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Sport Psychology

Being “in the zone”

By | All articles, Sport Psychology | One Comment

In this 2 part series, we will be looking at getting “in the zone” as it’s commonly called, peak levels of arousal, as well as using focus to get there.

The phrase “in the zone” is thrown around quite often in sporting circles, and if we understand it the same way, then we’ve all been there. Smooth pedalling, tactics just flow, and the muscles are warm and elastic just ready to fire; we’re excited to race and everything just goes right. If we could write a script of the race, this would be how it plays out.

I remember one of those days on the track; it was a keirin race at a Grand Prix at my local velodrome a few years ago. The race came and I just felt unbelievably good, everything was just going great. I remember being thrown into the race by my holder, and I was in 2nd or 3rd position behind the derney. I even remember thinking to myself, “I can win this, I’ve got this”. It was a great feeling, when the bike pulled of and the race started, I just went to the front and did a usual tactic of mine – ride from the from and control the race, I did that and with about a lap and a half to go I just started picking up the speed and the more I saw guys coming from behind the more I picked it up. I ended up winning it on the line, but that race literally everything went well! I’m sure most of you have a similar story, regardless of whether it was the world championships or the local derby, we’ve all been in this illusive zone at some point.

max Levy by Jean-Marc Wiesner

But what does it mean to be “in the zone”?

Well the terminology in sport psychology is slightly different and most refer to this “zone” as the IPS (ideal performance state) or peak arousal. Arousal refers to the psychological levels of being awake and ready to react to stimuli. It’s based on instinct or autonomous decision making and the resulted action.

Often this zone lies in an area in between too relaxed and over excited. It’s a fine line to cross either way. Too relaxed is never really a good idea except for more psychological sports like chess or target shooting, but for cycling we need to be highly aroused or pumped up. Of course, only to a point, too much and it also can be negative. Too pumped up means too alert, too angry, etc. and it can easily lead to basically being out of control. Look at some rugby players or boxers!

The ideal is to start and finish at your peak level of arousal; so not starting relaxed and finishing too psyched up, it should be a continuous period in this peak zone to perform at a high level. If we have too many erratic spikes along this period, it’s not good or manageable, and has negative side effects in the long term.

Of course this peak arousal level is highly individual and differs from person to person, some athletes peak zone is more towards the relaxed and others are more towards high levels of arousal, either way both are in an ideal state for their own psyche, not too relaxed and not too psyched up. This state even differs from discipline to discipline; an example is a road rider or time trialist vs a track sprinter or BMX racer. The one has to maintain a stable level for hours, while the other has to activate an extremely high level for a brief period of 15-30 seconds!

Now of course all this knowledge is nice to know, but how is it practical to improving performance in sport?

Well, we are all able to regulate these arousal levels ourselves. This technique is known as self-regulation.

by Rob Ward

Clarifying this ideal state is an individual act, and can be done using a basic criteria below, which you can think about when trying to formulate your own ideal state. In your best performance when you were “in the zone”, how did you act concerning each of these? Try and remember and when you’re in the zone again, take note of it. A good athlete is someone who knows and understands their own mind and body, and knows how to fire it up for peak performance at any given moment.

The 3 factors are:

Attention: what are you focused on at any given moment?

Ideal: being focused on the moment, on controllable factors and only yourself.

Psychological state: the state of mind influencing your breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, etc.

Ideal: muscles relaxed and breathing under control.

Behavioural aspects: basically anything that is visible from an external view, i.e.: how you are riding, how your form is looking, etc.

Ideal: confident, purposeful and precise actions toward the goal.

To be in this state, like any practical aspect of sport and life, takes consistent practise and time. If you’re too relaxed, you need to learn how to psyche yourself up, and if you’re too psyched up, you need to learn to calm yourself down.

But how? Well here are some basic tips on how to do it:

Calming yourself down:

  • Rational thinking. Think and focus on the controllable factors that are in place, like your preparation.
  • Take deep breathes to centre yourself.
  • Rub your muscles gently to relax them (if you’re on a big budget you could ask your masseuse, or you could ask your girlfriend)
  • Imagery. Imagine the positive outcome of what your about to do, or imagine any situation that would calm you down (you’ll need to practise this!)
  • Self-talk. Tell yourself vocally to be calm (in a calm way of course!), tell yourself what to do and what you require at this moment, and that is to be calm (again this comes through practise).
  • Music. Put on any music that calms you down and centre yourself.
  • Just relax! Don’t do anything unnecessary that can distract you.

Psyching yourself up:

  • Listen to a motivational talk, from anyone. YouTube is filled with them, or ask your coach or dad. If not, look at the next point.
  • Self-talk. Vocally tell yourself what you require, and that is to be psyched up, scream and shout if you have to!
  • Imagery. Imagine yourself winning and being in the zone, whatever that is! (Again this needs to be practiced).
  • Music. Listen to any music that gets you going! We all have that song!
  • Rational thinking. Think of the controllable factors that are in place, which in this case must be your goals. You’ve done the work, now act on it to achieve them.
  • Get aggressive! Whatever gets you pumped up, do it! Some hit themselves, some jump up and down, whatever it takes.

Jolien d’Hoore

It’s helpful to some to create a pre-race routine. However I’ll address that in a separate article. What’s important to remember about that is it must only be a guideline, and if you use it for racing, it must be used in training as well.

I hope you can see that most of these are very easy to use effectively, but it takes practise and awareness to the task. Being “in the zone”, at peak arousal levels or in the ideal state is a highly individual task, and with consistent practise you can learn to regulate yourself and get into that state at any given time to produce a champion performance!

Be sure to keep a look out for part 2 on this topic, where we will be exploring the details of focus and how it helps you to get into the zone.

Matthew de Freitas

Who wins?

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Have you ever won a race and wondered why? How did you do that? How did you manage to pull of that win? Or visa-versa when you’ve lost? What made you lose? It gets even more confusing when you follow the same routine and the race plays out similarly in 2 races, yet in one you lose and the other you win. It can play on your mind all day!

A question I’ve always been fascinated with is this: what makes an athlete win, or lose? What makes Peter Sagan so good? What makes Bradley Wiggins so unstoppable in a TT? And what makes Jason Kenney literally unbeatable at the Olympics? On the other hand, why do some athletes never make it to the top? It’s been a question plaguing sport psychologists, sport scientists and coaches a like since the dawn of high performance.

Is it genetics, is it training programmes, is it nutrition and supplementation, is it resources, is it motivation, is it the mind; the list literally goes on and on, and I think we are still far away from ever definitely answering it. I think it’s better that way though, as that’s what makes sport great!

Daira Schmeleva by UEC cycling

If you look at the tests in the lab, all world class elite athletes are very similar physically. They produce more or less the same wattage, have the same V02, have the same body fat percentage, etc. And here I’m talking about the handful of medal winners at world champs or Olympic Games, where the podium is split by fractions of seconds.

But there’s always the one who wins, the champion who has that little extra. With these athletes, all factors are covered and in place. For example, they all come from similar backgrounds, all follow similar diets, do the same type of training, use the best equipment, etc.

These athletes have reached the peak of what is physically possible in the current times.  Never before have we seen human beings in the shape they are, and capable of doing what these athletes do. They are the cream of the crop of the genetic pool, and were for all intents and purpose made for this.

It’s like looking only at the top sprinters from Jamaica; nowhere else in the world will you find better genes for sprinting. Of these top sprinters, they all follow the same training regimes (albeit individualized in the detail), diets, and receive the same support. Yet there are some of them who break world records, and other who can only make it into the team.

The only real differentiating factor, and based on the evidence that most top athletes are the same physically, is we are left with the mind, and the role an athletes psychological space and mental training plays in winning. But here’s a conundrum: what if the winners are all the same concerning that too? What if they receive the same mental skills training, see a psychologist from a young age to sort out personal issues, and have the same mental tool box available. They all have the “champions mind” in a sense.

Who will win then???

Well let me tell you something about the body first: the body is not made to do what these athletes do, it’s made to hunt for sufficient food, and protect themselves and their families, and that’s all. It was never made to see who could run the fastest, jump the highest, lift the most, or ride their bikes the fastest or longest! So when these athletes push themselves past that point, the body uses any way possible to tell them to stop and rest. Through excruciating pain, dripping sweat, loss of breath, thirst, and even blood – it’s literally begging them to stop!

If we look at it from that point of view, I would think the winner is the one who can ignore these natural survival instincts that tell them to stop, or not to dig deeper. Some can naturally ignore those signs from the body for longer than others. They can push past that. Others simply cannot, when the body says they’ve had enough and should stop, they give in, and go home; even though they’ve still got something left to give. Of course this is a combination of each athlete’s genetic disposal and unique life path of environmental influencers.

By Robert Ward

Can it be trained?  To an extent, yes, through putting yourself in that position and trying to go further (in a way like building the characteristics of mental toughness), but I think mostly it can’t. It’s in bred into our genetics, and possibly what separates the 3 athletes on the podium. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not in you, you might have more of it than you think, you must just convince yourself to actually go deep within yourself and get it! That’s where the mind comes in, only you can convince yourself to go harder and dig deeper, to push your limits and become a champion.

There’s a well-known quote that goes something like this: when you’re at your max, you can’t go anymore and you literally want to die.   Then my friend, you’re at 80% (unknown author)

I think this sums up what I’m trying to say, there are limits, but the best will undoubtedly ignore these, and go farther than ever before! I’ll let you make up your own mind on what factor is most important your own success, and what big of a factor you let genes vs environment play in your performance.

Think of that next time you’re in a really tough space, we all have more in us, you’re never really at 100%, you just need to convince yourself to dig deep and access it. Go harder!


Matthew de Freitas

Is vulnerability weakness?

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Over the years of pursuing my own dreams, I have encountered many friends who are afraid to go after their dreams – or afraid of admitting they’re going after it, or even worse, they do all the work and just before the big day of the attempt of realizing the dream, they give up. This has always surprised me, what could be the reason? Pressure, fear of failure, fear of judgement from others, lack of self-belief, etc. I think all of these reason are true, but more than that, it’s a lack of courage.

Courage can be defined as the ability to do something that frightens one, or showing a great deal of bravery. You might be wondering what has courage to do with vulnerability; well vulnerability can be defined as the state of being exposed to the possibility of attack, harm or pain.

Miriam Welte by byran lennon

Do you see that courage is what is necessary to face the vulnerable position to go after one’s dreams? Let me elaborate; in sport we tend to put ourselves in very vulnerable positions quite often. For example, the isolation on a big climb, being alone in TT or a pursuit, or even the daily training we do towards our goals. You are exposing yourself and who you are, all the work you’ve done and your potential as an athlete. You are exposing yourself to criticism, judgement and the doubt from others, based on your performance. People love to do that. Do you see how vulnerable you can become? It’s not only that, by merely admitting you are going after your dreams, have a goals and plan in place; you are opening yourself to this judgement – and you are vulnerable.

“Do what you want, people will judge you anyway”

If you truly want to be a champion; you’ve got to put out yourself out there, and take a risk; you have to have no fear of failure or what others think; you’ve got to believe in yourself; and you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. You’ve got to have courage.

No champion was born out of comfort, but champions are born out of adversity. You might fail; you might not make it, but what does that matter?

You are a champion because you took a risk and put it all out there, you gave yourself a shot at your dreams; you went after it while most are too afraid too!  The result is not the issue; the goal is not the issue; but your journey and who you become chasing it, is what matters.  From this you will learn lessons only life can teach you, your mental toughness and self-confidence will improve, and if you can do it again, you will have a better shot at achieving it.

Tom Dumoulin

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s the greatest measure of courage” – Brene Brown

Do you see, vulnerability is not weakness, it’s courage, it’s strength, and it’s absolutely necessary to become a champion!

“Don’t give up, you never know who you might be inspiring.”

Matthew de Freitas

Dreaming, or Goal Setting?

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“Dreaming after all, is a form of planning” – Gloria Steinem

I’ve heard of many athletes talk about the big dreams they have, and want to accomplish; often they are at the pinnacle of sport itself. Dreams like the Tour de France, Olympic Games and World Records come up. Now let me first say; this is not at all bad, in my opinion; if someone can dream like that, it’s a privilege; because so many people just cannot dream big and reach for the stars. But here’s where the problem comes in, when you ask them how they are going to achieve them, the numbers required to achieve them, the plan of action, and the measurable goals along the way; they often stare in shock back at you; almost with the attitude of how dare you doubt me and my dreams.

The definition of goal setting is to identify something you’d like to achieve, this can be anything from a certain number, a title, a technique, etc. and then set out an action plan that includes time frames and any factors contributing to the success or failure of the goal, and then to start work on achieving it. Only when we do that, can we say we have a goal.

Do you see the difference in between dreaming and goal setting, a dream without specific goals and action plan; in is all intents and purposes a wish. It’s harsh to say that in a way, but realistically, it’s the truth. If I say I want to go to the Olympics, and all I do is state it, I am wishing. But if I say the same thing, but I also say I have a 4 year plan with intermediate goals along the way, a training plan covering all factors, the qualifying criteria with important targets I need to reach, a nutrition and supplementation plan, sponsors who support me, the knowledge of the equipment I’ll need, and there are many more to mention; then I can say I have a goal. I might not have a snowballs chance in hell, but I have a goal with a plan, and am one step ahead of anyone else with a wish and a magic wand.

Do you see that goal setting is the foundation of performance, and if someone does achieve anything without a goal, it’s probably because of luck and chance.

Kristina Vogel by Rob Carr

Now that we can see how important goal setting is, let’s have a look at the different types of goals:

Goals should always be bound in a specific time frame, there are 3 types:

Short term goals are the realistic and often achievable goals; they can be daily tasks or routines, like showing up for training, sleeping 8 hours a night, etc.

Intermediate goals are measurable goals along the way to your long term goals, they are there to keep you on track to your long term goals, and should be a challenge to achieve.

Long term goals are your biggest dreams, and the culmination of all your intermediate goals. These goals can be somewhat unachievable at first, but the closer you get, the more realistic it becomes.

We also get specific achievement goals in these time frames, and there are also 3 types:

Process goals are specific to a technique or process within a sport; it could be a pedal stroke, standing start technique or the form in a squat. The point of process goals are to perfect the way you do certain actions in sport.

Performance goals are goals that are specific to an individual standard, i.e. the numbers. It can be the power you put out, the weights you lift or your time over a distance. These goals are there to measure your performance and to be able to compare it to your past performances to analyse your improvement. These are the most important, and they reflect your performance the most accurately (controllable factors), and external factors (uncontrollable) are taken out of the equation.

Outcome goals refer to the outcome of your performance, i.e. the result; it can be favourable or unfavourable regardless of the performance due to the nature of sport. These goals should simply be there to provide guidance and motivation. They are the traditional point of sport, but in terms of high performance athletes, they are only there for the for-mentioned reasons.

Which goal is best?

As mentioned, short and intermediate goals coupled with process and performance goals are the most important as they measure your performance and progress the most accurately, and can be analysed and compared according to controllable factors.

Long term and outcome goals, are simply there as “the dream”, and serve as motivation and guidance. They provide the framework for your intermediate and performance goals.

How to set them?

There are many ways to set goals, but a nice technique that includes all the factors one should take into account is the SMART technique, which is:

Specific – goals are specific to numbers or a technique.

Measurable – they should be able to be analysed and compared.

Accountable – the athlete must be accountable for their actions.

Responsible – the athlete must take responsibility for their actions.

Time specific – the goals must be set in a time frame.

How high should goals be set?

This has always been a hot topic of discussion, should goals be set realistically, or should they be set unrealistically or even unachievable?

Personally, I like the technique of Viktor Frankl, who says that if you set a goal above a person’s potential, they will land on their potential, but if you set a goal at a person’s potential, they will fall short.

He explains this using the example of how an aeroplane flies, always above the bearing it’s aiming at, as the wind will push it back. Or when you put on the golf course, you put against the gradient to reach the hole.

I think long term goals should be set as high as possible, what happens when an athlete achieves them? They will have reached the pinnacle of their own mind and loose motivation and drive. Long term goals should always be stretched to the furthest the mind can conceive, sometimes almost scaring the athlete. Realism, albeit good not to be stupid, it’s the killer of dreams. By dreaming big, you can achieve more than you ever thought you could.

“The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are usually the ones who do” – Steve Jobs

What is the end result of goal setting? In my opinion, goals not there to be achieved, if you do, that’s great!   If you don’t, it’s not the end of the world, and not even the point of it.  It’s about the person you become, things you learn and experience, the memories you make, the legacy you leave, and the life you live, while on the journey striving for your goals. That’s what makes sport so beautiful, it has the power to steer the course of a person’s life from mediocrity to greatness, can make s diamond out of a piece of coal and can reveal the true character of the human being.

“A goal is not always meant to be achieved, it often serves simply as something to aim at” – Bruce Lee

Matthew de Freitas

The loneliness of pursuing a goal

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“If you want to be successful, you will have to learn to disappear for a while”

I’ve heard this quote over the years, but never quite grasped the meaning of it; until I later realized what it actually takes to be successful. I realized the extent of the sacrifice, the amount of hard work it takes, the dedication and commitment that is required, and the attitude of leaving no stone unturned that is demanded by your goals. Another crucial factor in this equation is the type of people you allow around you on this journey – this will play a big part in this.

Cycling is already a lonely sport; you train alone, suffer alone, and often on a hard day you are left only with your own thoughts for company. There’s no team to hide behind, and no little tricks to get you out of a tough place. The road doesn’t get flat because you are getting dropped, the wind doesn’t stop blowing because your legs are sore, and the required power to turn the pedals doesn’t magically get less when you want it to.

Burton Witbooi

I’ll use the example of a track sprinter out of personal experience. I think sprinting more than most disciplines in cycling is especially individual, and more so lonely. Each effort is maximal and only you can get that out of yourself. You’ll spend hours alone at the track in between efforts, hundreds of monotonous reps at the gym trying to get that 1% gain in strength, and need discipline on your slow recovery rides that no enduro will join you on. Even if you have other sprinters for company, you’re still alone on this journey. In sprinting there’s no back up, and the race happens so fast it’s done before you even realize it. Sprinting is 100% up to you!

Another example is of working family man training for the Cape Epic. You’re someone with a full time job, a family, and responsibilities; yet you have the guts to take on this challenge. It requires years of hard training, for you it’ll be early mornings and late evenings, it’ll be time spent away from your family, it’ll be pressure from work, and it’ll be the self-doubt and second guessing the decision along the journey. But when you get through the 8 days of pain, it’ll all be worth it, and you will not be the same person. You’ll end up stronger than ever before, and be inspiration to your family and friends.

Nate Koch by Drew Kaplan

On this journey to your goals, you’ll soon start to find that you’re losing friends; you have no time for fun and other activities other than what it takes to achieve your goals. The commitment required is so huge; there is simply no other option. The simple fact is that your priorities have shifted.

Due to the commitment and focus you have, you’ll soon start to realize you are receiving more criticism and judgment from others than ever before. From some people you’ll start to receive less support; and from other who you might not have expected it from, you’ll receive support like family. It’s truly a time of sacrifice, with the only thing on your mind – a goal!

“They want you to do good, just not as good as them”

What you’ll also notice is that the greater your goals, the larger extent these effects will have on you.

But why? What is the reason? Well, simply put – you change, you grow, you move forward on the journey. On this path you can’t hold onto the past and look back, you are moving forward, and fast! You need to realize the person who you currently are is not going to achieve your goals, it’s the person you are becoming that will achieve them.

“Change is hard in the beginning, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end”
– Robin Sharma

I think it’s important to understand that it’s okay to experience these almost “birth pains” on your journey, it means you are on the right path, and growing into your full potential as an athlete. It’s okay to outgrow friends, situations, places, etc. You are evolving, and that after all is the purpose of setting and pursuing goals: to transcend who you once were. That in my opinion is the definition of success.

Hendrik Grobbelaar by Robert Ward

If you can understand this, you’ll understand the importance of perseverance; this could be your only chance at achieving them, you need to immense yourself fully and make sure you have no regrets; but most importantly to embrace this journey. Just a few weeks ago, Azizul Awang won Malaysia’s first gold medal at the UCI track world championships in Hong Kong. After he won, still out of breath, the first words he uttered were, “I’ve waited 10 years for this moment”. How inspirational, a man who has been grinding at it for 10 years, come closer than a tire width to gold, made sacrifices few would make, and defied the odds due to his small size, can stand on the podium after a journey like that.

Not everyone has the privilege to have a goal, and the desire to actually go after it. You my friend are truly living!

Here are some practical applications to help you as an athlete get through tough times of loneliness and stay focused on your goals:
– Make sure you have a clear action plan, one that you can go back to time after time for reassurance and guidance that you are on the right path. At times you will want to quit and doubt yourself, go back to the plan, re-focus on the goal, and carry on.
– Don’t read too much into other people opinions, criticism or even praise. Focus on yourself, your own actions, and your own goals.
– If you notice you’re losing some of your current friends, re-cap with old friends and family that matter to you, and that support your goals. Build your own support network, and be picky about it.
– If you notice you’re changing, your interests, your perspectives, your opinions, etc., embrace it. It means you’re growing, and stepping further towards your goals. The worse it is, the greater the goals, and the closer you are to achieving them.
– Free yourself from any negative person or situation, or anything that is hindering you from achieving your goals.
– Find things that help you to relax, obviously things like drinking or high intensity activities won’t work (the latter maybe in the off season), but you can find new hobbies. Some pro cyclists have found interest in coffee and making movies.
– Don’t forget the balance in your life, in between your training and other responsibilities (here’s the balance), find time to reflect on the process and the progress you’ve made. If you’ve neglected people, catch up; and if you need help, ask.
– Realize and understand the privilege you have of having goals and the ability you have to go after them. Whether you achieve them or not, it’s a privilege simply to go take the risk and go after them.
– Most importantly, enjoy every moment of it; you’re making memories that will last a life time!

I hope the above helps you in some small way to help you stay on your path. Remember it’s a personal journey to your personal goals. If you’re sitting alone, feeling lonely with only the thoughts of your goals to keep you company, reading and relating to this, maybe you should learn to like yourself a little more! And if anyone asks you how much you’d bet on yourself, go all in!

Matthew de Freitas

Pain, not suffering in cycling

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I watched Paris-Roubaix a few weeks ago, and I must confess it reminded me of how hard cycling really is. Cycling is synonymous with pain and suffering, through the training, the crashes and the disappointment.  It’s at the heart of the sport, and it’s what makes it great; and through this pain is how great champions of the sport were heated, tested and formed into the legends we will always remember. It’s what makes the glory of a goal accomplished so sweet.

At the end of a race or hard ride you’ll hear the “suffer fest” phrases quite a lot.  On TV coverage, the commentators will say “look at the suffering in his eyes”. And on Strava the ride titles are sometimes a laugh more than anything else. Riders like Tony Martin have spoken at length about what it takes to win a world title in the TT, and how to cross the pain barrier. Bradly Wiggins has also gone into the detail of what he experienced while taking on the hour record. But let’s not get too far into all of that. Instead, let’s look at the 2 sides of a coin: pain and suffering.

Riders in the tough spring classics

What is suffering? 

Suffering can be defined as extended periods of discomfort, hardship and pain. It’s chronic. It can be in the form of cancer or terminal illness, living in a gutter in the middle of winter while starving, or living in a deteriorating situation with no hope in sight. The most notable part aspect is that it’s out of our control, there’s no clear end in sight and we can’t stop it!

What is pain? 

Simply put – It’s suffering we can stop.  No matter how hard and unbearable the pain, at any moment we can turn the switch off and it’ll stop (forget the lactate!). Even though we don’t like to admit it, and don’t do it often, at any moment during a climb or hard interval, we can pull the plug and the pain will stop. There’s a clear goal (or reason/purpose) in sight, and it’s completely in our control.

Marco Pantani during the 2003 Giro, by Watson

Do you see the difference?

Cycling is a tough sport, and extremely painful, one of the most brutal sports there is, and we can be proud of that fact! It’s almost cult like, which in a way is pretty cool! But my friends and fellow sadists, it’s not suffering!  Sure, there are the troubled souls of the sport like Marco Pantani, a true legend of the sport, but one who unfortunately let his life fall apart and genuinely suffered, but as with everything, that’s the exception. Once you’ve been through true suffering or seen someone go through it, I have no doubt you’ll agree with me.

So what can we draw from this? Well I’d like to think encouragement!  It’s not as bad as we think it is, next time when you’re climbing a mountain or doing a brutal interval, think about the pain you’re experiencing this way: there are people out there experiencing the same pain, or more, who can’t stop it.  So it might seem hard, but it will be done at the top of this hill or end of this stopwatch; and then you can go home and recover, have a coffee, a beer and a laugh; and of course come back tomorrow!

Max Levy celebrating, by Drew Kaplan

For every bit of pain you experience on the bike, cycling rewards you. For every brutal climb, there’s a thrilling decent; for every head wind, there’s a tailwind; and for every painful pedal stroke, there’s that single stroke of glory at the finish line. So when you’re at your limit, the pain is too much, and you want it to stop so badly; just think about the people who are going through the same pain, but can’t stop it; they’re really suffering.  Draw some inspiration from them, and if you know someone like that, do it for them.

The sprint finish of Milan San Remo 2017, by Tim de Waele

It’s all about your attitude towards a given situation; choose the way you perceive it. If you can find the purpose in it, and see the end goal in sight, you can get through a whole lot more than you thought you could. And at the end of it all, it will be glory and reward so sweet.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom

– Viktor Frankl

At the end of the day, after all the “suffering”, up’s and down’s, good and bad luck, I hope you can see the absolute beauty of the pain in this great sport. And what a privilege it is to be alive, and chase your dreams on a bike!


Matthew de Freitas

The Moment We Race

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With the UCI World Track Championships on the go in Hong Kong this week, I thought I’d try and give you a little insight into what it’s like to race at a big track event, and some tools on how to manage the pressure and stress of the big moment better.

At the world champs, which are a 5 day long series of events, where riders go through round after round to reach the final, and face off against the best there is. It’s often hot and humid, away from home in a strange country like Hong Kong; there are bright lights, screaming crowds, a mix of languages from all over the world, and a tangible feeling in the air of pressure and anxiety of athlete’s moments away from either achieving their goals, or walking away having to wait another year. The rainbow stripes are on everyone’s mind – and it’s pure magic!

Matthew Glaetzer and Tom Babek by Arne Mill

This is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication, ups; and down’s along the journey that brought them there. This is essentially periods of switching on and off, getting in and out of the zone, and playing the waiting game. I’ve experienced this, and the toll that it takes on a rider mentally, is often worse than the physical. You’re ready to go, in your peak, tuned into the moment of what is about to happen – it’s difficult to be calm and relaxed when every fibre in your body wants to explode! But this is where the best are able to take control of the situation, focus on the task at hand, and bring out the best of themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Often, it’s not only an individual thing, as with team sprint or team pursuit. Here you have a team relying on you!

When they finally step up into the moment where all the training, sacrifice, dedication, commitment, sweat, blood and tears of the time leading up to the big day is going to surface – it’s like the rush from something words cannot describe!

Eric Engler by Track Team Brandeberg

When you put it all out there, and the result is completed, for the winner it’s pure joy, but more than that, it’s relief! The pressure is finally released, and the rider almost returns back to normal being. This relief is often experienced by the rest of the field as well, mixed with something like sadness, disappointment and even regret, even so they went through the exact same sequence of events to get there, and to finally have that pressure released is so sweet. Often this relief is directly related to pressure, and pressure is the extent to which your desired outcome exceeds your believed potential (your self-confidence plays a huge role in this). It’s important to note that pressure and anxiety is not a bad thing, in fact it enables us to perform better, but only if we channel it right, and stay in control of it.

The question of how to take control over oneself in this moment, and be able to produce your best comes to the forefront. So many riders who have what it takes to win, step up in this moment, yet fail. Something goes wrong, and the situation takes control. They are unable to control themselves, their thoughts, their arousal, and their emotions. Ultimately they lose not because they don’t have what it takes to win but because they can’t produce it when it counts. Recently one of the British coaches told me that they train to go fast for one week every 4 years! It’s all about that one week, if you can’t produce it there, it doesn’t matter.

helena Cesr by UCI

Often to do this, we need to be what is commonly referred to as being “in the zone”. But what does that really mean?
Basically it means to be in your (note the “your” as it’s an individual thing) peak arousal or physical state (not too little and not too much), have peak mental attention, and be in control of yourself (this includes thoughts). This state seems to be mostly autonomous or on instinct. Everything just seems to happen as it should. To get to this state is a very individual process and happens over time through practice of trial and error. Sometimes we get there, sometimes we don’t. But it should be linked to your peak, of being totally there in the right space both physically and mentally when it really matters.

Even if your big race is just your first cat A race or masters worlds, the same principles can be applied to help better manage the situation. If it’s important to you and have trained hard for it, you are bound to experience pressure (from within), and have some expectation, this will cause anxiety and arousal, and needs to be managed to bring out your best.

Womans Team Sprint in Hong Kong by Arne Mill

So what can we do to take control of the situation and produce what it takes in that moment?

Well here are some techniques that might help:
Rational thinking: when in that situation, think rationally! Don’t get carried away and overthink every little detail – keep the chimp in the cage (Steve Peters)! For example, if someone breaks the world record before you, don’t think negatively, but rationally. For instance, if the world record just got broken – this track must be fast! Or if you see your competitor using a much bigger gear than you, don’t think his power must be out of this world, or you’ve made a mistake. Rather think, I’m on my fastest gear, I know I am, so he better be too!

Focus on process goals: process goals are those that focus on the process of a certain activity, so it could be the wind up of a 200m or the technique of start. Rather than thinking of the outcome goals, which are the result of this process. As if you focus on that, you’ll lose track of the activity you actually have to do. Outcome goals are simply there as motivation, or “the dream” in a sense.

Focus on the controllable factors: stemming from the above, and mentioned in a previous article, focus on the controllable factors, those that you have full control over. For instance: the warm up, sleep, diet, gear choice, tyre pressure, etc. Rather than focusing on things you have no control over, for example the officials, your competitors, the weather, etc.

Do what you always do: don’t on race day try something new, or something you’ve never tried before that you think will somehow make the difference; whether that be new equipment, supplements, or anything that’s out of your routine. This only adds stress from foreign external stimuli. Try and keep it as natural as possible, and in the most comfortable and common routine.

Get away from it all: in between races, get your head away from it by tuning into other things. Distract yourself in a sense. It’s impossible to keep focus continuously, and if you try to, could burn you out mentally. To go through phases of 100% focus, and then relax (almost like a batsman in cricket, or tennis layer – each ball on their own). Techniques can be to listen to music, play a game, or even just get outside of the track. The velodrome can be a draining place, especially for 5 days!

Believe in yourself: this is sometimes hard, but it’s important and necessary. Self-belief will relieve some of the pressure, calm the nerves, and give you the confidence to be bold, dig deep and give your all. Base your confidence on realism, but in the moment, don’t ever doubt you have what it takes! Remain calm and never portray any fears or self-doubt.

Have fun: the thing I’ve notice about champions is that they’re always having fun and enjoying every moment! Just have a look at Krisitna Vogel – she has the time of her life in training, and in every race! If you’re not having fun, why are you there? You’re supposed to love this! Some of my best results came from when I had zero pressure and wanted to have maximal fun!

At the end of all of this, it’s not so much about the result, but the journey to get there, and then be able to produce your best –whether that be the rainbow stripes, or a PB. Most important of all, it so have fun and enjoy every moment, before you know it, you’ll be back home and left with only memories.

Matthew de Freitas

Interview: Tomas Babek

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Tomas Babek is a track sprinter from the Czech Republic, a BLS sponsored athlete, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and someone who is on the rise fast! In only a short time, he has stamped his authority on the international track circuit, winning the European keirin title, overall sixdays winner as well as being the overall 2016/2017 world cup keirin leader. Not only that, but he’s someone with an incredibly inspirational story of courage, perseverance and survival to tell the world!

With only 2 weeks to go to the world championships in Hong Kong, we thought an exclusive interview with the man that goes by the name of BABSON would be pretty cool!

Tomas Babek by Drew Kaplan

Tell us how you got into cycling, and specifically track sprinting?

I wanted to avoid the biology exam at primary school so I signed into the school bike race which was at same time (it’s funny because normally I always had A or B at every subject). There I met a guy who brought me to track cycling, the next day he took me to an old concrete velodrome and gave me a fixed bike and told me to ride on it. It was very strange but I liked that, and next month I claimed my first success at international event, so I continued!

Tell us more about your crash in 2011?

I was hit by a car, and nearly died, but doctors brought me back to life. It took me a very long time to get back. I couldn’t get back, and coaches wanted to kick me off the team but I’ve never given up and kept on fighting, and after years I got stronger then before… and claimed my biggest successes.

What would you say has been some of the biggest challenges in cycling for you?

Definitely to find the motivation after I was not selected for Rio 2016, which I proved very well after!

2016 was your breakthrough year, what do you think was the difference that made this year different?

I think the difference was that I went into the race like I want to win it very hard.

Tomas Babek in training

How does it feel to be world cup leader going into 2017 world championships?

It feels great and gives me some confidence but we will see J

How is life in the Czech Republic?

The cycling culture is not really the biggest one, especially in track cycling. We don’t have a 250m velodrome, so we train outdoor 400m long one and concrete. Support from national federation … better no comment.

What is a typical day in the life of Tomas Babek like?

Wake up 7:00 and have a nice healthy breakfast, then I’m off to training (track, gym, road), then back for lunch, do some work or study, then coffee and again out for training, after that I do some backlogs from morning, and then finally time with my fiancee J

Do you have any pre-race rituals? Or little things you like to do for good luck?

Yeah it is music, good warm up and deep breathing before every race.

Tomas Babek by Drew Kaplan

Would you share some of your numbers with us?

Top watts on track bike 2210W

In the gym 105kg for Clean, Deep Squat 170kg

Max candence on velodrome 204rpm, on rollers 247rpm

What is your life like outside of cycling?

I like skiing, study is my hobby too but I just finished my studies and graduated with the Master diploma. So I plan to start with Doctors degree next year.

What do you think of sport psychology?

I use my own, I don’t work much with psychologist, I just found my own way J

What would you say is your biggest mental strength?

Stamina and the “never give up” mode!

Where do you get your motivation from?

From inside of me, I am never satisfied with myself.

What does the future hold for Tomas Babek? I got a contract to Japan for JKA Keirin, but beside it I want to prepare, and get the medal in Tokyo 2020, after I want to finish my career and start as sports manager (this is what I graduated as).

What do you think of the BLS blog?

Well it is always nice to see someone who promotes track cycling!

Do you have any advice for young sprinters?

Just enjoy it, practise much, but always find a joy in it, otherwise you can never become good in it.


Tomas Babek by Drew Kaplan

Here’s a really cool short film about Tomas’ journey made by VideoDilna.cz, be sure to check it out:


I’m sure all of you will agree, Tomas is a true fighter and inspiration to all riders out there. He doesn’t take no for an answer and gets his motivation from deep within himself. I’m sure all will agree this is only the start of his successful career.

We wish to thank Tomas for giving us a little insight into the life of a champion, and wish him the best of luck for the rest of his journey, from world champs in 2 weeks, to racing keirin in Japan, to Tokyo 2020, to getting his Doctorate degree and of course – getting married!

Be sure to follow the rest of Tomas’ journey on:




Matthew de Freitas

The controllable vs the uncontrollable: what you think matters

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In any sport, and specifically a highly tactical, complex and unpredictable sport like cycling, there are many factors that culminate towards an outcome. Some factors play a bigger role than others, but all play a unique role in the eventual outcome, whether that be success or failure.   The way we interpret and think about the role these factors play is crucial to our performance in training as well as racing.

If you really look at it, success is not the result of one big thing done right, but many small things done right; and failure is not the result of one big thing done wrong, but many small things done wrong. To say we fail or succeed because of one factor is delusional, and even more so when so many of them are totally out of our control. We cannot predict a result because of one single factor either, for example hard work.   Yes – it is of paramount importance, but if success was the direct result of hard work, we may as well hand in our training diaries on race day and leave the race all together! We forget about tactics, equipment, opposition, mental preparation, nutrition, weather, etc. – it all comes together to form an outcome. In fact, the unpredictability of these factors and the result as a whole is what makes sport so beautiful!

Burton Witbooi training at the Bellville Velodrome with his Velodrome bag

We tend to get two types of riders who each interpret these factors very differently:

The one is focused on the things he can’t control and all the ways it can go wrong, and to what extent. For example, on a windy day – he’ll focus on the wind, if he get a puncture – he’ll focus on the puncture, and if the opposition breaks the record – he’ll focus on the opposition. They are easily distracted from their own performance, to the factors around them out of their control.

The other is focused on his own performance, what he has done (preparation), and how well he has done it. For example, on a windy day – he’ll focus on the fact that everybody has to ride in the same wind, if he gets a puncture – he’ll fix it and put it behind him, and if the opposition breaks the record – he’ll think rationally about it, i.e. the conditions must be conducive to breaking records.

Milan san Remo 2017 by Tim de Waele

Which one do you think wins?

Which of the two above riders won is not the point, as the factors involved in the outcome are far too many to mention, from experience, to luck, to simply who is the best on the day. The real issue is who will get the best out of themselves, and who will handle the outcome better regardless of what it is. The way the rider interprets and thinks of the factors involved is directly related to that.

Let’s discuss those two riders:

The first rider was focused on the uncontrollable factors. He was easily distracted, and this could be due to lack of mental skills, inexperience, pressure, etc. As soon as something from outside of himself played a role in some way, he shifted his attention to that. He took something small and insignificant and blew it out of proportion. These factors include the weather, officials, mechanical issues, the opposition, and even team mates. The scary part about this, it’s so easy to forget about ourselves and focus on them! We see it even in the world tour and Olympic Games!   Look at the mind games athletes’ play before a big competition, or when riders complain about the weather in a race. Yes, sure, these factors can play a big role in the eventual outcome, but if we can’t change it, why waste energy focusing on it? When we do, results become inconsistent, the true impact of training becomes less and often we start to lose focus of what really matters, our own performance relating to our own personal goals (the controllable factors).

The second rider was focused on the controllable factors, i.e. himself, his own preparation, his own metal space and his own personal goals. These factors include his equipment, nutrition, mental preparation, training, tapering and recovery, sleep, etc. The thought of the outside world did not cross his mind. He knew that he had absolutely no influence on it; at best he could play an influencing role (the market in business terms), but it’s so minimal that the effort to do so would be a waste. So he focused his attention on where it mattered, and where it could actually make a difference. Look at the marginal gains model of British Cycling and Team Sky, focus on what you have control on and get the most improvement there, the rest will sort itself out.

Steve Peters Chimp Paradox was built on this type of thinking. Focus on what matters and what can be changed, and think rationally about it – manage your inner chimp!

Helena Cesr by Fransis Mersiy

If the above makes sense, you’ll see that goals should always be process first, and then outcome based. By outcome I mean the end result, either win or lose, and by process I mean by the way you played the game.

Outcome goals should only serve as a means for direction and motivation, but for an individual race, it should be process, and doing what you do right, and the best you can.   As Grantland Rice once said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”.

A golfer has to learn to enjoy the process of striving to improve. That process, not the end result, enriches life.”  ― Bob Rotella

The result of all of the above mentioned: the outcome actually doesn’t matter! Or at least the way we tend to look at it – who won or lost. Rather, it’s the rider who did his best and came closest to their true potential, who improved the most from who he once was, and the one who can walk away in the same way he came in, regardless of the result. In humility and with satisfaction if they won, and without regret and disappointment (okay a little disappointment is fine if they played their best and worked hard, but it mustn’t take over their entire view of the race) if they lost.

Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful. – John Wooden

So after all this, I hope you can see the difference your thoughts make in a situation. How you think and what you think about, and to what extent you allow it to – can make you win or lose, by getting as close to your best as possible, but more than that – it can help you after that, in training, to the next race, and the one after that, and in life.

Matthew de Freitas

Why too much talent can be your worst enemy

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I’ve seen many talented riders, as young as 15 or 16, burst onto the cycling scene with early results promising a bright future in the sport; all because of not much more than their natural God given talent. However, strangely enough so many of them fade away shortly afterwards and are never heard of again.   Years later you’ll hear the old crowed asking “what happened to that kid?”, or “now that was a wasted talent”. Other words you’ll hear are “pressure”, “burn out”, etc.

On the other hand, you’ll also see many guys struggle and grind away on the average path for years and years (10,000 hours if you’re a Gladwell fan) before only starting to get a sniff of success; and sometimes they even end up beating the more talented athlete. They have very little natural talent and have to work much harder than their fellow talented athletes, for it they’ll get praised for their perseverance, hard work and continuous improvement when they too come out on top.

Of course, here comes the age old question of nature vs nurture.

Well I’m not going to get into that today, as the literature in favour of both sides is as long as Mont Ventoux, and is nowhere near getting decided on, but instead I’ll give more of an overview of the original question and issues that arise from that.

koenesen at the Bellville Velodrome

Why failure and hard times are necessary?

Anyone who has ever gone through a hard time or failure will know, once you’ve gone through it and come out the other side, you’re so much stronger, wiser and experienced than before. You learn more and it equips you for life in a much better way than success ever can. The lesser talented athlete is forced to work harder, get through more failure than the early bloomer. This in turn builds their character, gives them confidence and self-belief, and experience no money can buy. Through this initial period of hard work and persistence towards success, if the athlete can get through it and not give up, it equips them so much more for the future.   They are often more respected because of it, and have a far more humble attitude. It’s also much easier to fail and learn from it at a lower level or younger age, than at a high level and more mature age; there’s less pressure, often the ego hasn’t fully developed, and they are still doing it purely for the love of it – recovery is much easier. If an athlete never fails in the beginning, and miserably at that, they never learn how to fail, they never learn how to learn from failure, and they never learn how to accept it. Many a guru and motivational speaker will speak of this, and they’re all right – one thing that every champion has in common is failure. It is one of the crucial steps along the ladder to success. If you don’t experience it early, it could be your end when it does eventually come your way.

Credit: Casey B Gibson

Why some quit?

Unfortunately, many kids give up and quit the sport at a young age, before ever even getting close to their true potential.   Some just aren’t that into it, and that’s okay, you can’t force someone to love a sport and dream bigger, some just don’t have it, or some find it in something else. That’s all perfectly fine. I think now’s a perfect time to mention something: parents should never try live their own dreams through their kids!

Of these athletes, the less talented might give up due to early failure because they fail to persist. The more talented early bloomers might choose to quit after their initial success, as once the high settles it’s a bit of an anti-climax, the hard training to go to the next level is too hard, they get distracted by other things, or they get lazy because they don’t understand what training is and how it works. They might go to the next level, but the athletes there are too much for them, and they simply can’t handle the pressure and failure; all because they’ve never experienced it. Often you’ll also find these early bloomers don’t take latter amazing opportunities when presented to them. Why? Fear of failure is the obvious, fear of the pressure, etc.

I think now’s a good a time as any for a personal confession: I don’t respect someone who doesn’t take an amazing opportunity when it’s presented to them for pretty much any reason, or who always make excuses for their performance (I’ve dubbed this the “excuse syndrome” and think an article on this at some point might be good!), and bring other unrelated issues into their performances. The reason to follow…

I think when you look at all of this; there are 2 types of athletes, and the 2 paths they tend to take to success:

  • The early bloomer who builds on their success, but still value hard work and the reward thereof, and at some point in their development stage learns the significance of failure.  They are able to use their early success and talent, couple it with hard work, and achieve their goals.
  • Then you’ll get the athlete with lesser talent, who has to work harder than their counterparts right from the get go, learn to get through and value failure from an early age, and uses their experience of that to achieve their goals.

Of the above mentioned 2 athletes, I think the question of who wins at the end of the day, or who is the better athlete and person, is not the correct question. What we should draw from the above is that the Individual goals of athletes, and to transcend one’s own unique circumstances are more important than simply winning. As through this personal journey is how one’s character, winning mind set and overall outlook of the sport are formed. The aspects of mental toughness and personal growth are developed. But most importantly, the preparation for success in later life, not only in sport, takes place.

Kristina Vogel at the UCI track world cup in LA

So, the answer to my personal confession above: everyone goes through tough times, everyone experiences failure, everyone has to work exceptionally hard, and being an Olympic champion or even reaching your athletic potential is by no means easy! Look at all the great athletes: on the track, the likes of Anna Mears, Josiah ng, Vicky Pendleton spring to mind, then there’s Graeme Obree, the brutal training regimes of the great Eddy Merckx, and just recently I heard of local South African rider Willie Smit’s path to becoming African Champ. All these athletes transcended their unique circumstances on their own path and came out on top. A more blunt way of putting it, they get over whatever or whoever is in their path, and do whatever it takes to be successful!

Being a champion isn’t easy! If it were, everyone would be one, and it wouldn’t be special at all. Champions are born with a great inner-conviction to be their best, but most importantly, they act on this conviction with perseverance towards their own goals and get through anything that comes across their path. Of course, not everyone has this, and that’s okay!

This is not only applicable to Olympic champions or pro-tour riders, but to everyone. If you can transcend your own circumstances, and come out as a better athlete than you started, as close to your athletic potential as you wish; and most importantly be satisfied with your own progress and the person you’ve become while doing so, then you win! You are a champion! Cycling isn’t about being the best, it’s about having fun, the freedom of the road, and associating with the history of this incredible sport – saying “this is who I am” – a cyclist!


When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves

  • Viktor Frankl


So back to Olympic champion or pro-tour rider: what is the recipe for success?

Well, it has to be talent, early failure that can be learnt from, character, loads of hard work and perseverance, and a deep inner conviction to be the best. We must also not forget the importance of a good support network and resources, but that’s not the topic today!

To me, the most dangerous athlete (and person for that matter) is someone who is born average, with a fear of staying average.

So can early success and talent overload be your worst enemy? Yes, ironically, success itself can kill an athlete with the best chances of it.

Can you make a champion? Yes, you have to be born with the genetics, and they are necessary, but circumstances and environment determine your mind set and path towards it. The bottom line – a champion transcends their unique circumstances and becomes the best they can be! Whether that’s an Olympic champion or finishing the coffee shop ride on a Sunday morning. You are your own champion!

Some advice: when you get a talented athlete, teach them about hard work, the importance of learning from failure, and staying humble. When you get a lesser talented athlete: teach them to persist, not give up, and learn from their failure. Build their character and self-confidence. Often the longer path to success, is the better path; the longer the initial building phase, the higher the peak of their success.


Note: no bias towards either nature or nurture. I think most will agree both are necessary, one without the other won’t get you very far at all…


Matthew de Freitas

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