It’s one thing to write about sport psychology for mountain bikers, but another thing altogether to be an elite rider. We wanted to get a better idea of how top riders use their heads when they’re training and racing, so we thought we’d ask them directly. Over the next year, we plan to interview some of the top men and women mountain bikers in the world. Welcome to Fast Heads.
In the first of the series, I caught up with two of Australia’s top XC racers, Bec Henderson and Dan McConnell. Both have represented Australia at two Olympics and multiple World Cup and Championship events. At the time of the interview, Bec and Dan were training in Colorado prior to the World Cup XC event at Mont Sainte Anne. They took time out of their busy training schedule to tell me a little bit about how they prepare mentally for the gruelling demands of XC racing.
Let’s start with a general question: from your perspective, where does “fast” happen, in the legs, in the head, or a combination of both?
Dan McConnell (DM): For me, the legs are a pretty important part, but the head has to definitely be in the game. So, for me, five days into a race, I keep everything exactly the same: my food, my training, massage, morning routine, everything’s the same. It’s the way to mentally get my head around that there is a race happening, no matter how good your legs are it’s going to hurt, you definitely need to get your head around that it’s not going to be an easy day out. No race is just you out the front with everything easy, every race is challenging, it hurts a lot, and you’ve got to be mentally prepared to push through that.
No matter how good your legs are it’s going to hurt – Dan McConnell
Bec Henderson (RH): For me it’s pretty similar, obviously you have to have the confidence to know that all the hard work’s been done, but that confidence doesn’t come without having done the hard work! You have to be physically 100% ready, but when you get on the World Cup start line, everyone’s 100% physically ready, so it comes down to who’s ready to suffer more, and who’s ready to put in the hard work when things don’t always go to plan.
During the week I have to get the right balance of excited and nervous. I’m not usually overly nervous, but I need to keep myself focused, but relaxed without being too relaxed! It’s good to be a bit nervous before the race; some of the best races I’ve had I’ve got on the rollers to warm up and felt awful, it helps me to feel alive.
DM: Yeah, it’s really rare in a mountain bike race for everything to run smoothly, so you need to be able to go with the flow and ride the waves that is racing.
So what’s the toughest mental challenge you’ve faced in your racing career and how did you overcome it?
RH: There have been a lot – last year at the Olympics I had a pretty bad back injury. To put all of that time and effort and work into being on your best form for that day, then you fall short, it’s hard. The worst is not having the answers about why you couldn’t put it together on that day. It’s easier when there’s an obvious reason, but when you did everything right but it didn’t come together, and you’re searching for answers after putting months and years of hard work in, that’s when it’s the hardest to come back from…
So how do you come back?
RH: We’re both in that phase at the moment: we both had pretty bad races in the last two World Cups, and we didn’t really have any answers for that, so we’re just keeping our heads down and believing in what we’re doing, believing in our plan, and working the plan instead of stressing about what we should have done differently. I guess we’ll find out in two-weeks’ time if that’s working!
For us, we’re lucky to have each other to keep us grounded. We train together, so when one of us thinks we haven’t trained hard enough, the other one can be the voice of reality. Having someone close to you to remind you that you’re doing the right work, that helps a lot!
It’s intimidating if you’ve been practising in the dry all week and then have to go down a crazy, slippery descent, but our skill level’s pretty high, so we know that we’re not the ones struggling the most. That helps.
DM: The hardest one for me was two seasons ago, just before World Champs in South Africa, everything was going really well, and I was really looking for a result, then maybe three days before the race I was riding back to the apartment after training and
a monkey took me out at about 60 km/h! That was pretty much me done. That, for me, was really mentally hard to get past because I put so much into getting ready and to have something completely out of my control take that away was really difficult.
How did you get past that?
DM: We’re lucky that we do everything together, so we’ve done enough races and been put in those situations so many times that we can talk about what’s happen in the few days afterwards, and realise that there’s nothing that can be done to change it, and the only thing to do is to look forward. There’s always another race, and at the end of the day you need to mentally accept what’s happened, think about it but not dwell on it, and move on.
How about fear? XC races are getting more technical, is fear a factor when you’re racing?
DM: Some courses are fairly challenging, but it’s good to go into a race knowing you’re comfortable with everything. We get to a venue early in the week, and prepare, so we know all the lines in advance, with two or three different options. As long as you’re fairly well prepared and technically OK, and spend a few days finding better ways rather than just getting down, then you have the confidence in what you’ve done and there’s nothing to fear – it comes back to the excitement and focus before the race.
It comes down to who’s ready to suffer more, and who’s ready to put in the hard work when things don’t always go to plan.
RH: The biggest factor is if the weather changes, that plays a big element in decisions on tyres and lines you haven’t practised. But then it’s the same for everyone, so it comes back to having confidence in your decisions – whether you choose to go out on limb and take dry tyres, or go conservative and take mud tyres. It’s intimidating if you’ve been practising in the dry all week and then have to go down a crazy, slippery descent, but our skill level’s pretty high, so we know that we’re not the ones struggling the most. That helps.
It seems to me that for you guys, confidence and form are sort of the same thing – that is, it’s the preparation that matters, and trusting in knowing you’ve done the work forms the basis of your confidence?
DM: Yes, for us we train hard, and we know we’ve done the training over our Summer, so we can be going well for the whole season. It gives us a boost.
RH: We’re not always oozing confidence though – it might look like it on social media, but what doesn’t show is when we’re suffering or putting the hard work in without getting the results. Confidence is easy to say but hard to have.
That must be a challenge. Do you have a mental training program to help you sustain yourselves with all that pressure going on?
RH: There’s a lot of things that you do that you don’t realise – we’ve developed a lot of coping techniques over the years between us – we don’t necessarily know what we do, but it seems to work! We’ve only met with a sport psychologist once, just before this trip, and it’s something we want to do more of in the future. We tend to counsel each other…
We’ve kind of just had to learn as we go. At the beginning, we thought we were doing everything right, but looking back we were just having a holiday. We’re getting a lot better at accepting help from each other and from others though.
We’ve developed a lot of coping techniques over the years between us – we don’t necessarily know what we do, but it seems to work!
DM: Having each other is really important – because we have to travel so much and not be in the one spot for more than three weeks, it’s a challenge to keep going, missing out on a lot of things back home, so it’s crucial that we have each other and that’s what makes it possible for us to actually do this.
One more question: how do you handle things when things go catastrophically wrong?
RH: It comes back to leaning on each other. The Olympics were a challenge – normally we race on the same day, but then I had a disaster and Dan wasn’t riding until the next day, so I couldn’t intrude on him, and had to give him his space for his race. It’s hard when you need support but have to be there for the other. It’s the same when one goes well and the other goes bad. But afterwards we’re able to sit down and talk it through. Because we’ve both had big wins we’re proud of, and we know how hard they are to come by. They’re worth so much more than a loss, and for me, any win for Dan is a win for me, so we can focus on each other’s wins.
Although neither Bec nor Dan have had much contact with sport psychology, they have developed some pretty sophisticated methods for managing under pressure and staying focused. This seems to have evolved over time, and has been based on trial and error. I think that they are in a privileged position in having each other both as a source of support, but also as reality checkers. This ability to check in with the other person helps both of them to identify what works, and to get past challenges.
From my perspective, there are seven key areas that Bec and Dan have learnt to excel at – all of which are ideal form a sport psych. perspective. They include:
Mutual support – even when things are difficult:
Bec and Dan have a rare thing for elite athletes: a supportive partnership. They’ve learnt to be there for each other even when things are really hard and they’re under stress. This is a really important factor for sustaining performance over time for athletes.
Choosing to focus on the gains rather than losses:
Getting stuck on “what ifs” and “should haves” is a big problem for athletes, and can be very distracting. Bec and Dan seem to have figured out that gains are more important than losses, and that “shit happens”. They’ve also learnt to accept the crappy stuff without dwelling on it, and to refocus on wheat needs doing. It also allows Bec and Dan to remind each other why they ride and to have some fun! Read about that here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-power-of-purposeless-activity-aka-why-i-mountain-bike/
Having a plan and sticking to it:
Having an effective plan, and sticking to it even when things don’t go to plan is massively important. Bec and Dan have mastered this at two levels: overall (i.e., planning out their season, taking into account proper training and preparation), and around events (i.e., having a solid routine leading up to a race, and preparing really well – see next).
Preparing really well and relying on that preparation (competence over confidence):
In sport psychology, we favour competence over confidence. Confidence is easy to break, but competence only comes from consistent preparation. Bec and Dan have figured this out and spend a lot of time preparing properly (overall and for specific races), so that they can trust in that preparation. Knowing that they have done everything they can helps them to focus. It’s really important to be able to deal with the stuff that you have no control over (like crashes or equipment failures) at the time, and this is a lot easier if it’s not complicated by worries about “should haves”.
Preparation also helps Bec and Dan to not be distracted by fear. Fear only happens when we’re well outside our comfort zone, and both of them prepare to make sure that they are able to deal with problems in real time. Read about that here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/dealing-with-real-fear/
Trusting in decisions and not second guessing:
Related to the previous point – trusting in decisions (like tyre choice, pre-race preparation, or line selection) allows for two important things: commitment without distraction, and staying focused when things go wrong. Trusting in your choices leaves room for being in the moment (see below) without losing focus to things that will decrease performance (like worrying and second guessing).
Expecting that things will be hard, and knowing that things will go wrong:
Both Bec and Dan know that XC racing hurts, a lot. They expect to be in pain, and they know that things go wrong. This frees them up to focus on the task at hand, rather than getting distracted by pain, or freaking out when something doesn’t go to plan. Have a read about that here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/how-expecting-to-fail-can-improve-your-performance/
Staying focused during races:
Last, but probably most important: Bec and Dan are really good at staying focused during a race. This happens despite nervousness, pain, weather, crashes, or equipment failures. Because they expect that these things will happen, they’ve learnt to focus on what actually matters: being present and focused on the task at hand (the stuff they can control), rather than distracted by things they have no control over. Read about that here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-soapbox-riding-in-the-here-and-now/
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.