In this interview, I asked Rachel Atherton, the most successful female downhiller of all time, about her strategies for dealing with challenges when racing and training. Given Rachel’s challenging 2017 season, I was excited to hear how she uses her head to go fast.
Does fast happen in the legs or the head – which is more important in racing?
Rachel Atherton (RA): Really it is a combination of both. Obviously, you have to be physically strong enough, fit enough with the ability to process the lactic acid, have the ability to take the forces in your body that hurtling down a mountain at 40kmph requires. But if ultimately, your mind isn’t in the right place, you won’t be able to deliver, no matter how strong you are. So, really, racing is probably slightly more in your head, when you are fired up, confident in yourself, your bike and your line choice, and you are just generally strong mentally then you can put it all down in those five minutes. You can commit and race faster and easier, but that confidence comes from having trained right, and knowing you are strong and fit enough to deal with the race speed, so really you HAVE to have both, without both you don’t get on the top step!
If ultimately, your mind isn’t in the right place, you won’t be able to deliver, no matter how strong you are.
What’s the toughest mental challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
RA: Injury is definitely the biggest mental challenge and I’ve had my fair share of injuries! I think the worst thing about being injured is the fear of hurting yourself again, you can’t imagine ever being strong enough or confident enough to go that fast again, you totally lose it. But as with everything in life you start small, with small realistic goals each day and before you know it you’re back racing! I used to have an “injury loop” that I would ride each time I was recovering from injury, the same loop, the same climb and descent and I knew if I could get to point A, then I could get to point B next time, and point C the time after, and so on until I’d completed the loop. When that happened, I knew I was ready to ride properly. You just have to do whatever it is that makes you FEEL confident.
In 2009 I had to have a whole year out when I got hit by a truck on my road bike and dislocated my shoulder. I severed the nerves and had to have nerve grafts and operations all year long, it was a tough injury because the year before I had won the World Championships and World Cup overall – in 2008 – so I went from being on top of the world to not even racing! But the hardest bit of all was that after training for the next season all winter I shattered my little finger two days before the first World Cup! I was so gutted but I couldn’t think about not racing, it was so painful bending my broken finger around my handlebars each day, and to get through it and toughen myself mentally, between every practice run I watched the movie 300 on my laptop – I choose clips that made me feel like ROARING, I AM SPARTA, it worked, I won! But I won by being smart – I went around some big road gaps because I couldn’t take the hit on landing, so I made sure I went faster everywhere else, I did what was right for me at that time.
Between every practice run I watched the movie 300 on my laptop – I choose clips that made me feel like ROARING, I AM SPARTA, it worked, I won!
Do you have a routine, either practically or mentally, pre-race and what importance does this have for your preparation?
RA: Yes, a routine is really super important, I would say it is the most simple and effective way to prepare for a race. most of the time I am so so nervous on race day, I can’t function with the nerves, I puke in the bin and lose my head, but I know that if I follow my routine, it will lead me to that start gate, and then I know what I’m doing, that’s what I live for. Routine lets you switch off your head and just DO. I have everything planned down to the minute, we even factor in time for me to sit around before I leave the race pits, a time to sit and think of nothing, or ask for some last minute reassurance, my routine plans my day, from breakfast to warm up, practice, time to watch my GoPro, time to eat and drink, time to sleep, time to wake up again and warm up for race run, time to sing (singing helps ease my nerves and takes up the space in my mind so I can just go on auto-pilot).
Routine lets you switch off your head and just DO.
I think a routine is super important because it’s one thing that’s the same wherever you go, whatever country you’re in, or whatever the weather is doing or however you feel, you complete your routine and you know it gets you to that start gate and then you get to do what you love – race!
Do you have to deal with fear? How do you handle it?
RA: Yes! Fear is a big part of what we do, sometimes it is fear of a certain obstacle on course, sometimes it is a general fear of crashing and getting hurt or fear of losing and not performing to your ability. The way I try to deal with it is by using evidence – past evidence, which has already happened and I can’t undo that fact, I HAVE done big jumps before, I have won races before, I have gotten hurt before and come back to racing, so you use the past evidence to reassure yourself that you can do it. I tell myself that ”thoughts are not truths” and that what I’m thinking might come true, or it might not come true, but thoughts are not truths so anything can happen and will happen. I don’t try and stop fear or anxiety, I just try to manage it, control it. If I’m scared I control my fear by making sure I know exactly where I am going into a section by watching GoPro and walking the track more; it is the preparation that can help.
I tell myself that ”thoughts are not truths” and that what I’m thinking might come true, or it might not come true, but thoughts are not truths so anything can happen and will happen.
I tell people, if you are really scared and really don’t think you can do it, have you done something similar before? Or are you making too big a step? You have to take every step to get to the end goal, you can’t miss steps or cheat because then you will come unstuck. But if you work up to a big jump by doing millions of small and medium-sized jumps until you are so confident on them, then doing a big jump will be much easier than doing nothing then suddenly trying a big jump.
I tell people, if you are really scared and really don’t think you can do it, have you done something similar before?
How do you handle situations when it all hits the fan? Do you prepare for this?
RA: Sometimes no matter what you do or how you prepare, it all goes totally wrong and you get hurt or you don’t win.
For me the shit hitting the fan can be a good thing: it forces you to evaluate what happened and why? Sometimes you can find answers easily to why, and so you fix it: you change things on your bike, you train harder. But sometimes there is no reason why you crashed, and that is the hard part to accept that there is nothing you can change, nothing you can fix, you just crashed because riding bikes is a bit dangerous, or you just didn’t win because you weren’t fast enough; those are the hardest parts because you can’t change it. When there’s a problem to fix, something to focus on to get better it is easy and exciting, but when it’s just for no reason, you have to accept your fate and wait until your next chance to race again!
For me the shit hitting the fan can be a good thing: it forces you to evaluate what happened and why?
I do let myself get upset, and let myself get angry and sad because I believe that is part of the process, I am so competitive that I need to feel sorry for myself and let myself have a break then I can come back much more determined to try again!
I was fascinated by Rachel’s responses, in part because they were so similar to those of the other riders I’ve interviewed so far. Like Bec Henderson, Dan O’Connell, and Tracey and Mick Hannah, Rachel hasn’t worked formally with a sport psychologist, but like these riders, she’s intuitively picked up on some very effective strategies for staying on form, despite substantial setbacks. As a sport psychologist, I often find that athletes who make it to the top usually figure out a lot of the important stuff by themselves through observation, and trial and error. There’s a lot for the rest of us to learn from their experience!
Rachel’s strategies can be summarised by four main themes:
1) Effective confidence is the result of competence which, in turn, is the result of lots of repetitive practice. This applies both to technique and form, as well as to psychological consistency. Rachel spends a lot of time training incrementally: rather than attempting major changes, or taking on large risks, she practises by stepping up both the challenge and the pressure in smaller, more achievable chunks. This gives Rachel not only the repetitive practice that builds skill, but it also provides her with an “evidence base” that shows her she has the competence to take on challenging obstacles, independently of how she might be feeling about it on a given day.
– Read more about building competence here: https://flowmountainbike.com/features/training-your-brain-part-2-skills-acquisition/
2) Injury is probably inevitable if you’re going to ride, so accept it. Rachel has had her share of spectacular crashes and some very nasty injuries requiring long recovery times. Because she accepts that this is an inescapable part of mountain biking, post-accident she is able to focus on her recovery, and on reprogramming herself to be able to ride hard stuff again (through incremental progression and repetitive practice). Accepting the unpleasant stuff like fear, pain, and injury means that when it happens, it’s less likely to have a traumatising impact, which means we can come back faster.
– Read more about coming back after injury here: https://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-soapbox-getting-your-mojo-back/
3) We are not our thoughts and feelings. Rachel realises that although her thoughts feel true (especially the ones that tell her that she can’t, or that she’s going to fail) they usually aren’t. Getting past the assumption that our internal experiences are valid simply because they’re internal is one of that hardest things for most of us to process. Sure we all have thoughts and feelings, often extremely strong and, sometimes, quite distressing; but having a thought or feeling doesn’t mean that you are that experience, or even that it has merit. It’s important to remember that strong thoughts and feelings (especially fear) only get our attention (resulting in a negative impact on our ability to perform as desired) if we become distracted by them in the first place. Learning to “notice and name” our thoughts and feelings is a great start – it helps us understand that our internal experiences are only an aspect of what’s going on in any given moment and, therefore, that they don’t have to influence our actions. Rachel understands that she can’t turn off her mind or emotions, so rather than struggling to “overcome’ them, she’s learnt to identify and work with them.
– Read more about attending to what matters despite internal distractions here: https://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-soapbox-riding-in-the-here-and-now/
4) It’s OK to get pissed off! Learning to manage our actions in the presence of distracting thoughts and feelings is important, but it’s also important to acknowledge that we’re human and that the things we think and feel will happen whether we want them or not. Rachel understands that being human means that it’s OK to feel the range of human emotions and that challenging experiences often present us with the full spectrum. Taking time to allow an emotional experience helps us to recognise that it’s not necessarily as bad as we might think, and allows us the opportunity to be kind to ourselves in the face of disappointment, pain, and distress. Allowing these experiences can also help us to focus on the riding ahead of us, rather than the mistakes behind us. Equally important is the knowledge that unpleasant emotions can help to highlight the reasons we mountain bike.
Love and pain are both sides of the same coin: if we didn’t care about mountain biking, we wouldn’t feel angry, sad, or disappointed when things don’t go our way. Taking the time to acknowledge what mountain biking means to us (especially in the face of problems) can help us be more passionate, but also more forgiving when things go wrong.
– Read more about being a self-compassionate rider here: https://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-power-of-purposeless-activity-aka-why-i-mountain-bike/
About the author:
Dr. Jeremy Adams has a PhD in sport psychology, 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 the joys and perils of being human (www.eclectic-moose.com).
Jeremy lives and works in Hobart and can be contacted through his website (www.eclectic-consult.com) or on (03) 9016 0306.