to have my best performance to date.  So keep things in perspective, and eliminate worry; worry can rob you of energy and often worry has no basis in reality.  Remember your purpose and don’t worry about what you can’t control.

Learning from your mistakes will also make you tougher.  Many riders crash, cuss at their bike, then pick it up and keep riding.  This is a good strategy (minus the cussing) in a race because you want to lose as little time in as possible.  When you make a mistake in practice stop and figure out why you made the mistake and then decide how to handle the same situation better the next time.  This approach completely reverses the outcome of making the mistake.  Instead of getting angry and losing confidence you feel a since of accomplishment and more confident because you used the mistake to improve your riding.  Mistakes are part of the learning process so look at them as an opportunity to improve, not a set back.

Imagery is another toughness builder.  It is a lot easier to pass that racer who has beaten you the last few racers if you have already done it in your head ten times.  Image yourself experiencing bad situations that you may encounter (such as a flat or poor start in an xc race, or a crash in a practice run before a downhill race) and over coming them.  The more you practice these situations in your mind the better you will be able to handle them in real life.

Getting tough mentally and emotionally is just like physical training; you stress the system, recover from that stress and grow stronger. Find out how to reach your OPS and then work on ways to reach it more consistently.  Take care of the feelings that hold you back and keep things in perspective; after all it’s just a bike race. Imagine yourself overcoming obstacles and reaching your goals and you are likely to do so in real life.  All of the above exercises will make you tougher.  If this has interested you and you would like to learn more about improving your mental game I recommend reading:

The New Toughness Training for Sports by James E. Leohr, and

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

Side bar:  Different races require different levels of the components of OPS, example slalom vs. dh vs. xc.

You want to reach your Optimal Performance State in all competitive events but some of the components of your OPS may differ for different events.  Your level of relaxation, confidence, challenge, focus, fun and control should stay the same but your level of relaxation and energy can be quite different depending on the competition.  In snowboard racing I found that I performed best when I was extremely fired up.  My energy level was off the charts and it was a struggle to keep my muscles relaxed.  Knowing this was where I performed best as a snowboard racer I used this state of arousal for downhill races for years.  This had the unfortunate effect of taking away my flow and smoothness.  I was trying too hard, entering corners too fast, and exiting them slow, pedaling when I should of been pumping the trail and too tense to be smooth.  I know race in much calmer relaxed state which really helps me smooth it out, using less energy and going faster.
For races like mountain cross or dual slalom I still get fired up because the start is so important and the race is more of a short sprint.  In general the longer the event the more you will want to be mellow and relaxed while shorter events require a more excited state.