By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: Sport is not just a test of physical fitness. It is a challenge to mind and body. Training only with the aim to improve the body, training that is “mindless” is a missed opportunity, a waste of our most precious resource, time.
My recent RBR articles have two central themes. The next couple will reinforce these, then I’ll move onto the meat and stop talking about theory and start on how to actually put these ideas into practice and use them to improve.
The first theme is that becoming “better” at cycling is about more than just increasing power, it is also about becoming smarter.
The second theme is that becoming smarter is easy. It just requires the intent to include mental goals along with physical goals when training, something that requires next to no time and provides extra bangs per buck as it makes the physical side of training more fun and more effective as well. It even has a spill-over into your non-cycling life. Just as becoming fitter in body can make you feel better 24/7/365, so can becoming fitter in mind.
Indeed, mental skills developed while training for sport can be more useful outside of sport than physical gains. You are unlikely to be able to convince a client to buy a product or reason with a reluctant teenager by impressing them with your FTP number. Being able to keep your emotions in check, using them to assist you rather than hinder, on the other hand, is a talent that will pay back throughout a lifetime.
I don’t feel that it’s just cycling that is missing a trick. It’s commonplace. My other sport is golf. There must be millions of hours of advice devoted to what to do during the second or so it takes to swing a club. Yet only a few, a very few deal with what most golfers find most frustrating. The fact that we can hit perfect shot after perfect shot on the range yet be incapable of hitting even a mediocre one when it matters on the course. (An honorable exception, the book that despite it being about golf is the most important I have ever read in terms of cycling is Tim Gallway’s “Inner Game of Golf”).
As a psychologist this blind spot, this reluctance to talk about the importance of the mind and accept that it, like the body, can be improved by training is interesting. Could it be a reflection of the fact that sports books are written by “jocks” rather than “nerds”? Could it be a reluctance to discuss matters of the mind with the same frankness as matters about the body, indicated by society’s different treatment of mental vs physical illness?
Whatever the cause it’s a huge waste of potential. Time is our most precious resource and most people who practice sports do so part time. A fundamental rule of business is that you treat your most valuable resources with the utmost respect and try to get the maximum benefit you can out of them. If you can only spend a few hours a week pursuing your favorite activity it makes it even more important that every hour is used as wisely as possible. Improving mindset and building mental skills is a way to do this.
My first visit to the USA was back in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial celebrations. It was a life changing experience in many ways. One was that when I returned to the UK I told my father to invest all he could in a company called “McDonalds”. They had a radical new idea. Instead of sitting at a table, as we did, waiting, often for an age, to be served with a burger made from the sole of a boot you could, within a few minutes of entering their restaurants, be eating a “Big Mac” that tasted like heaven.
As it happens I was too late. There was no stopping Ronald. He’d crossed the pond to the UK before I made it to the US but unbeknownst to me as only in “the South” which was a foreign country as far as I was concerned.
The point of this story is not to praise Big Macs. (That said I do not blame them for the downfall of civilisation. At the right time in the right circumstances they fill a hole like nothing else.)
My point is that a Big Mac is more than a burger. It’s more than a bun. It’s more than a burger and a bun. A Big Mac is a classic example of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, pickles and all.
The same should apply to sports training. It should be purposeful looking to improve everything that will help you become the best that you can be.
That’s what “marginal gains” is all about. Cycling only discovered these during the second decade of 2000s. This only goes to show just how far behind the curve its training methodology is. In the real world “marginal gains” are somethings that those of us who need to make things for a living have been chasing all our lives.
My dad didn’t follow my suggestion about hamburgers, but he did give some far more useful advice of his own. When I was a teenager in the 1970s when he explained the basic concepts of the integrated supply chain and the associated “continuous improvement” mindset (of which marginal gains are small part). “The pursuit of marginal gains” is something even older, a deep human instinct that goes back to the dawn of time. We like figuring things out, we like being smarter. Our ability to do this and pass the lessons on to the next generation is what has made us what we are.
Except it seems in sports, some more than others. Cycling, unfortunately, is typically more concerned with resisting change and new ideas rather than embracing them.
We are not, as adults, forced to play sport. We do so by choice for a variety of reasons.
Two of these reasons reflect essential aspects of what sport is. They are what makes sports different.
Firstly it has to be a challenge. There has to be an element of competition. The nature of the competition may vary, it could be other people, it could be mother nature, it could be aesthetic, it could be a clock, it could be a combination of all these and/or something else. Activity without competition is not a sport, it is a pastime. Cycling is one of a number of activities (such as walking, running, swimming or skiing) that can provide enjoyment in a number of ways including as a pastime or sport. I have enjoyed it in both forms but for now I’m concerned just about it as a sport.
The second reason we enjoy sport is that it engages both mind and body. A sport cannot be called a sport without doing both.
That is the essential difference between a game and a sport. A game challenges the mind but not the body. So chess and poker are games.
An activity that challenges the body but not the mind not a sport.
Interestingly it’s hard to think of a counterpart to chess in this regard. Every sport, even those that push the body to its absolute limits at the most basic level such as ultra endurance, challenge the mind as well. Indeed this latter category of sport is in fact more a test of mind than body, evidenced by the fact that it is the only form of endurance competition where females can beat males in a straight up head to head contest. Because it is really a “head to head” contest, it’s not the legs that call a halt, but the mind.
This makes my point about the “mind/body” duality of sport and the importance of considering its mental side. The brain does not switch off when training or competing. It is always on. Indeed its more than just always on it’s always multi-tasking, working at many levels, conscious and unconscious. It’s impossible to stop this. It’s stupid to fight it, it is just obvious common sense to accept it and move on to making the most of it.
The bottom line is simple. If you are training to improve at a sport then every time you train you should have clear, explicit goals of what the purpose of your training is.
These goals should include becoming more capable at physical level to tackle the challenge of your given sport. But equally and just as importantly they should include becoming more capable at a mental level. This can include building the mindset strengths that are especially relevant to the nature of competition, improving and extending your repertoire of mental skills/hacks, consistently retraining and reinforcing perishable skills and using training as a vehicle to simulate the reality of your sport ambition.
By doing this, by replacing “mindless” practice with “mindful” practice, will result in a better return from time invested in training and significantly improve the chances of realising a sporting ambition. It will also pay back in the wider world as well.
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.