In this interview, I talked with Mick and Tracey Hannah, two of Australia’s top downhill riders. At the time, both riders were fresh off their successes at the 2017 World Championships in Cairns, their home track.
From your perspective, is riding about legs and body, or is it your head? Which is more important?
Mick Hannah (MH):
I was having this conversation with someone this morning: one of the aspects I love so much about downhill is that it takes a complete athlete in all of those aspects. The mental side is important, but the physical and technological sides are also hugely important. At different times, different parts of those things are the focus, but I don’t think that one’s more important than the other.
When you’re at the top of the start hill with a four-minute race ahead of you, you can’t get anything wrong.
Tracey Hannah (TH):
If you don’t have the physical fitness, you’ll lack confidence. If you lack confidence, your skills are going to be down. If your skills are down, if you’re not ticking every box, something’s going to go amiss. When you’re at the top of the start hill with a four-minute race ahead of you, you can’t get anything wrong.
So is confidence more important than form?
TH: I think you can see the difference between the confident and the hesitant rider. A confident rider will get away with a lot more than a skilful rider that’s hesitating. I think you can get away with a lot (once you get to a certain skill level). At World Cup level, everyone’s a good rider, but the difference between confident and hesitant is huge. You can have the best form in the world but be hesitating, so the confident rider with less form is still going to be better. But really, confidence still comes from preparation!
You can fool others but not yourself. You can’t fool trees or rocks or the stop watch.
MH: Yeah, they say the harder you work the luckier you get. There are two different types of confidence. One isn’t earned or deserved, that kind of confidence (or arrogance) is a dangerous place to be. You think you can get away with it but you haven’t put the work in. I’ve seen some guys get away with it, but mostly if it’s false confidence (and they don’t put the preparation in) it’s going to blow up, it’s fickle and really easily shaken. The other type of confidence (real confidence) is fact, and it’s based on repetition. It’s about proving to yourself that you can actually do it over and over again.
TH: I think that the more preparation you do, the more concrete evidence you get that you can achieve. Confidence from nothing (without the preparation) is bluff. You can fool others but not yourself. You can’t fool trees or rocks or the stop watch.
Is mental training a part of your preparation regime?
TH: It’s not necessarily a part of my training, but my coach focuses on helping me push when I’m most mentally down – which is usually in the gym or out on the road bike. In a way, technically, you are mentally training if you’re working hard when you’re having a hard day or a down week, and it really helps if your coach can notice when you’re down so they can help you to get through the hard times.
It’s definitely about being in the moment – how you feel in the moment can affect you, and it’s how you can get back quickly that makes the difference. Especially when you don’t know when you’re going to be down mentally. So, the better prepared you are and the more practice you get, the easier it is to bring yourself back when it matters.
MH: Mental training’s a funny thing: it’s not like you can just go and lift weights like you can for physical training. You never know, figuratively speaking, when something mentally heavy is going to be there when you have to lift. That’s when it’s important to go back to the people that we have around us, like our trainers and team, and for me and Tracey, our Dad. Having the right people around you at the right time is important.
It’s also important to use the chances you have to get better: the other day I was in the gym and doing these intervals, and I looked up at my trainer and my mind was dead, it was so hard to keep pushing, and those are the times you need to realise that this is a chance to train my mind. You never know when a challenge will come up in World Cup, so when those opportunities occur in day-to-day training or even life in general, it’s really important to take those opportunities to strengthen your mind and develop the routines to get you back quickly when things go wrong.
So, when things go wrong, how do you handle it?
TH: I like it when the shit hits the fan! When I think back to the last season, I don’t think I had a race when something catastrophic didn’t happen… I remember, after I’d had a bad practice session, my team manager told me that he likes it when difficult things happen to me because it’s when I perform my best. If you take challenge the right way, it gives you a lot more energy, which is a big advantage. Some pressure and stress is a plus, it takes your mind off racing and puts your mind on “let’s get the job done and fight for this”. Some athletes handle it and some don’t, but I get fuel for my fire when shit hits the fan.
Some athletes handle it and some don’t, but I get fuel for my fire when shit hits the fan.
MH: It’s similar for me – when something goes wrong it takes the pressure off and gives me a problem to solve. Sort of the underdog feeling: I tell myself “if I’m able to perform in this situation I’ve really achieved something”. When everything’s going perfectly I’m more nervous, because my mind’s not as occupied which can let it get out of control. For me, when I’m sick, or there are mechanicals or crashes or weather, it gives me a problem to solve and a challenge to rise up to.
Do either of you have a routine pre-race to get you into a prepared headspace?
MH: I try to not make my race days much different from a regular training day. There’s obviously some routines we need to go through but I just get up and have my breakfast and get stuck into the routine of the race day and repeat things that work well in my training. Doing things repetitively helps when you’re under stress or when things go wrong – the things that you’ll do automatically when things are challenging are the things that you’ve done repetitively in training. To try and do something new on a race-day is a problem – because you haven’t practised it and your body won’t know what to do.
TH: It’s about keeping your race-day routine as normal as you can. Practise, practise, practise. No matter what comes your way – I try to keep exactly the same routine. That helps make you feel as prepared as possible; it’s routine that helps you feel most calm before a race.
I don’t think it matters if you’re racing, or starting a business, or working, or interacting socially, it’s the same for everybody. It’s learning how to work with the fear that’s important.
What’s the toughest mental challenge you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
TH: Injury has been the toughest for me – going through injury is hard. When you try to come back riding you have so much fear and anxiety. I think my toughest was coming back after breaking my leg. I guess, physically it didn’t take long, but mentally it took years. Each year would pass and I’d realise that I’d made progress until finally I got to the point where I stopped thinking about being injured and the fear went away.
After you’ve had your first big injury you go from Superman to fragile, injury reminds you that you’re fragile and getting over that is really important.
Looking at the young, fast riders, they’re so good, but they’ve got to get through their first big crash and then we’ll see how fast they are.
MH: Injuries are the obvious one – looking at the young, fast riders, they’re so good, but they’ve got to get through their first big crash and then we’ll see how fast they are. Confidence is built on consistency, and consistency is achieving things and riding well. But when you have a big injury or a string of small injuries, you think “what am I doing wrong?” so you start trying to be careful and you still get hurt no matter what you do. Then you start thinking “am I any good at this, should I be doing this?”.
A different part of challenge for me, is that I’ve got two boys and another on the way, and I’ve wrestled with myself about “should I be growing up and getting a real job and staying at home with the kids more?”. I’ve had to figure out what I want to teach the kids and to get to a place of realising that riding bikes is who I am. I’ve realised that quitting my dream won’t teach the kids to stick with theirs – that was tough to come to terms with. People say “oh, you’re still playing with your bikes”, but playing with my bikes is my profession – I have to get past the stereotype of a traditional job. I’ve done plenty of manual labour and regular jobs, but racing is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve realised that quitting my dream won’t teach the kids to stick with theirs – that was tough to come to terms with.
How do you deal with fear?
TH: I think fear is the biggest thing that stops a lot of riders (especially my female riding friends) from progressing. But you can’t really get past fear until you accept that mountain biking is a sport where you’re probably going to hurt yourself. Mountain biking is risky, and you have to be OK with taking on that risk. Crashing is part of my riding and until I accepted that pushing my limits was how I was going to get better, I wasn’t progressing. You have to teach yourself to overcome fear otherwise it’s a major limitation. It’s about accepting that this is what riding is about.
I think Jorge Lorenzo said, “if you can’t get over the fear, then you need to stop”, because that’s the most dangerous thing you can carry when you’re riding: fear is the biggest thing that’s going to stop you from riding and riding well.
MH: It’s basic psychology and physiology. It’s interesting to see that if you’re afraid of bad things happening, the biggest cause of those things happening is the fear! I don’t think it matters if you’re racing, or starting a business, or working, or interacting socially, it’s the same for everybody. It’s learning how to work with the fear that’s important.
Like Bec Henderson and Dan McConnell (http://flowmountainbike.com/features/fast-heads-bec-henderson-and-dan-mcconnell/), Tracey and Mick haven’t worked formally with a sport psychologist. Nevertheless, like Bec and Dan, they’ve both developed some powerful ways of staying focused under pressure, and coming back quickly when things go wrong. Again, because they’ve had to figure this out for themselves, these methods have been advanced over time through a process of observation and practise.
From my perspective, there are five ways in which Tracey and Mick have learnt to excel from a sport-psychology outlook:
Preparation, practise, and repetition are the keys to consistent performance:When we’re under pressure we revert to our defaults. Because this is especially true on the mountain bike, it’s really important to train our defaults through consistent practice and repetition, so that we can trust that our bodies will do the right thing automatically when we’re stressed, distracted, or frightened. Both Tracey and Mick make daily, consistent practice the centre of their training, so that they can easily repeat those embedded skills when competing. They’ve also learnt that confidence is really about competence – the more you can trust in your ability (through repeated practise and hard work), the more confident you will be.
Read about the importance of graded exposure and repetition for effective skills acquisition here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/training-your-brain-part-2-skills-acquisition/
Take every opportunity to train your focus, especially when things are difficult:You can’t prepare for things to go wrong by waiting for things to go wrong. Mick and Tracey both use opportunities in their regular training to practise regaining their focus, and dealing with the difficulty in front of them. This skill is much more useful than distracting yourself when you’re not really there. Rather than letting your mind wander as a way of escaping discomfort, learn to pay attention when things are difficult, painful, or upsetting; by making room for the discomfort, you are training your ability to be present and focused no matter what the challenge.Read about riding in the here and now here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-soapbox-riding-in-the-here-and-now/
Reframe difficulty as challenge:Tracey and Mick have both dealt with some pretty big challenges, but both of them actually enjoy it when things go wrong. Being able to reframe an annoyance, difficulty, or disaster as a challenge that you can step up to, is a huge advantage. Instead of focusing on the things that go wrong, both Mick and Tracey have learnt to enjoy these opportunities to excel.
It’s important to remember that without the hard work to develop a strong skills base, it’s difficult to see difficulty as challenge. In psychology, we talk about the perception of control. When a person perceives that she is in control of a situation, stress is interpreted as challenge (we call this eustress), but when we don’t feel in control we feel helpless, and experience distress. We can increase our perception of control by practising consistently in increasingly difficult situations, and by expecting that things will go wrong. Read about how to do that here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/how-expecting-to-fail-can-improve-your-performance/
Don’t get too hung up on what’s happened, and work with yourself to move forward:Both Mick and Tracey have had major challenges (including injuries) throughout their careers. A big plus for both of them, is focusing on improving and moving forward as riders, rather than getting hung up on what’s happened in the past. To do this, they’ve both accepted that risk is a part of riding and competition, and are better able to deal with the consequences of those risks when they occur.Read about getting your mojo back here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-soapbox-getting-your-mojo-back/
Accepting fear and pain is integral to being an effective rider:Tracey and Mick both acknowledge that one of the biggest dangers in mountain biking is fear: it’s usually the fear of something going wrong that leads to that very thing happening. Accepting fear as a normal part of riding, and committing to effective action in its presence is a key to improvement. Nevertheless, they also understand that fear is reasonable up to a point. Without the skills to back you up, confidence (or arrogance in this instance) will get you in trouble. Learning to know the difference is paramount.
Read about working with fear here: http://flowmountainbike.com/features/dealing-with-real-fear/
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.