Everyone that has raced a bike has choked at some point, but you can deal with your own head and focus with the right preparation.
William Tyne is a 26-year old postgraduate currently studying a Masters in Sport & Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University. Having competed in downhill mountain biking from the age of 14 years old and all too familiar with the concept of ‘choking under pressure’.
In the article below, William discusses strategies riders can implement into their training to make them more psychologically resilient when competing.
The ability to perform at your best under pressurised conditions is without question one of the most important skills to develop for sporting success, however, it is incredibly hard to do so. A way in which you can improve your ability to perform under competitive settings is becoming more psychologically resilient. psychological resilience refers to the ability for an individual to utilise their mental processes and behaviours to withstand or adapt to environmental demands.
How can you develop psychological resilience?
To become more psychologically resilient, it is essential to develop your personal qualities, create a facilitative environment and build a challenge mindset.
Personal qualities Personal qualities are viewed as the psychological factors that protect you from the potential negative effects of stress and pressure. Integrating psychological skills training into your training programme is the best way to develop personal qualities.
Psychological skills are strategies that enhance and optimise functioning. Three skills which I believe to be of greatest use for cyclists are: goal setting, imagery and attentional control. Goal setting. Arguably the most important skill to achieving success.
Here are 3 top tips for goal setting.
Ensure you follow the SMART framework (Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-based)
There should be an emphasis on short-, medium-, and long-term goals. 3. Use a combination of process (e.g. improving technique and strategy) and performance goals (e.g. obtaining a personal best). Mental imagery – Imagery is one of the most applied psychological skills in sport due to its simplicity and effectiveness. Imagery helps to mentally prepare you for demanding situations which should hopefully lead to a higher degree of confidence when demanding situations occur. Fabian Barel, 2x Male Downhill World Champion was well known for using this skill before race runs.
Attentional Control. The ability to control your attention, particularly in stressful situations is essential for sporting success, and is at the core of what resilience is all about. It is certainly, however, easier to write about rather than apply in practice. When we perform under high pressures, the direction and the capacity of our attentional focus reduces which can lead to an excessive focus on external stimuli which can distract you from your own performance.
“If you focus on what you want to avoid before what you want to achieve, you have already lost.” Dr. Dave Alred MBE – Elite Performance Coach
A method in which you can improve your attentional control is through mindfulness. Mindfulness is achieved through focusing your attention on the present moment. A great example of mindfulness is breathing exercises. As simple as it sounds, focusing on the process of breathing in and out can help you to become more self-aware and conscious of your own performance before a race run.
Creating a facilitative environment It is essential to create a setting that fosters the development of psychological resilience. There are two components to create this environment, they are Challenge and Support. The balance of challenge and support is essential to get right, as too much of either effectively stunts development.
“It’s important to never settle or be content with where you are. Times change. You have to keep improving.” Greg Minnaar, the GOAT
How can you create a challenge environment Have high expectations of yourself. Don’t settle for second best! Set goals which challenge you and take you out your comfort zone. Take accountability for your actions, particularly when you have made mistakes. If you can’t accept your own mistakes, how are you going to learn and grow from experiences? Don’t seek out merely positive feedback. Utilise developmental feedback, recognise areas for improvement in order to strengthen them. Introduce pressure training into your programme.
Increase either the demands or increase the significance of the situation to invoke a stress response. The aim is despite the pressure increasing, performance will be maintained. For example, timing yourself in training, imposing punishments and rewards for certain outcomes, practising on courses which you don’t feel particularly comfortable on, practising in all weather conditions.
Support is a valuable resource that helps to guide an athlete to a state of mental resilience. How can you create a supportive environment surround yourself with those that support you. Whether you’re a grass roots performer or at the elite level, having a network of people that support your vision is essential.
Encourage motivational feedback, focusing purely on critical feedback will become meaningless, a focus on what has been effective will help in developing resilience.
Share your thoughts and feelings with others. Holding in how you’re feeling is a maladaptive process. Having others around you who know how you’re feeling will help you tackle setbacks and adversity. Acknowledge the support around you! Individuals with a higher perception of support availability tend to believe they have the resources to cope and overcome difficult situations developing a challenge mindset
As the quote above indicates, pressure is neither good or bad until you evaluate it as so. When you approach an evaluation with a Threat mindset the demands of the situation are perceived to outweigh your personal ability/resources resulting in you choking under the pressure.
However, a Challenge mindset is where you are able to positively evaluate pressure in challenging situations. 3 ways you can develop a Challenge mindset.
A Challenge mindset is not to say you won’t encounter any negative consequences from stressful situations. We are all human, negative thoughts are inevitable. However, the ability to be accepting and non-judgemental of these thoughts is what is key to sustain a challenge mindset. Confront your mind. Actively stop negative thoughts. When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with negativity, take a step back, be assertive and tell yourself “don’t go there”, “take control.”
If you can eliminate these negative thoughts, replace them with positive thoughts which are in your control and focus on the present moment. Utilise your psychological skills. Putting into practice the psychological skills outlined above will promote self-confidence which helps to create a challenge mindset when approaching pressurised situations.
What does it all mean Basil?
When preparing for competitions, there should be as much focus on metal preparation as much as there is on the physical preparation. Incorporating these 3 areas into your training programmes will ensure you are taking the right steps to prepare mentally for a competition.
It is important to note that all 3 areas must be practised in conjunction of each other as they are designed to complement one another. Putting your efforts into one area such as psychological skills does not equate to the development of psychological resilience.
For more reading on psychological resilience, you can read David Fletcher’s paper here.