Mind power in performance sport

by Tony Fahkry

Awareness of thoughts

You crest the next small climb with the lead group, glance at your heart rate reading on your monitor which is now showing 172 bpm. You’re nearing your pain threshold. You reach for your water bottle, which now only contains a quarter of fluid left. It’s getting warmer and warmer as the day goes on, with over an hour of racing left. You rip open your jersey to get some welcomed relief from the breeze making its way onto your chest as you descend the hill. Check heart rate again and its gone up a few more beats as the bunch fast approaches the next climb, longer this time yet slightly steeper than the first. You’re sitting fourth wheel from the front holding a good position, working hard with the lead group. Ouch!, cramp takes hold in your right calf. Ahh!, it pinches and grips again. Not now you’re thinking, not now! It’s my turn on the front. Don’t cramp, don’t cramp! You repeat this to yourself over and over again as you find yourself ascending the second climb, though something’s terribly wrong – you’re gradually slipping backward in the group as other team members seem to be passing you. Ahh!, cramp hits again. Reach for the water bottle. You’re out of the saddle this time, but it’s no use since you fall right back into the seat as though your legs are lead weights. How can this be? How can this be happening? Thoughts take hold. I’m stuffed. I’m gone. I’ve lost. Your mind has just taken hold over your body.

Welcome to your mind. If this is a scene that is all too familiar at some point of your racing career, then you’ve just had one hell of a day. What happened in the above scenario is one many cyclists encounter at every level. The power of thoughts during a race can either cripple or elevate a rider to the top of their sport. Here’s a question. When was the last time you were aware of your thought process either during a race or in training? How often did you entertain the words: I can’t, I’m stuffed, and I’ve had it?

Thought stopping

Being aware of your thoughts is the first step to success based performance in any sport. Part of my training in the health and wellness field has included studying both the Western and Eastern approach to the mind, as it relates to performance and exercise. I currently work in a mentoring program with a sports psychologist and have witnessed many clients entertain limiting thoughts while performing at their best. But why? What makes one athlete push past the pain barrier, while another crack at that crucial moment in a race?

Case in point: a former client and road cyclist achieved a number of well earned results at various levels of the sport. He was in his forties at the time and still racing among the best elite riders. I recall how he’d motor pace out of the slip-stream into a headwind on a hilly training run, pull longer turns on the front in a break and rode an unbelievably long commute to and from work each and every day. He would get up a few hours early in order to make it to work on time, never complained about the traffic or weather and was always in a good mood.

Having retired now from racing due to life commitments, I recall a conversation we had about the topic of mental toughness. “When we’re riding full gas on the front, I know he’s hurting. I can see it in his face. He knows I’m hurting too. But I’m just waiting for him to blow mentally. That’s when I know I’ve won.”

So how does one develop mental toughness? Firstly, let me render a caveat by expressing that it takes time, patience and practice to change a habit or thought pattern. One of the methods we’ve explored to change our model of behaviour with clients and in my mentoring sessions is called A.C.T. (Awareness, Commitment, and Training).

A.C.T. (Awareness, Commitment, Training).

Awareness

Awareness or mindfulness is the idea of noticing thought patterns which you entertain on a daily basis, be it during training, racing or otherwise. It is the practise of ‘consciously bringing your thoughts to the forefront of your mind.’ Observing your thoughts without getting invested in them. Observing your thoughts like an outsider would.

Commitment

Once you’ve become aware of your thoughts, it’s time to make a commitment to a model of action toward empowering yourself with the new thought model. We start setting goals, to achieve them. This might include replacing self sabotaging thoughts with empowering ones, which move you in the direction of what you hope to become, be it in your sport or everyday life. You might see yourself advancing to A-grade or entering more challenging races which might be out of your comfort zone. You see, the successful mind draws unique experiences from losing in A-grade instead of constantly winning in D-grade. You have to put yourself in that environment first in order to allow your mind and body to adapt in the long term.

Training

Ok, you’re now aware and committed to advancing forward and moving up from D-grade to A-grade – eventually that is! Training is simply that. Training the new thought model until it becomes second nature. The most challenging aspect of developing a new thought pattern is that naturally you might slip back into your old thought pattern from time to time. This is normal as is to be expected. When it happens be aware of it, then as much as possible get yourself back on the new thought pattern. Eventually your new model of behaviour will be deeply implanted into your subconscious mind.

You might be interested to know I used this model rather successfully for overcoming my aversion for riding gruelling hills in training, with a number of quality riders. I would constantly find excuses not to ride, fearing I would get dropped. Within time I found myself mixing it up there with the better riders and most importantly, I liked the new me I had become. Confident, empowered and goal orientated. Whilst I appreciate that I’ll never be as good as them, I’ve improved on my previous best, since I chose to venture outside of my comfort zone. So have fun, enjoy the process and commit to becoming a little better each time!

References

  • Timmermans, C.  Sports Psychologist (August 11, 2010). Personal communication.