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!
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!
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.
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.
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