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Sport Psychology

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 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

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 in Ghent

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 training 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.

UCI para world track champsionships

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.

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!

Kristina Vogel at the UCI track world cup in LA

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

Sport Psychology and Cycling

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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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