Sports Psychology Q & A: Fear of Slick Turns and Fear of Taking a Spill in Cyclocross

by KC Wilder PhD

What a great question.  How does one get past the fear of taking a spill in a cyclocross (CX) race?  First of all, most novice and elite racers may experience a similar fear.  The key is to accept that physical training along with mental training is part of your preparation for CX racing.  Mental training for the “obstacle” faced by the athlete, who posed the above question, includes: practicing slippery off-camber turns enough times in training so that you will be in a trusting mind-set on the day of competition, letting go of the fear of falling or fear of failure, evaluating your race performance, and being proactive in your preparation for your next race.

To support that notion of mental preparation, here is what current client, 17-year cycling veteran, Laura Van Gilder, expressed to me, “Sports psychology is an important aspect of an athletes’ success.  Working with Dr. K.C. Wilder this past season has put a new perspective on my outlook and preparation for my sport.  Mental training is an important element that completes an athlete’s preparedness.”

One of the questions that I asked Van Gilder when working with her was, what do you like about cyclocross racing?  She answered, “I like cyclocross because it is fast paced, and it is a short intense, 40 minute discipline.  You focus entirely on yourself as a rider, and at the end of the day you know–this one is on me.  I like to rely on myself, and come away from a race knowing that I did the best that I could.”

Before you read any further, if you race cyclocross, answer this question for yourself.  What do you like about cyclo-cross racing?  Answering this question is important because anytime you face an obstacle, you can reflect back on why you chose to do this sport in the first place.

Train so That you can Trust: Take Slippery Off-Camber Turns in Practice

You’ve heard it before.  Practice, practice, practice.  Commit to working on the technical aspects of cyclocross.  This way, the more that you “train” your skills the more you can “trust” your skills in a race.  You have a fear when it comes to off-camber slippery turns, correct?   What is the best way to overcome the fear?  Do it over, and over again in low-pressure situations.  This way you can train your technique, and mechanics when there are not any expectations related to your performance.

Let’s break it down.  In a training mind set, you will have the time, and space to be:

  • Analytical
  • Left-brain dominant
  • Mechanical
  • A perfectionist

The proper place for you to have a training mind set is in practice.  However, to take it to the next level in competition, you will move from a training mind set to a trusting mind set.

A Trusting Mindset Equals A Racing Brain

How do we define trusting mind set?  A trusting mind set is the mind set that you have when you are full of confidence in your skills and ability.  You have practiced your bike handling skills, and mastered taking that off-camber turn on training rides, and now you can put it on automatic pilot.  Don’t think–just do.

Let’s break it down.  In a trusting mind set, you will have the time and space to be:

  • Trusting
  • Right-brain dominant
  • Free it up, let-it-go
  • On automatic pilot

No doubt, being in a trusting mind set in ‘cross is a challenge due to the every changing dynamics of the course.  Let’s go back to our expert, Laura Van Gilder, and see how she deals with the unique aspects of a cyclocross race.  Van Gilder said, “The different variables that you face race upon race, and even within a race are challenging.  The barriers, and how to navigate them on each lap make it a lot of fun.  After the barriers there may be an uphill run, then you may have to deal with an off-camber turn.  Each lap the course changes, for example, it may become muddier, and therefore you have to constantly evaluate, and re-evaluate the best lines to take on the course.”

Bottom Line: Stay in the trusting mind set, and have fun in the race!  You have worked too hard, not to enjoy the process of the race.

Post-Race Evaluation and Being Proactive

 When you finish the race, you can go back to your training mind set, and evaluate your performance.  Ask yourself, “Where can I improve?  What skills can I practice to improve how I ride the course?”  Van Gilder answers this question for us: “When I finish a cyclocross race I am less harsh on myself than in a criterium.  Any disappointment that I may feel doesn’t linger, and I am pro-active, and positive about it.  I think to myself, what technique can I work on this week to improve my cyclocross skills?  I take charge, and realize my mistakes, and then they turn into challenges for my next ‘cross race.  I am always looking to improve my ‘cross techniques, skills, and mental strategies that I bring to a race.”

Van Gilder mentions being pro-active.  Are you pro-active?  Let’s go back to Van Gilder about the importance of being pro-active is critical for optimal performance.  Van Gilder emphasizes, “It is important to me because I have high expectations for myself in every race.  If I am pro-active post-race, then I am more positive, I am challenged, and more prepared for my next race.  Also, since ‘cross is individualistic it is real easy for me to focus on something that is so clean, and in my control.”

Take a moment to reflect on your own performance in cyclocross, or the cycling discipline in which you specialize.  Why do you race?  How do you evaluate your performance post-race?  Why is being pro-active important to you, and your performance?  Recognize your own freedom, train-to-trust, and then go ahead—master those slippery off-camber turns!