In recent years, sports psychology has grown in popularity among amateur and elite athletes. And for those of us looking to improve our bike skills, from popping a wheelie to cornering with ease, there are some key tactics that sports psychologists and mental consultants swear by for their clients. Let’s look at a few!
You may have heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals already—ones that are Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely. But have you really looked at your cycling goals and made sure that they fit that model? Most of us have a goal tied to a race result—i.e. finishing on the podium at a local mountain bike race. Or maybe it’s something like ‘Impress my partner with my mad bike skills,’ or ‘Show off on the group ride.’ While those are great, they’re also so vague that it’s going to be hard to hit those markers. A goal that depends on a race finish is tough because you can’t control for who else shows up to race, or if that’s the day you end up with a stomach bug or a flat tire. And something like ‘impress my buddies’ is so open-ended that it’s hard to get focused and dialed on any one specific plan. Likely, you’ll just end up perusing the Ryan Leech Connection library, jumping from course to course, never finishing one.
Fix it: Write down all of your cycling-related goals—just the ones that come to mind right away. Then, in a second column, look at each individual goal and apply the S.M.A.R.T. filter and make an edit. So, something like “Podium at the local XC race this season,” could change to, “Finish the cornering skills course by March and ride on trails 5 times a week using my heart rate monitor and working on going up hills faster each time so that I’m ready to race fast when the season starts.” It’s not as sexy, but it will work.
In the new and highly touted sports psychology book The Brave Athlete, doctor Simon Marshall delves into the primary problem that most athletes fall victim to: finish line goals, rather than habit and process-related goals. It’s easy to say that your goal is to ‘pop a wheelie,’ but that goal is pretty vague. Rather, Marshall would suggest that an athlete consider what processes and habits it takes to get to that result. For someone here, that would mean signing up for the 30-Day Wheelie Challenge and committing to practicing regularly. Focusing on that as the goal—the daily practice of following along with the challenge—is already a win. The wheelie that comes after sticking to a regular practice routine is great, but the real win is that you committed to practicing and followed through.
Fix it: Look back at that goal list we already worked on. Are there any goals that can get broken down into processes or habits that you can implement starting now, versus having a goal looming somewhere in the distant future? Keep revisiting your goals (I use a dry erase board for easy edits—but I take a photo of each iteration!) so that you can keep referring back as you progress.
Bonus: Listen to Simon talk about process-oriented goals with me on The Consummate Athlete Podcast here!
Visualization sounds a little hippie-ish, but every pro athlete that I’ve worked with swears by it, and for good reason. Study after study have showed that it works. Sports consultants and psychologists also swear by it as a starting point for most of the athletes that they work with. Traci Stanard of Aspire Performance teaches her clients how to take time—the same as you take time to practice wheelies—to practice mental skills like visualization. (Listen to Traci’s best tips for achieving your goals in sport here.) For someone in a skill-based sport like mountain biking, if your goal is to pop a wheelie, you should be not only practicing wheelies everyday on your bike, you should be taking a minute or two every day to visualize what it’s going to look like when you do nail it, and how it’s going to feel. If you don’t believe that you can master the skill, it’s likely that you never will.
Fix it: If visualization seems tough—and it certainly is for some of us who have a hard time shutting our brains off to the daily to-do list to focus, or haven’t daydreamed in years—start with a vision board. Use an actual piece of posterboard, school report-style, if that’s your preference, or build a board on a website like Pinterest, using photos of people nailing wheelies. Try to find some people who look like you doing it: if you’re a 55 year old man, don’t just grab photos of 25 year old pros—you want to be able to see yourself on this board eventually, not psych yourself out. It might feel silly at first, but the more you can practice seeing yourself crushing it on the bike, the easier it will feel when you’re actually out riding. (And you can do this at work without your boss noticing. Bonus!)
While you may not be heading to the Olympics anytime soon, you can still have great ‘reach’ goals that push you outside of your comfort zone and have you doing things you never expected to be able to do. If you have a tendency to set unrealistic expectations for yourself, it might be time to give yourself a break and make smaller, more attainable goals. But on the flip side, if you all-too-often find your goals are being easily met, it might be time to raise the bar (or try to hop a higher curb), because if you’re not feeling stretched in your goals, you’re not improving or making as much progress as you could be.
Fix it: The next time you catch yourself thinking, “I’ll never be able to do this,” pause and write that thought down. For example, if there’s a log on the trail that you don’t think you can ride over, walk over it, but write it down, and maybe even take a picture. Later, look back at the photo and the thought. Now that you’re out of the situation, does it still seem unrideable, or did you just panic in the moment? If you answered with the latter, next time you hit that trail, you’ll be doing so with the knowledge that the log is there, but you know you’re capable of getting over it.
I admit, this one isn’t backed by studies—but there are thousands of pro an amateur athletes who swear by hypnotherapy to calm jitters and help them learn to visualize. I tried it for an article for Bicycling, and it worked surprisingly well to improve my mountain biking skills—or, rather, to get rid of the mental roadblocks that had been holding me back. A sports hypnotherapist will essentially teach you to visualize in a truly deep way, helping you relax and pinpoint where you’re getting stuck. If you feel like you’ve already done what you can to improve your mental game and still are having trouble, this just may be the last push you need!
By Molly Hurford