What’s In Your Head? Mental Lessons from Mountain Bike Racing

What’s In Your Head?

Mental Lessons from Mountain Bike Racing

Last July, one of my ‘A’ races of the 2011 season was the USA Cycling National Championships for cross-country mountain bike held at Sun Valley, Idaho. The course was more challenging than most with one of the steepest and longest climbs I have ever encountered.  Originally I was looking forward to this course because it had a substantial climb, and I tend to do well on courses with lots of climbing because of my small lightweight stature.  However, during the pre-ride (practice ride around the course) the day before the race I actually had to dismount and walk four or five times because I was maxed-out within the first few minutes! Not a good sign considering the next day I was going to be racing five laps up and down this mountain.  Once I finally got to the top in a hypoxic state I felt so discouraged and deflated that I couldn’t keep focus on the tight twisty descent through the trees. My foot caught a root and gravity took over, I went sailing over the handlebars and rolled down a scree field a good 30 feet.  The crash resulted in some bad scrapes, ripped lycra, and a devastated ego.

You can imagine my pre-ride experience evoked various undesirable emotions before my biggest race of the year such as anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and self-consciousness that I’m in over my head.  I thought to myself, ‘not only am I competing against some of the fastest women in the country, but I can’t believe this course forced me off my bike during the “slow…take it easy” pre-ride!’ Times like these I struggle to find the confidence for which there is no reason I shouldn’t have. I made an emergency phone call to my support crew: my coach and my sports psychologist, who’s been helping “train my brain” since I made the big jump to the pro field.   Both advised me to first calm down, and there was no reason to doubt myself.  My coach made it clear that my training data speaks for itself, and that I’m prepared beyond a doubt.  My sports psych told me to ride within myself, and to not let a bad pre-ride sabotage my mental state and discount the months of hard work.  This day’s experience would not hold any weight in predicting tomorrow’s outcome.  Although the support from both people is indispensable to me, the choice to turn my thinking around ultimately rests within me.

 Believe in your abilities and preparation

I lost focus because I lost belief in myself and lost sight of the truth of who I really am as an athlete.   I went back to the condo and took a look back at my training logs from the beginning, January 1, 2010, and had the evidence right there in front of me.  Since I began a new training program in 2010 until now July 2011 I could see nothing but a steady growth of improvement in power and performance. It was clear I was more ready for this race then at any other period in my life. No further training would make me any better in that moment.  Tomorrow’s performance would be the best that I could have at this point, and it would be against the top women on a world-class course.  This challenge was required of me as part of the process to see how far I can go in my sport.

Letting go of unnecessary tension

The training files didn’t lie, I had a quality race with a respectable outcome. I had my best finish so far at a national event.  But judging myself in terms of the superficial placement good or bad is not my objective.  The National Championships was a successful race for me because I stayed centered in myself.  Each lap I climbed well, despite being in agonizing pain and wanting to give up, but I kept turning the pedals.  I objectively focused on my pain and I asked myself, ‘where am I wasting energy?’  I was holding onto tension in my face, my shoulders, my hands, and my negative thoughts.  This tension was not helping me go forward, I had to disengage from this pain. Somewhere I’ve read performance means the ‘perfection of form’, so I turned all thoughts to my pedal stroke, each stroke fluid, strong, efficient.  Likewise on the descent I kept all thoughts on form.  When I descend I like to visualize water, because its smooth, fluid, and effortless.  Water flows through the path of least resistance and this is always the fastest way down the mountain. 

Lesson of Uncertainty

Afterwards when I had time to reflect I realized my biggest fear in racing is that of uncertainty. No matter how well I prepare for my races there is always uncertainty and the chance of things not working out.  Racing teaches me how to accept uncertainty.  I cannot foresee or control the terrain, crashes, the competitors, mechanical breakdowns, but in the end I compete and train for mountain biking because I’m curious about the unknown possibilities.

I do not know what the end result is for me as a professional cyclist. If I knew ahead of time exactly how each race would play out or how my life would progress I probably wouldn’t bother training or racing or getting up in the morning.  Without uncertainty my life would be stagnant and would prevent me from grasping for the things I want and what I want to become. I strive for great results and continuous improvement, but what I really love is the process and the sport.  I love the satisfaction of completing each training session and how mountain biking allows me to experience our natural world.

“The road to the top isn’t always a straight, smooth trajectory.  The road to the top goes down at times mistakes happen, and I feel terrible like nothing is working.  But because I have passion and love for what I am doing I go back and try it again.” – Gerry Lynch


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