I am frequently asked, “What is the most common observation in athletes that needs improvement?” Well, I am no psychologist (although I do have an excellent recommendation), but the answer is very simple, most athletes just need to learn how to RELAX both physically and mentally; to chill, to let it go, to have more fun, to kick it!
The Problem (or Opportunity)
What I see is both a physical and mental “tightness” when an athlete lacks self-confidence in the task he or she is about to take on. Most athletes have some sort of fear in cycling (or running or swimming), whether it is climbing, descending, pack riding, or field sprints. Physically, this is manifested with stiff, straight arms, or white knuckles. This tightness leads to decreased performance because excess energy is used to control the fear. Shallow breathing develops and decreases performance even more. From a mental standpoint, the athlete loses focus, gets short-tempered, and is pretty much doing everything counter-productive to successfully achieving his or her goal. We’ve all been there, when we have had that feeling of failure before we even start, and in turn became our own nemesis!
The good news is there is a solution. I won’t lie to you and say it’s easy, because it isn’t. The key is to just RELAX. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but just think about it for a minute. You work so hard on the bike (running/swimming). You investigate every physical workout possible, looking for the magic. You dedicate yourself to achieving your goals, and everything seems to go up in smoke because of nerves. Don’t get me wrong, nerves are good. Nerves tell us that we are capable of doing well in threatening situations. On the other hand, like anything else, too much of a good thing can be detrimental.
The first thing to do is next time you are out riding and come into one of these situations is to first recognize it. As an example: let’s take a narrow, twisty, screaming decent (like the canyons on Highway 49 in Auburn.) You’re riding with your friends and all of a sudden you realize this descent is coming up in the next couple miles. You are already making excuses to yourself that you will be behind at the bottom of the descent. You drift away from the conversation as your mind is beginning to be occupied with negative thoughts. You start the downhill and you notice you are gripping the bars like there is no tomorrow. Your breathing is shallow, you take strange lines through the corners that no one in their right mind would, and your friends disappear ahead of you in an instant! You get to the bottom and your friends are going slow, chatting about something, and waiting for YOU. You feel awkward and wish you could just descend the way they do. The thing is, you can! All you have to do is gain confidence through learning to RELAX.
Here are four tips to help you overcome these types of situations:
Patience, remember most importantly that it takes time. Miracles of the mind don’t occur overnight.
Small steps - Try this experiment. The next few days you ride, concentrate on just one part of your body to relax throughout the ride. For example, focus on relaxing your arms. Don’t worry about anything else, just the arms. Then, the next day, concentrate on your facial muscles and go through the same drill. Take a lesson from the golfers who work on just one component at a time, as they do with their swing. Continue doing this each day.
Talk it up – Take the specific fear to your friends, coach, wife, husband or whoever will listen and care. Talk it out. Have them help you. Sometimes talking about an issue helps verbalized something you haven’t been able to put into words. Don’t feel like you have to overcome the fear on your own. It’s amazing what how talking about a problem will help solve it.
Get some help from a qualified coach - When we do our 1:1 workouts, we specifically address these situations. For example, with both climbing and descending, there are specific form techniques and strategies that can be worked on and perfected.
Learn to relax and it’s amazing how you will change for the better, both physically and mentally. And all that effort you put into accomplishing your goals will be realized and you will have more fun doing it!