By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: Mental strengths can be given a sports specific context by considering them in terms of “long term” versus “doing it” (e.g. riding a bike) and “emotional” versus “rational”. This results in four different aspects “Ambition”(long term, emotional), “Informed Planning”(long term, rational), ”Combativity” (riding, emotional) and “Positive Habits”(riding, rational). Success requires mastery of all of these. In addition it is useful to be aware of the existence of “Mind Hacks” from areas outside of cycling that can be used to help develop proficiency in these aspects.
Mental strength is crucial in becoming the best that you can be. To turn this general concept into something actionable for sports people, including cyclists, it is helpful to break it down into some specific categories associated with preparing for and taking part in a sporting challenge of some sort.
I am not aware that this has been done, especially for cycling. What tends to be more common is the application of an idea from, say psychology, to sports. for example the “inner chimp” of Steve Peters mentioned in a previous article. The closest (and best) cycling specific mental “toolkit” I know of is the “Sufferfest” mindset training program included with their app. However it is, by its nature, not general purpose or useful for all.
So what follows contains elements that are new, to me at least. I’d be interested to hear from readers if they know of or have experience of similar ideas elsewhere.
The approach used firstly differentiates long term needs from those of importance when actually riding a bike, either in a workout or in an event.
It then separates “emotional” from “rational” reflecting our two dominant modes of behavior.
This results in four aspects of mental strength, each of which is necessary when chasing performance related goals: “Ambition,” “Informed Planning,” “Combativity” and “Positive Habits.”
Being aware of these and how they relate to you as an individual can be a useful step in developing mental skills which in turn can help in becoming the best that you can be. Each is introduced briefly below.
The intention is not to cover everything, that would take too long. Rather it is just to suggest that those wanting to become better should at least know these aspects exist and that they can be helpful in breaking down difficult challenges into manageable chunks.
Ambition: Long Term / Emotional
Ambition is paramount. It drives everything else. It determines goals and sets priorities. Ambition is what gets you out of bed on a cold wet morning to ride a bike, ambition is what makes you forgo short term pleasures for long term rewards. Ambition is what makes a champion or gets you to the finish line of your first gran fondo.
Ambition itself comes in two flavours which can vary according to an individual’s personality and the goals they are chasing.
“Intrinsic” where the incentive is for the performance itself. Riding a century, setting a PB up a climb, improving FTP by 10W are examples. The key to intrinsic ambition is that it does not depend on others either in terms of execution or recognition.
“Extrinsic” ambition involves other people. It may be to be first in an event, it may be to set a Strava KOM, it may be to move up a race category.
The reality at a personal level is less black and white but more shades of grey. Intrinsic goals are often celebrated with others and part of the purpose of achieving them is the recognition they bring. In some forms of events, e.g. crits, extrinsic goals are the only way to measure your ability and a rider may chase them not for the satisfaction of beating others but in the quest to become a better bike rider.
It is essential, for anyone who is seeking a sports related goal to sit down and have a conversation with themselves before choosing specific goals such as target events. This should be a frank assessment about exactly what they are striving to achieve, the reasons why and what they are prepared to do in order to be successful. Clear answers to these questions will help lead to success. A lack of clarity on the other hand should be a warning signal.
Informed Planning: Long Term / Rational
Ambition, while vital, is not enough. It provides the impetus but realising goals also needs a cool head, first to understand the demands of success then to devise and execute a plan to make a dream happen. The term “blind ambition” exists for a reason, ambition without a clear-headed long term view embedded in practical reality is doomed to failure and disappointment.
“Informed Planning” is what gets ambition done.
“Informed” because this mental strength requires knowledge. This can come in the form of theory, say of training approaches, physiology or, indeed, psychology as in this article. Or it can come in the form of experience. The best way to learn how to do something is to do it, learning equally from success and failure.
“Planning” because this strength involves looking ahead, taking a long term goal that may be imprecise and turning it into something that is well defined with a clear pathway that will lead to its being realised. There will not be one plan but several, each at different levels in terms of timespan. In the extreme these could range from a high level vision that covers several years all the way down to a precise race plan with specific targets for such things as power, elapsed time, tactical options and nutrition.
For some. I’m one, developing the “Informed Planning” skillset is an enjoyable challenge in itself, one that helps motivation and is complementary to Ambition.
For others it is just an impediment, something they would prefer not to do. Luckily for these people there are choices.
“Informed Planning” is what coaches do. They can listen to an ambition and put together a process, built on many years of practical experience and learning that can provide the best chance of it becoming reality. This does, of course, come at a cost. That is why having a clear view of ambition is useful. This can help make the decision as to whether the money spent is justified by the reward of the outcome. That said $1000 spent on getting expert advice from a coach is likely to be a better investment both short and long term than $1000 spent on a bike upgrade.
Other, options also exist. Most training manuals will cover the basics of understanding the needs of an event then putting together and following a training plan to meet these. This can be complemented by other resources such as training apps, online forums and publications, including, of course, Road Bike Rider.
Whatever option is pursued one while it may be true, in the words of Mike Tyson “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” it is also the case that any plan is better than no plan (and the best plans will hope for the best but prepare for the worst, including getting a fist in the face).
Combativity: Riding / Emotional
Competition brings out the best in athletes. We take a deliberate decision to spend time/money and make sacrifices in order to put ourselves in a situation of stress.
We do this because this pressure brings out our basic instinct of combativity and this in turn results in personal bests and success, sometimes beyond our expectations.
However people differ in terms of exactly what brings out their best. Similarly to Ambition there can be a distinction between “Intrinsic” and “Extrinsic”.
“Intrinsic” combativity can be fighting against fear of failure. We put ourselves in the spotlight and this itself forces us to do our best because we do not want to be seen to do badly. Time trials are examples of intrinsic combativity
“Extrinsic” combativity is about being top dog, about beating others, sprinters or the rider that has to get to the top of every hill first even on a club run are examples.
Again though it is not black and white but shades of grey. Time trialists may well go better in a national championship than a club 10 because of the recognition doing well will bring. Someone may be born with fast twitch muscles that mean they are a natural sprinter but in the back of their mind it is not coming first that matters most but avoiding coming second.
Combativity is closely linked with Ambition and as with the latter it’s worth having a frank conversation with yourself about what it is about competition that makes you perform at your best.
And, conversely, what it is about competition that makes you perform at your worst.
If done honestly this can help build confidence and be a great way to improve.
One immediate use you can use these insights for is to improve training quality.
A simple way to do this for solo workouts is “visualisation”. This is a powerful technique used by some of the world’s greatest sports people. (And people in other professions. It is used for example by pilots in display teams, they create an image in their minds of what it’s like to fly at hundreds of miles an hour wingtip to wingtip to make the real thing easier to handle.) You simply use your imagination while practicing to recreate a race sensation. It could be based on a past occasion or a vision of what you expect to happen in future. It can be something good but also something bad.
A great thing about this approach is that it costs nothing in terms of time or money. If it only makes you train a bit harder its worthwhile. But used correctly and often it can be a great way to make races go well as well.
Other means to use these insights for training is seek to recreate what makes you go at your best. If beating others motivates you then train with others and try to beat them. Chain gangs for example. Or race on Zwift not caring about the result but just to force a hard session say by trying to make and hold a break from the bunch. If you are more motivated by intrinsic rewards then “Milo’s Method”, just going a little bit better each time, which I shall discuss fully in a future article is a great way to train.
An understanding of Combativity also helps in events. Knowing what brings out your best can help in planning tactics. While it’s impossible to keep everything under control it is possible plan some ideas that play to your strengths and means you have a Plan B if things don’t go well. For example someone who is best when racing head to head could pick out a two or three riders they know who are just a bit better. Their focus can be to simply beat them come what may. Even if they only beat one of them its progress. Someone more focussed on intrinsic goals could just aim use an event to set a power PB (and then also do very well in the actual standings as well as a by-product).
Positive Habits: Riding / Rational
This topic will be the first to be addressed in more detail in future articles so I’ll keep this brief.
You cannot switch your brain off during workouts or competition. Its purpose is to think and it is better that its thoughts are of a positive helpful nature that help achieve goals rather then the opposite.
The best way to make this happen is make a conscious effort to develop good “Positive Habits” during training that mean, in the pressure of an event when stress is high and things may not go according to plan, you can fall back on them and perform with confidence.
Mind Hacks: A simple way to get an edge
This is a postscript of sorts but an important one. Each of the aspects described above can benefit from learning from other fields which have understanding and/or practical experience of mental strengths and skills.
This may be academic such as psychology or practices such as yoga.
Team Sky hiring Steve Peters to teach their riders how to handle their “Inner Chimp” is an example but there are much more. Most of these are quick, easy and cost no money, it’s just a question of knowing they exist and having an open mind about the fact that cyclists can learn from others at and as a result perform better.
In future articles I’ll cover some of the hacks that have helped me over the years. I’d also plant the seed now and suggest that others think about what, from outside of the world of cycling, has helped them succeed on a bike.
As mentioned in the beginning the above is intended as an introduction, to be a check list of mental things to consider on top of the physical side of training. In future articles I’ll expand on these ideas and give some, hopefully useful, advice on how to improve in this area.
I firmly believe it is something that is not only worth doing but is essential if you want to be the best that you can be. The actual time and effort required is negligible, certainly in comparison with building FTP or the like and they cost nothing. But the payback potential can be immense. It will make training more effective and can be the difference between success and failure when taking part in an event.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.