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Sport Psychology and Cycling

It is said that Cycling is a sport where the winner is the guy who can suffer the most, for the longest period of time – basically, the last man standing – or riding!

If we look at the greats of the sport like eddy Merckx and Tom Simpson, or Jens Voight, or even modern greats like Chris Froome; and how tough they were: hard, persistent, and relentless; some would venture to call them sadistic! These are guys that loved to see their competition suffer and drop from their wheel under the pressure and pain of what they are dealing out to them! It’s a real hard man’s sport, and if you want to be a champion, you have to be able to go through this pain and suffering for longer than anyone else.

If we look at it from a psychological point of view, these characters and the mental will power and sheer will to win is amazing!

Photo: Detlef Uibel

What is sport psychology?

Sports psychology can be defined as the scientific study of behaviour and mental processes involved in sport and specifically athletes; and the tools it provides to help them perform at their peak.

If we look at the competitive cyclist, we train our physical body for hours and hours on the road or mountain; track sprinters even lift huge weights and jump over high boxes in the gym to be able to produce up to 2400 watts – no stone is left unturned in terms of nutrition and recovery; from weighing food portions to massages and stretching, to wind tunnel testing, to the extremes of altitude training and oxygen chambers – it’s all covered. Just have a look at the Team Sky and British Cycling model of marginal gains.

However, when these same athletes are asked the amount of time they spend on mental training, the answers are mumbles of “not much”, “I don’t have enough time”, and “I’ve seen a guy once or twice for that”. Strangely enough when asked what they believe is the relationship between mental and physical in terms of performance, most say more mental than physical, you’ll get answers right up to 90 mental, 10 physical! Afterwards I always find myself thinking, where’s the logic in that?? If they believe so strongly in it, why not train the mind too??

Well, when we look at the available literature, it can be an even split, or right up to 90/10; however it’s a pretty individual thing and even harder to measure. All that’s safe to say is that one cannot go without the other.

Sport psychology can give one the edge, and in the modern era, it’s becoming more and more evident the part mental preparation plays in success – just look at the work Steve Peters and the like have done at British Cycling and Team Sky in their marginal gains campaign.

How does it relate to or benefit cycling

Cycling is a tough and gruelling sport, and performing at ones peak is no easy feat. Jim reeves defines this as “riding at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions”. One can see consistency is an important part in this, and therefore naturally mental toughness. Mental toughness is a group of characteristics that enable an athlete to perform at their best under the toughest circumstances. Some factors included in this are:

Motivation – motivation is everything, without it we won’t be able to get out of bed, let alone train and race at the highest level. Motivation can come from many places, but I think that motivation from inside is the most sustainable and usable type. Motivation should also be based on the effort taken to achieve one’s goals – otherwise it just isn’t real.

Confidence – self-belief and self-confidence that is based on the evidence of the work put in (preparation) and/or past experiences in your ability to achieve your goals is the only type that really matters. Fake and imaginary motivation might help you through a few pedal strokes, but nothing like what it takes to achieve tangible goals in cycling.

Other factors that play a part in mental toughness are the will to dig deep and give your all, control you emotions, remain calm and perform under the pressure of competition. Although these are only a few, there are many more. From this one can see that to perform at one’s peak, especially in a sport like cycling, mental toughness is a necessary characteristic to possess.

Sport psychology comprises of various mental “tools” that can be used to help perform under these circumstances of pressure and that which require the factors of mental toughness, as well as the athletes overall mental framework and overall mental health.

Some of these tools, which are all able to be learned through practice, are goal setting, imagery/visualisation, self-talk, arousal and breathing control; as well as assessing and keeping overall mental health in check (the last one might require the help of a psychologist or mental coach). Jim reeves describes these tools as being in one’s “mental tool box”, they are there when you need them, and you know how to use them.

Another key aspect of cycling is managing one’s effort, all these tools can help with that; the confidence to know when to go hard or back off, and the ability to control emotions under the pressure of competition.

Sport psychology is not only focused the peak performance of an athlete, but the mental health and overall well-being of your life outside of sport. Many professional athletes face disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, etc. because their mental health is not managed outside of sport. Not to mention family and other relationship issues; and other challenges like life after sport (retirement) and dealing with injuries and failure. All these issues need to be addressed; otherwise you’ll be left with an unbalanced athlete, one which at some point will collapse.

At the end of the day though, the real challenge is that the only way one can really measure these concepts (theories as it is in the field of applied psychology), is actually being in the situation of a race, under pressure, and a finish line. So the best way to build these characteristics and become a better athlete is to be continually faced with these situations, get through them, and then assess how one did so.

Burton Witbooi

Psychology specific to disciplines?

Sport psychology in cycling is also quite different across the various disciplines. Such as:

Road: which is a truly endurance sport (just look at the 3 weeks long Grand Tours and other stage races) with its long seasons, and the entire professional era. Road cyclists need to be consistent and have extremely high levels of suffering, as well as confidence.

MTB: which requires even higher concentration, sometimes up to 8 days in the case of the Cape Epic. Downhill is probably the top of the spectrum regarding concentration.

Track & BMX: which is the most intense, a mostly all out sprint which is short and explosive, requiring high levels of focus and arousal, and even higher confidence; probably the most tactical too.

Triathlon: which is at the end of the spectrum of endurance sport, mental adaption and perseverance are important.

You can see that sport psychology is a highly individual tool, and all factors unique to that individual and even to their discipline and riding style within cycling need to be taken into account. What can also be seen is that it can make a huge difference to an athletes overall performance, and possibly tie up all the physical work an athlete has done, so that they can perform at their peak.

If you would like to learn more about the specifics mentioned above, please feel free to follow this blog for more articles on sport psychology relating to cycling! We’ll be focusing on areas like the controllable factors and rational thinking, psychology behind certain races and scenarios, and the tools that can be used.

Cycling is about the freedom of riding your bike, setting and achieving goals, but most importantly having fun!

I’m no expert, just a passionate and competitive cyclist, doing some psychology. Feel free to drop a comment below with any opinion or question.

Matthew de Freitas

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • James Briggs says:

    I believe that as untrained psychologically athletes, we have our childhood experience giving us protection from being overwhelmed or collapsing. Yes, I am stating that Lance did not persevere due to his use of chemicals, but perhaps due to his horrible childhood. The interest then is how to train a tough mind without this abuse. Military units have had various interests in teaching foot soldiers, who are athletes, mental fortitude.

    • Matthew de Freitas says:

      I agree James! Our childhood experiences definitely play apart in forming our overall mind set and the development of the characteristics of mental toughness. The entire sport of cycling comes out of the post world war era, where soldiers chose to ride their bikes as a way of getting out of the army or the typical working class industrial jobs, basically looking for any way out to be better life. They were already hard and mentally tough from the war and mostly poor childhood, so essentially cycling wasn’t that hard for them, or was even a way to vent their confusion of the times. In latter generations, the typical cyclist came from the poor working class Europe, it was their only way out, so they worked that much harder! I’ve seen loads of examples of a cycling legend who came from a rough background and childhood, but then used cycling as a way out. They then were able to give their children a better life, however very few of those children ever really succeeded on to the same level as their father, and this is largely due to their more prominent upbringing. I mean, if they fail, they can just go to university, and get a good job. This totally contradicts the life of the father, who had only one way out, and that was cycling, he had to make it work and would do anything to do so!

      That is very interesting indeed! The military have had great success of training their athletes, however, they’ve also had some awful failures, and if we look at the state of the veterans (and I’m talking recent era), then it leaves a lot to question. The way to teach someone mental fortitude on the same level as someone who grew up fighting is a tough question, and definitely a balancing act. In my opinion, it can only be taught through experience. Whether that be though a difficult childhood, or various experiences in life or in the actual sport (only real teachable way, put an athlete into a tough place in their sport, and then let them get out on their own). Although the individual athlete needs to learn to transfer that negative experience into character building exercise, whereby they develop the characteristics of mental toughness. The need to understand it, accept it and learn from it – they do this whether they know it or not.

      Keep a look out for my next blog on sport psychology – I think you’ll find it very interesting!

  • Hey great post. I hope it’s ok that I shared it on my Twitter, if not, no issues just tell
    me and I’ll remove it. Regardless keep up the good work.

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