Mind Matters: Psychological skills for cycling

Any athlete can tell you about their performance in terms of what their time was, what the score was, or other outside variables of the competition that lead to their success or failure. However what is rarely expanded upon in sport is the contribution that was made from an athletes psychological skills towards that performance. There may be a couple main reasons why we don’t readily give credit to our psychological skill-set and perhaps the foremost being that the athlete is on the inside looking out. When we can literally see and experience our success, we attribute this to the physical rather than the mental. In addition, our mental skills or psychological state cannot be easily analyzed through data collection methods such as power and/or heart rate files.
From working with different levels of athletes, I have seen athletes struggle and I have seen athletes succeed. What I can tell you about those that succeeded was that they all either had or adapted strong psychological skills to help them overcome or accomplish.  So what exactly are psychological skills and how do we use them? Psychological skills may be very broadly defined either as an attribute or an action of the mind. Just as an athlete has physical skills attributes such as power, speed, agility, etc. an athlete also has attributes of confidence, motivation, and ability to cope with adversity. In addition, an athlete may also perform a psychological skill as an action, for example, meditating, positive self- talk, and goal-setting. To answer the question of how do we use psychological skills, I dove a little deeper to say the least.
In 2013 I was an up and coming cycling coach with just a few clients and a grad student in the field of Exercise Physiology. Wanting to know more about the psychology of performance, especially as it relates to coaching cyclists,  I designed a study that analyzed the relationship between certain psychological skills, the presence and the frequency of communication with a coach, and how all these variables may or may not be correlated with an athlete’s performance at a major competition. For this major competition, I used Cyclocross National Championships. Although this study became my thesis project a short synopsis of this study may be found here. In short the study showed support for the positive effect of coaching, goal setting, and frequency of communication with a coach on an athlete’s performance. Given the complex nature of psychological skills and their application, I’d like to provide just a few basics for an athlete looking to sharpen up their mental game, without having to dive neck deep in peer-reviewed research.

Set goals

Goal-setting is arguably the most important element to achieving athletic success or any success for that matter. The more specific your goal is, the greater the chance your actions will follow the path of your goal. Outcome goals, such as winning a race, are easy to say and quantify whether or not the goal was met or not, however an outcome is dependant on external factors such as other’s performance. Performance goals, focus solely on what you did within your own limits, a performance goal might be that “I want to improve my functional threshold power by 10%.” And finally a process goal commits to the way that you raced, i.e. conservative start vs’ aggressive start.
It is equally important to set all of these types of goals, and not one type of goal exclusively. With the goals that are set, develop objectives that guide you towards achieving these goals. This is something that you should discuss with your coach to ensure your goals and objectives are not only realistic but in alignment with one another. The key with all of this, is write them down and know what they are. Be specific! Put your goals in a place where you will see them every day without having to open a document or computer file. Of course having your goals in digital form can’t hurt, but make them be something that you are reminded of.

Use of Imagery

At first this may seem like a very subjective and soft psychological skill to practice, however it is very powerful. Just as a football player will review game film studying their own actions and the actions of opponents, a cyclist with video footage of their performance has a valuable training tool at their fingertips. What’s especially helpful is the ability to pair this footage, say from a Garmin camera, with variables such as power, cadence, heart rate, etc. data that can help identify very important areas of improvement or things that an athlete does well.
Aside from using imagery with technology, It can also be highly beneficial to introduce the concept of imagining you are racing while you are performing training intervals that are specific to your A- race at the end of the year. Using this strategy, an athlete might imagine they are in a race, in that moment that counts the most. Having practiced this moment in training, will lead to familiarization, that in turn should lead to a higher degree of confidence when in the actual moment in the race. Physiologically, the mind will say “this is hard but I can do this!” Given the appropriate use of imagery training, the body will have a greater chance of following the minds lead: Sit-in here, respond again, respond again, attack, SPRINT!

Staying Focused

Of all of the psychological skills discussed they all funnel into keeping your mental edge. The season can grow long and training can take its’ toll. Very few domestic professionals have no obligations outside of bike racing, however for the majority it comes down to a finely tuned balance. Obviously staying sharp mentally hinges on a plethora of factors. An athlete’s nutrition, family or marital life, sleep patterns, other health related issues, can all have an effect on mental and cognitive functioning. It is not uncommon for coaching sessions with athletes to start with discussing the training and the data only to end with discussing how external factors played a role in an athlete’s performance. Although numerous stressors may be influential, stress is not always a bad thing and in moderation may be a source of motivation. However, Just as your body needs recovery after a training block, so does the mind. Whether it be training the physical or the mental, a high importance should be placed on allowing periods of recovery and staying mentally sharp.
As discussed, a psychological skill is something that can be practiced. Just think about how much time you spend during the race assessing the race and how it feels. Have you ever looked down at your device in a race and been surprised at how high your heart rate was, yet you felt like it was much easier? That’s because there were psychological factors at play that acutely affected your physiology. Your mind was trained to stay focused on the race, your relative position to other riders, and perhaps the plan that was set forth prior to the race. Not only physically but psychologically practice is a method of reinforcement. In this light, it is easy to see how practicing the wrong thing from the mental standpoint will have negative consequences. With as much time as we spend being critical of ourselves and how our performance may not have been optimal or served us well, it’s extremely important to practice positively influential psychological skills techniques not only in training but in our daily lives.

In Summary

Unless you have reached guru level of  full self-awareness, you’ll likely benefit from some psychological skill refinement. In learning what you can do to improve your psychological skills, one should seek to identify what specifically you need to work on. My challenge to the athlete reading this is as follows:

  1. Identify a psychological skills need of yours by clicking here
  2. Set 3 objectives or skills you can practice on a regular basis that will support this goal coming to fruition (We can help you with this)

Initial consultations with a source-endurance consultant are free. For more information on our services and similar sports performance services, visit Source-e.net/services.
BioPic-GrantHarrison (1)
Grant Harrison grew up competing in a variety of sports including college football, competitive soccer and hockey. Since then things have switched all things cycling- in multiple disciplines to boot. His extensive Master’s education in Human Performance gives him a solid background in all things athlete-related. He’s focused on the delicate balance between pyschological skills, coaching, nutrition, and athlete performance. In addition to coaching services, he also offers one-on-one nutrition consultations. Learn more about Grant.

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  1. […] Winning races takes great mental strength! Grant recently wrote Mind Matters: Psychological Skills for Cycling. […]