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During the women’s road race at the Rio Olympic Games in August, we all watch in horror as Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten crashed hard, laying in the gutter motionless and unconscious until aid came. Yet remarkably, Van Vleuten returned to the pro peloton just weeks later, winning the Lotto Belgium Tour in convincing manner.
To do so, she had to not just recover physically –from three broken vertebrae and a serious concussion –but also mentally from the disappointment of losing her gold medal and of the fear of crashing again.
But Van Vleuten handled it all very well, taking inspiration and motivation from her career-best ride and jumping back into racing as such as she was cleared.
So how does one do that? How do you overcome your fear of crashing? We talked to sports psychologist Kristin Keim, known for her work with athletes like Women’s WorldTour winner Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans), to find out.
A complete recovery means more than stitches, casts or PT
Whether you’re bike commuting, road cycling or mountain biking, chances are that you’re going to fall off at one point or another. Most of the time we just bounce back up, brush it off and get back on the bike. In more severe crashes, in which you might get injured, the doctors will stitch you back up and take care of your physical injuries.
However, a successful recovery plan should also include a mental aspect, said Keim, because without addressing it, your mental state can have a lasting impact and manifest in fear on the bike or even unwillingness to get back to riding.
Even if the crash did not result in any physical injury, your mental well-being can be still affected and develop into loss of confidence and fear.
“When it comes to recovery, there is a mental and a physical aspect to it, but I’m inclined to not separate those two,” said Keim. “The mental aspect of an injury should be addressed right away, just like you would a broken bone. The minute one of my clients has an injury, I just go ahead and start working on the mental recovery alongside the physical recovery. We set physical objectives, mental objectives and a timeline for motivation.”
Calm down, re-evaluate objectives and find a silver lining
Once physical injuries are addressed, there’s often an emotional response from a crash like frustration, anger, disappointment and depression. It’s easy to become consumed by or fixated on injuries or the traumatic experience itself.
“After an injury, the athlete is sitting there going ‘oh my god, I’m going to lose fitness’ or ‘now I am not going to be doing the event I was preparing for’,” said Keim.
“The first step is calming that down, re-evaluating objectives and empowering them to take control and get in the driver’s seat.”
Keim then encourages looking for a silver lining.
“Maybe this injury may be a blessing in disguise. Maybe it’ll allow you to heal this other injury you have or maybe you’ll have more time for physical therapy or seeing a chiropractor or work on any existing mental issues,” she said.
Identify the fear and confront it as soon as possible
“As soon as you are physically able to do so, you have got to jump right back into it. The more you try to avoid it, the more fear and anxiety you create,” said Keim. “You have to acknowledge that ‘OK yes, I am going to have some residual hesitation.’ And it may be a little bit like PTSD where you think you’re going to be fine and all of a sudden you have a panic attack.”
Thus, starting out small in an environment and with people you trust is very important. It is only on the bike, however, where you can identify those issues.
“Fear is an emotional response,” explained Keim. “What is triggering that reaction? Your fear of crashing, sure, but how? Is it cornering at high speed? Being surrounded by other riders? Your own inadequacy?”
Once you have identified and acknowledged your mental block, fear or anxiety trigger, you have to confront it.
“It’s about practice. You can’t just accept that you won’t be better. You have to go out there with people you trust like your friend, teammate or coach and follow their wheel and force yourself into that situation that causes the anxiety – be it descending, cornering or otherwise,” said Keim.
Calm your mind
“What you’ll have to try to do is cognitively calm yourself. I often have my clients say a calming word or phrase so that when the mind says “ahh I can’t do this’ and you panic or hesitate, you can talk yourself out of it,” said Keim.
Relax you body
Keim said that regaining confidence is key, as one of the body’s main reactions to fear is to tense up, which only makes your bike handling worse. Breathe, shake out the arms, and make sure you’re not tensing up.
One pedal stroke at a time
“Ease yourself back into riding. Start with a 30 minute session and work your way up,” said Keim. “Make sure your motivation is in check and you’re wanting to get back on the bike. Build your base, enjoy the riding and analyse how each ride went. Were there any triggers? If so, go back to practicing.”
A common mistake Keim sees athletes make is that they jump back into long, hard training sessions or races too soon.
“Do a fast group ride before throwing yourself back into a big race to make sure there isn’t any residual mental block from a traumatic crash,” she advised.
Talk about it
“There seems to be a bit of stigma around anything having to do with mental issues so people don’t talk about it. Athletes, especially, don’t want to seem weak in any way. But not talking about it only makes it worse,” said Keim.
If you can’t overcome your fears or mental blocks alone, you may want to see an expert. There are many psychologists and mental coaches that specialise in treating athletes, and can help you get back to biking with confidence.