Mind Games

One of my goals for this season is to incorporate more mental training into my race preparations. In my graduate degree studies I completed my thesis on mental training in sports so I’m well aware of the vast array of tools available to the competitive mind; and thoroughly ‘buy into the effectiveness of mental training’ if that is even in question. Most athletes partake in mental training whether they are aware of it or not; hyping yourself up with words or music, or seeing yourself cross the finish line are examples. Visualization, positive self talk, rehearsing, goal setting, full body progressive relaxation, and mantras are a few examples of techniques that can be very helpful pre race, during the worst of the suffering, and even post race. A few of these I have ingrained enough in my training that I do them involuntarily when the going gets tough. For example, when there’s a sustained climb I repeat the mantra, “pedal easy” to keep my breath, pedal power, and excitement at a level that I can sustain without blowing up before I reach the top. In this same situation I may also visualize pedaling in big circles, scraping my feet against the ground on the down stroke and pulling my heels up quickly on the up stroke. This encourages a smooth pedal stroke and not one that is desperate and likely to deplete my muscles at a faster rate. Two books that I have found particularly useful and accessible to the typical athlete are “Body Mind Mastery” by Dan Millman, and “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind” by Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch. Both of these provide exercises for the reader to follow and practice incorporating the mental training techniques into their daily life. That’s right, I said daily life, not just sports performance. These two books are quite smart in blurring the line between success in sports and success in business and life. Granted it is much harder to get excited about improving your work performance, but there are many parallels that can be drawn to overcoming the inevitable fear and conquering the challenge in work or play. One of the greatest tidbits I have retained in training my mind is to remember that

Whatever challenge I am worrying and stressing about, once I get through it, it will never have that power over me again.

That in itself, knowing you only have to feel this way once, makes giving a big presentation at work a lot less daunting! Now in the world of bike racing, winning a race or successfully riding through a technical section definitely gives you confidence in the next similar challenge. But keep in mind the ‘transfer of power’ may not be a complete overlay. An example of this could be that I feel very confident going into a race because I had a great time on that course in previous years. However, I could still feel nervous about it because a tough competitor was not at the race last year and how she will stack up against my best run is unknown. In this way the challenge is different, even though I will have a multitude of mountain bike races this year, the details of each will be in such combinations that some will having me stressing for weeks while others will feel like a ‘ride in the park’.
I want to emphasize the importance of mental training to the complete athlete. Some athletes have negative mental training habits, but most have zero awareness of what their mind is doing during training and racing. Ignorance is not bliss, it is pure anxiety- soaked hell. If you have heard the phrase ‘mental training’ then you owe it to yourself to do some research, pick up a book, or get with a trainer/ coach. It’s like the people that tell me they never stretch. Yeah, so you’ve ‘never been hurt’ but that’s not the only reason to stretch. Imagine what you could be and what you could achieve if you allowed yourself to use all the tools available to you. And they are available to you. If have no money go to the library, if you’re lazy then track down your old high school coach and get some guidance from them. Start paying attention to how you feel before a long climb or before a race. If you’re anxious/scared/ agitated then that will transfer into physiological anxiety; increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, hormone release, sympathetic ‘fight or flight mode’ all of which spells wasted energy and little enjoyment.

Better yet, find the nice, quiet guy on your race team that always seems to do better than you, I bet you anything he’s training his mind as much as or more than you’re training your body.

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