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.