Expect to Fail and Improve Your Performance

Words by Dr Jeremy Adams | Images by Flow, Crankworx, Internet

OK, so we’ve looked at some of the common sport psychology myths – the techniques that don’t work (and can make things worse), but that are still hyped as useful. Now let’s look at some of the stuff that actually works, and the best forms of delivery.


Now, I’m obviously biased here, but there’s a reason I recommend seeing a registered sport psychologist over someone without the qualification and registration: a registered psychologist is more likely to have a proper understanding of what’s actually going on. To register as a psychologist takes at least six years of university training, and more than 2000 hours of hands-on experience, meaning that there’s a decent chance that your psychologist actually knows what he or she is talking about. You probably wouldn’t go to someone claiming to be a dentist, lawyer, or GP if they weren’t actually qualified and registered, no matter how many weekend or alternative courses they’d completed, or how much personal experience they’ve had. So, if proper training matters to you – my recommendation is to go with the person with the real qualification, no matter how convincing they sound.

Given all of that, what would I recommend for anyone looking to improve his or her performance under pressure on or off the bike? Four things:

Preparing for problems: Let’s face it – stuff goes wrong, and if you’re not pre-prepared, mentally or physically, your chances of “toughing it out” or “dealing with it on the fly” are going to be pretty slim. We all have an annoying ability to underestimate the likelihood of problems, and to overestimate our ability to deal with them, so we tend to underprepare.

Rather than trusting in your ability to deal with things if and when they happen, work out in advance what you plan to do when things go wrong

Instead, expect that things will go wrong. Crashes will happen, your mojo just won’t be there, the weather will be crap, or you’ll feel tired or demotivated. Rather than trusting in your ability to deal with things if and when they happen, work out in advance what you plan to do when things go wrong, and be as realistic and honest as possible about it. If anything, exaggerate the likelihood and intensity of problems so that you’ll be better prepared when it happens. If things go better than expected, that’s great – you get to appreciate it all the more. If not, you’ll have a plan ready to go, especially in situations where you need to respond quickly to an issue (like in a race), and won’t have time to come up with something on the fly.

Expect things to go wrong. Aaron Gwin has had a horror run at Leogang, so when shit hit the fan last year and he lost his chain out of the gate, he didn’t let it faze him and he went on to win. 

Expecting discomfort: Similar to the above, if you expect that you’re going to be uncomfortable when riding, it won’t come as a surprise. Mountain biking discomfort comes in many forms, from physical (e.g., physical pain, cramps, and exhaustion), to mental (e.g., fear, panic, disillusionment, disappointment, frustration, etc.), and is pretty much a given. Once we can accept that we’re going to be uncomfortable, it tends to have less of an impact on us when it happens. Alternatively, expecting everything to be great is pretty much a recipe for disappointment and ongoing motivation problems.

Expecting everything to be great is pretty much a recipe for disappointment and ongoing motivation problems.

Getting used to being uncomfortable sounds a bit pessimistic, but it actually frees us up to enjoy ourselves doing what we enjoy even though things might be uncomfortable or unpleasant at the time. Removing unrealistic expectations (especially around ‘flow’ and ‘being in the zone’ – see above) lets us take an experience at face value without a whole raft of preconceived ideas getting in the way.

Talk about expecting discomfort. Nairo Quintana knew that if he was to stay with Froome on Ventoux in 2013, things were going to be horrible beyond words, but he didn’t lose motivation. #brutal

Increasing emotional tolerance: Getting used to discomfort also involves increasing your ability to tolerate uncomfortable, upsetting, or distracting emotions. For most of us, the biggest source of distraction isn’t external events, but, instead, our emotional reactions to them. Because we label uncomfortable emotions (like fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness) as “bad”, “awful”, or “terrible”, we usually spend a lot of time and energy trying to control or get rid of these feelings.

It turns out that we don’t have nearly as much control over our emotions as we’d like to think.

It turns out that we don’t have nearly as much control over our emotions as we’d like to think. Usually, the best we can do when they come up is to accept that they’re there, and attend to what actually matters (like riding); but there’s no way this will happen until you get better at (i) noticing the emotion when it happens and, (ii) treating it like any other sensation (i.e., “it’s there, I can’t really do anything about it, but I can learn something from it, and then return my attention to what matters, even if I don’t feel like it”). Do this right and you can get to a point where you get to choose your actions, even in the presence of unpleasant emotions, rather than the other way around.

This skill is quite hard to learn by yourself and isn’t particularly intuitive. After all, we’re programmed to pay attention to our primary emotions (they evolved as part of our warning and survival system). My advice: if your performance is degraded because of your responses to and around your emotions, do some pre-emptive work with a good psychologist.

Learning attentional focus: Probably the most important skill any athlete can learn is to be able to pay attention to what matters, especially when presented with a whole load of distractions. On the bike, being able to attend to what’s important, especially when you’re distracted by emotions, discomfort, worries, or competition pressure, is essential for high performance. You’ve probably read a bit about mindfulness in recent times. Mindfulness is simply another term for voluntary, focused attention. That is, being able to choose what and how you attend to the things that actually require your attention (rather than the distractions that demand it). Again, attentional focus training is unintuitive (because it feels normal to direct your attention to the things that are distracting) so, if you want to increase your performance under pressure, I’d advise working with a good psychologist who does sport-based mindfulness work.

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Attentional focus in action?

To summarise everything we’ve talked about – as humans, we’re full of errors, and those errors will make us think that certain things are more important, or more worthy of attention, than other things. Chances are, if we feel that something is right, it’s probably wrong, and the only way to know the difference is to spend some serious time training to recognise it! Unfortunately, many people claiming to know about sport psychology don’t really, because either they haven’t actually studied it, or they’ve fallen victim to the same errors as the rest of us (but think they haven’t).

You want to learn to be a better rider, and a big part of that improvement comes from learning how to recognise the right choices when they come up.

Put it this way: you spend a lot of time training on the bike to be good at riding. You want to learn to be a better rider, and a big part of that improvement comes from learning how to recognise the right choices when they come up. It makes sense then (at least to me) that we’d also invest at least as much time in learning how to recognise the right choices in other parts of our lives – learning how to recognise our cognitive errors and defaults, and how to focus our attention on the right stuff when it matters. This is where sport psychology actually helps: learning how to be our best under pressure, rather than simply learning to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

About the author:

Dr. Jeremy Adams is a registered psychologist and director of Eclectic Consulting Ltd. He divides his time between mountain biking, working with athletes and other performers, executive coaching, and private practice.

In past lives, Jeremy has been a principal lecturer in sport and performance psychology at a university in London, a senior manager in a large consulting firm in Melbourne, a personal trainer in Paris, and a scuba instructor in Byron Bay. He’s also the author of a textbook on performance in organisational management, a large range of professional and popular articles, and a regular blog about how to be human (www.eclectic-moose.com).

Jeremy is based in Hobart and can be contacted through his website (www.eclectic-consult.com)

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