A guest blog by Alex Bellini
The 3 mental tools for cyclists
“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most” (Eddy Merckx).
As an explorer and performance coach for elite athletes, I am often asked to share my secret to success. My interpretation of this question is that usually the inquirer wants to know if there is a short-cut, a sure-fire and fool proof path to success. Can hejust pinch his nose and click his heels three times and attain all his heart desires? I am afraid to tell that, dear friends, there are no shortcuts to success and even if you happen to stumble upon success once, you will still have to do the necessary work to maintain it.
When it comes to peak performance, sports coaches emphasize the importance of the holy trinity: physical preparation, technical skills and, the more neglected by athletes and coaches alike, psychological preparation. However, over the past several years, both coaches and athletes have started to realize that strength, speed, VO2 max and other athletic skills are not sufficient for the production of the best performance because, if Eddy Merckx’s quote is true,asking your body to work beyond the point of comfort in order to stay with a lead group and ignore the cry of your legs to stop becomes the requirement. In other words, your mind is the key component to this and critical to any success you’ll achieve.
The psychological principles:
Sports psychology has three fundamental principles:
1 Your mind is like a TV. You can control what you watchand if you don’t like the images you can always change the channel (if you know you can!).
2 What you watch in your mental TV produces certain feeling. If you watch positive and powerful images you are very likely to get powerful feelings in return, if you watch dysfunctional or negative images you are likely to get negativity in return.
3 Our thoughts affect our feelingsand our feelings affect our behaviour. Negative thoughts, like “I don’t think I can do this” produce, just like a self fulfilling prophecy, lead to negative results.
Building on these principles, mental training includes developing the following skills: focus, pain management and self talk.
Focus is the ability to manage attentional focus prior to and during competition and blocking out distractions, whether competitors, expectations, fans, nerves, conditions, past mistakes, or future results. Ideally, athletes should focus on the process, rather then on the outcome and the medal and stay in the here-and-now. A very easy but still very useful technique to keep the focus where it matters, namely here-and-now, is by focusing on your breathing.
Pain is something that all must face if they want to succeed, but can come in more than one form. Good pain refers to the pain that occurs when a cyclist is in contention for a good finish. Bad pain occurs more often when a high finish is unlikely, or if the cyclist is physically unable to continue working at that same rate. Pain obviously lessens the enjoyment and may decrease the performance. Pain often disrupts the rhythm, so start by focusing on your breathing to reestablish the rhythm is a good strategy. Even though some top athletes sometimes associate with pain, using it to drive them harder, it is very common for athletes to disassociate from it, consciously distracting themselves and directing their attention away from the pain.The danger in responding to pain inappropriately, however, is that it causes a loss of focus.
Athletes can be their own worst critics, at times without even realizing it. Many athletes will acknowledge the impact of the voices around them but forget about the impact of the voice in their head. Often times, athletes are unaware that they even utilize self-talk until they are asked to become aware of the things they are saying to themselves. Self-talk is a vital component of any athletes because there is a direct relationship between thoughts, emotions and behavior and both philosophy and the cognitive science agree on this particular relationship. René Descartes, for example, formulated “I think therefore I am”, or British philosopher John Langshaw Austin argues that language can create what an individual talks about. It is evident therefore, for its creating effect, that the quality of the language we use with ourselves and with others is a determining factor. A good strategy is to brainstorm a list of positive words that relate to how you ride or how you would love to feel while riding. Words that describe how you ride physically, for example “steady”, as well as words that describe you mentally, for example “aware”. Use this process to expand your power words and turn them into mental images.
Given the physical and metal demand of competition combined with the intense degree of suffering, sooner rather than later, have to answer THE question: how bad do I want it? The endurance performance, at every level and in every discipline, shows that this is the most important question in endurance sports because motivation is the foundation of every effort, is the difference between the simple mechanical acts of riding your bike and the reasons that push youto hold on and persevere.
What Gianluca is about to embark on, the Transcontinental Race, will test his ability to stay focus throughout the race, to withstand pain and to keep a positive self-talk. The race is one of a kind, simple in design but complex in execution. Factors such as self reliance, logistics, navigation and decision making burden racers’ minds as well as their physiques. For Gianluca, however, is more that a mere cycling race. In fact, while racing, hewill wear the colors of Nazra Syria, a charity which has been active since 2012 and provides local solutions to families in Syria for which he is raising money. If you want to donate, please check out at www.nazra-syria.org/en.
Good luck Gianluca, may the spirit of the great adventurers to be with you!