Sports Psychology Q & A: Finding Focus on Race Day

Q: I find in races that my mind wanders. I’m right in the race one moment, and then the next I’m worrying about work tomorrow or thinking about something else, and by the time my head is back in the race, I’ve slipped several positions in the pack or someone might have even opened a gap in front of me! I love bike racing, but I can’t seem to keep my head in the game non-stop for the entire race. What can I do to improve on this?

A: Narrow Your Attentional Focus For Race Day Performance

This is an excellent question on how to learn how to focus on the right things during a race. To improve upon your attentional focus during a bicycle race, you need to intentionally make some changes in how you prepare for your race. To begin with, keep this notion at the forefront of your mind: a bicycle race is your place to be free from the distractions of everyday life. Honor the idea of arriving at a bicycle race, and not bringing any extra baggage with you. That’s right. Clear your mind from worrying about work, or any concerns that you may be dealing with in your life. The more you focus on being fully engaged in the race process the less that external distractions will diminish your performance.

Pre-Race Routine

Part of your pre-race routine, is transitioning from a wide attentional focus to a more narrow attentional focus. Concentrate on the necessary tasks involved in your pre-race routine to feel confident when you roll up on the starting line. Register and/or pick-up your number, pre-ride the course, scout out your competition, pump-up your tires on your race wheels, drop off your spare set of wheels in the pit, etc. The list could go on and on, but you get the idea. Sticking to an organized pre-race routine helps you to stay calm, cool, relaxed, and committed to your race. You will clear your mind well before you roll your bike up to the starting line with a consistent routine that you can replicate race after race.

Racer’s Mind-set

The next step in your pre-race routine is your warm-up. A high-intensity warm-up that is at least 45 minutes in duration with high-intensity intervals that will prime your body for the first few (often fast) laps of the race. During your warm-up, you are already transitioning to a “racer’s mind-set”. This racer’s mind-set is what I describe as: full of confidence, intensely focused, free of distractions, and right-brain dominant. Each successive interval should mentally bring you closer to your racer’s mind-set. It is a conscious process initially, but as you continue your pre-race routine, the transition to a racer’s mind-set will become more automatic.

A Tactical Race

You have a calm and confident mind when you are waiting for the gun to go off to start your race. Keep it that way. You can separate your thoughts during a race into two divergent mind-sets.

  1. Racing Mind-set: Thoughts that help you execute strategic moves, and tactical decisions in the race.
  2. Faulty Thinking Mind-set: Thoughts that do not help you race well, and detract from your performance.

Stay in the racing mind-set, and pay attention to performance cues during the race. Keep a present oriented frame-of-mind. If your mind starts to wander, bring yourself back on track, by using a method called: thought stoppage. Simply, stop the thoughts from occurring, and promise yourself that you will re-visit them after the race. Keep doing this, and eventually it will be become easy, and automatic.

Think about the performance cues that will help you execute smart moves. For example, in the race, these are some of the clues that you want to dial-in on:

  • Plan to respond to an attack
  • See a good line as you enter a 45 degree hair-pin turn
  • Find a safe and smooth wheel to draft
  • After conserving your energy, launch a well-timed attack of your own
  • Trust your racing instincts

In sum, external thoughts, and distractions will gently fade into the background by making a full commitment to focusing on performance cues in your racing mind-set. For your next race, execute your strategy and carry out your race plan.

See you on the road!
Dr. K.C. Wilder