You have to want it: The emotional component of racing

Preparation for athletic performance is like a three-legged stool. All three legs must be equally long and strong if the stool is to be stable and support you as your race to victory. The first two legs relate to physical preparation and to maintenance of health and energy. Physical preparation includes riding, aerobic cross training and strength training. If you’re serious about racing, you have a detailed plan for physical preparation. You know when, how long and how hard you are going to ride. If it is a good plan, it has some flexibility built in so you can recover when you are tired. You also know when and how much you are going to lift. Extensive physical preparation is required for success in bike racing.

The second leg of the three-legged stool is body maintenance and repair. Nutrition, weight control, attention to injuries, adequate sleep, stretching, and medical care contribute to the strength of the second leg. While few riders have detailed plans for these, most agree that they are important and pay some attention to them. Most riders accept that they have to eat well but not too much and get their hours of sleep if they want to perform. Most riders understand that an unattended sore knee or saddle sore would eventually slow them down. The racer’s body requires excellent care if it is to consistently perform at its best.

The third leg of relates to psychological and emotional preparation. Especially in this age of training plans based on power measurement and heart rate monitors, the emotional component does not get the attention it deserves, which is unfortunate, since it is essential to racing success. While you can probably intuit that psychology plays some role in athletic performance very few riders recognize how important that role is, or that this is an area for formal training. Even fewer have any detailed plan of psychological preparation. Just as some riders are physically talented or naturally stay at race weight without consciously dieting, some are psychologically more suited to racing. Others need to work at it, but very few do. As a result, the third leg of their stool is short or weak and their race results are inferior to what their talent and training could support.

The goal of physical preparation is to enhance physical fitness for cycling. One does physical training to enhance peak power for sprinting; sustained power for sticking with the pack, time-trialing, chasing and breaking away; a high power-to-mass ratio for climbing; endurance for long races and so on.

The goal of the body maintenance and repair aspect of preparation is overall health, quick recovery and freedom from injuries so that you can undertake more training and racing without breaking down. This aspect of preparation also maintains energy stores for superior performance.

The goal of psychological preparation can be looked at two ways. On the one had, you want to get your mind out of the way of your body so that it can perform at a level commensurate with your physical preparation and ability. You don’t want to be held back by fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, low motivation or other psychological problems. On the other hand you want to be in emotional states that boost your performance. You want be aided by your optimism, enthusiasm, focus and confidence. The measure of psychological preparation is the maintenance of appropriate focus and emotional states before during and after races.

Only when you are aerobically fit, powerful, healthy, injury-free and in an appropriate emotional condition should you expect to win bike races.

Good psychological preparation lets you get results at or slightly above your physical ability. It won’t make up for a lack of talent or training, or for failing to care for your body, but it can help you overcome some injuries and beat some slightly physically stronger riders. Psychological preparation for racing has many components. Just like the plans of physical preparation and nutrition, the plan of psychological preparation needs to be highly individualized to be effective. No one-size-fits-all plan works well for psychological preparation any more than for physical preparation. Some riders need to gain confidence while others are overconfident. Some need to work to maintain motivation, while others are adequately motivated all the time. In both physical and psychological preparation, extensively practicing what you are already good at is a waste of time, while practicing to correct your weaknesses will pay dividends in future competitions. What you need to do first to benefit from psychological training is assess your current psychological fitness.

It is not possible to discuss all aspects of psychological fitness in a short magazine article, so what I will do is list a few ideas to get you started thinking about a program of psychological preparation. The first and most important dimension is simply wanting to win. I define “wanting” to mean that if you have the opportunity to work to get something, you’ll do the work. The more you want it, the more you are willing to work and the better chance you have of success. To win bike races, you’ve got to want it, bad.

Bike racing is hard. Training for bike racing is time consuming and sometimes painful. You can’t race bikes seriously and have a full, normal social life. Success requires a high level of commitment to training and racing plans and life-style choices. How do you do on sticking to your plans for training, diet, sleep, bike maintenance and so on? If you don’t do well, examine your motivation. Why do you want to train or race? How much does it mean to you? One way to enhance motivation for the daily tasks that lead to bike racing success is to keep the long-term goals in mind- “keep your eyes on the prize”. There are many other ways which you can learn from sports psychology books or from a good coach.

Another important measure of your psychological preparation is how you deal with the excitement of racing. Sports psychologists refer to the level of physical and emotional excitement as arousal. If you are too excited about racing, you are anxious: You don’t sleep the night before your race, and you attack until you blow early rather than race more intelligently. Maybe you make inane jokes on the line, your heart rate redlines before the start, or you toss your cookies while warming up. These would all be signs of excessive arousal. If you are not excited enough, you push the snooze-button several times and show up late for the race not having had a decent breakfast; you sit in the back of the pack getting yo-yoed until you can’t take it anymore; and you get dropped. Excitement is a normal response when preparing to race, but excessive or inadequate excitement can undermine your performance. Fortunately excitement is something that one can learn to control and channel.

How much of your riding and racing is controlled by fear? There’s nothing wrong with occasionally being afraid, but you should not be ruled by it. Fear is one normal response to a perceived threat or uncertainty about your ability to deal with a situation without being injured. However, what you do with your fear can have a big impact on current and future racing success, so learning to deal with it effectively is a key aspect of athletic preparation. Babies react to fear by screaming. So do many bike racers. Successful bike racers may also yell, but when they do, it is part of a deliberate strategy, not a reflexive reaction to fear. Let fear inform you that you are uncertain or threatened, but then respond rationally and deliberately in a way that decreases the threat, but does not unnecessarily compromise your chances in the race. For instance, if someone is drifting towards you, threatening to lock handlebars, lead with your shoulder to protect the bars, rather than shrinking away leaving your bars exposed, and speed up to protect your position rather than backing off.

If you actually have fear intense enough that you need to apply the brakes where others coast or pedal, such as in descending corners, or that you hang to the side of the pack while others draft closely, you must come up with a deliberate plan to fix this before you waste your time and money racing. If fear is preventing you from racing effectively, others who are not as strong as you physically will beat you. Too little fear or ignoring all fear also has its downside: Unnecessary crashes.

Your personal psychology and emotional condition affect how you race. If you can maintain focus and stick to a race plan, you have a better chance of winning than if you are easily distracted from your plan. If you are tough and can keep your eyes on the prize as you work through pain or unpleasant weather and bad pavement, you’ve got a better chance of winning than if you shrink from discomfort. If you ride unnecessarily hard in races, or attack particular riders because you don’t like them, you throw away chances for victory. If you blame your failures on other people you miss chances to improve your performance in later races. Your psychological condition can support or undermine your pursuit of racing goals.

Examine the legs of your stool. Is the psychological leg short? If you want to win bike races and your psychological preparation is not as good as your physical preparation or your attention to health and recovery, make a plan to correct that. Build up the third leg. There are some good sports psychology books available to help you. You also might want to work with a coach who has experience beyond simply measuring power and heart rates and making training plans. If you psychological preparation has been minimal to date compared to physical preparation and recovery, a little bit of psychological work will bring bigger rewards than more physical work. Remember, wanting to win means being willing to do the necessary work, even if that means paying attention to a new area of preparation. How badly do you want to win?