When the highly decorated former 200m and 400m runner Michael Johnson talked about an athlete not doing well in a race, he would say “[they] didn’t come to the race.” Of course, the athlete was physically present, but Johnson was referring to their psychological state which is equally – if not more – important when it comes to success.
But what does it take to have that 'be there' mentally for the likes of mountain bike downhiller Rachel Atherton, cyclo-cross and road bike rider Tom Pidcock and BMX racer Kye Whyte? Each of these bike athletes face tough competition in their respective disciplines, where winning margins are on a knife-edge and down to that split second in which the athlete’s wits and accuracy are paramount.
I always go to a competition with my head focused on winning and nothing less
Whether it’s the prospect of throwing themselves down a rock garden, spinning around berms or gliding uphill through the mud, competitors need nerves of steel just to get to the start line and be completely present in the moment. Previous set-backs, injuries, disappointing results and rivals need to be blotted out of their minds as they focus on the challenge in hand.
Months upon months of training are now condensed to this moment. Many of us would buckle under this pressure to perform. But what makes these athletes win, and can the average amateur take some tips from them too?
Finding your race-ready head
Getting ready for a race involves getting into the zone, so that you feel ready to compete, and win. Adopting that mindset is easier said than done though, and even the most successful elite athletes with a wealth of experience can develop a severe attack of pre-race jitters. Where top professionals differ from the average amateur, though, is that they will have a well-drilled strategy to cope in these situations.
“Sometimes I feel so nervous and sick I can barely get out of the chair or I physically puke,” says the 32-year-old five-time Mountain Bike Downhill World Champion. “The nerves get on top of me. I have doubts, voices in my head, and I feel kind of useless. I need a routine to really apply myself; before I know it I’m ready to go.”
Sometimes I feel so nervous and sick I can barely get out of the chair or I physically puke
Reaching the right level of adrenaline
Indeed, nerves play a role in the build-up to a competition, with adrenaline being the trigger. Its effects (raised heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils) physically prepare athletes for their challenge. Managing these effects to their advantage is important, given that too much or too little adrenaline can have a negative impact on performance.
“The Yerkes-Dodson curve shows performance against arousal/adrenaline,” explains leading sports psychiatrist Dr Allan Johnston. Proposed at the turn of the 20th century by the American academics Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, the pair's findings revealed that there was a corresponding link between improvements in performance and physiological or mental arousal – but only up to a point. When the adrenaline was too high, there was a dip in performance.
“If you are on a low level of arousal – you are feeling flat or tired – your performance is likely to be poor," he adds. "At a moderate level of arousal your performance is likely to be good, and the phrase 'in the zone' comes from that part of the curve. But if your arousal becomes too much and you are too full of adrenaline – you are over-hyped, over-stressed or pressured – your performance will deteriorate.
“You need to have enough self-awareness to realise where you are on the curve, and be able to use a series of techniques to settle you, or lift you back to your peak performance.”
Getting into the zone
Elite athletes develop the ability to know where they are on the curve, employing different tools to either get into the zone or calm themselves down if they are too hyped up.
While nerves can be kept in check by having a routine, various other techniques can be employed to get into, or stay within, the optimal zone on the Yerkes-Dodson curve.
A serial winner across a range of bike disciplines, Tom Pidcock doesn't have a specific routine, but his preparation begins long before lining up on the start line. The night before a race, when feeling confident, he gets into the zone by visualising crossing the finish line or overtaking riders. Then, on race day, he arrives at the venue of a race a few minutes behind schedule. This technique allows him to focus exactly on what needs to be done before the start gun is fired, leaving no time to think about anything but the race.
“During this time I try my best to control my nerves, and do my preparation by thinking that the only thing I can control is what I do.”
This approach worked for him at the 2020 European U23 Time trial Championships. Although nervous about how he would compare with the rest of the field following the lockdown period, he secured a credible 4th place. His technique clearly paid off in his last few races on both on the road and off it. He bagged the biggest stage race win of his career to date at the Giro d'Italia U23 in September. The Brit also smashed his competitive debut in mountain bike cross-country with some astounding wins – two U23 World Cups and the U23 World Championships.
Like Pidcock, BMX Supercross World Cup winner Kye Whyte does not have a particular routine. "I always go to a competition with my head focused on winning and nothing less,” explains the 21-year-old from London. “If you don’t have that type of head, you’re not going to win regardless.”
While to most that would seem like an intense amount of pressure to put yourself under, Whyte manages his high expectations by not over complicating his thought process. “I just say be chilled, be happy, and try to keep the nerves away by listening to music. I tell myself it’s BMX – it’s not the end of the world."
Not overthinking worked well for Whyte at the 2019 UCI BMX Supercross World Cup in Manchester: “In the final, I had two very fast people next to me. I was at the point where I thought, ‘I don’t really care anymore. Whatever the result is, I feel like I’ve done my best here anyway.' I didn’t think about it and I ended up having the best start of the day and I won.”
Atherton meanwhile is able to get in the zone by simply opening a can of Red Bull. “Just the sound, the smell, the taste and everything about a can of Red Bull – my whole persona changes and it gets me into the zone!”
Music is also a trigger for her, though she focuses on lyrics, with one of her favourites being the Britney Spears song Circus. “The lyrics to the song hit home, get my blood pumping, and really make me feel like I’m the best in the world. I remember when I raced at Fort William in 2018 I had snapped my chain at the start of the run but I just focused on the track and carried on. I had nothing to lose!” [Atherton finished in 3rd place.]
Too much of a good thing
Once in the zone, the trick is to not go too far to the right or left on the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Rachel admits that during her second warm-up prior to a race she doesn’t listen to any music; by this point, she’s already buzzing, and listening to music could cause her to go out too hard.
For Whyte, overthinking things or looking at the stronger riders can have a negative impact. In fact, he attributes this to his disappointing result at the 2019 World Championships: “I’d won every lap, doing good starts. Then I got to the final and I had two fast people next to me,” he recalls. “I was really thinking and thinking, ‘all I have to do is to get a good start and I know I can do well’, but then I messed up my gate and came 5th.”
How amateurs can get in the zone
Clearly, Atherton, Pidcock and Whyte have honed the art of putting themselves in the zone when competing – even while nervous or during set-backs.
So, what mental tactics can amateur athletes learn from these extraordinary athletes when it comes to competing? Dr Johnston suggests that there are a variety of strategies that can be used to get you in the zone or settle you to keep you in it:
- Self-talk: "If you are flat you could say phrases like, 'Come on, this is important, you need this.' If you’re feeling too high or stressed, which is often the case, you might say, 'You’ve done your best, there’s nothing more you can do. Try and enjoy it.'"
- Visualisation: "Picture the course, the ending or success."
- Belly breathing: "On the start line, or at the top of the mountain, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Think of one thing, for example the feeling of your diaphragm, or the air coming in and out of your nose and mouth."
While it may not lead to a World Championship win, these techniques could still help you achieve a personal best result next time you're lining up before a race.