The psychology of stepping up a race level

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We all know that starting out racing can be nerve-racking. New racers describe feelings from uneasiness to intense anxiety that makes them want to throw up and ride away from the start line instead of toward it. With a race or two under the belt it gets easier and you almost feel calm on the start line, just focused on how you are going to tackle the race ahead or perhaps partaking in some relaxed banter with your rivals at a friendly club race in the lower grades.

But then you progress, perhaps you are winning your category a little too often so have to go up a grade or you get recruited by a team, and it is time to step up a level and into a whole new racing dynamic. You know the racing will be faster, more aggressive, opponents will try to psyche you out and different factors like teamwork may come into play. The mind games start all over.

To find out how to mentally prepare for that next step we talked to Holden Women’s Cycling Team psychologist Michael Inglis, who has helped many riders through the process of shifting up to the Australian National Road Series over the years. Riders like Lisen Hockings, who went from being a novice racer to series winner in little more than a year and Oceania road champion Shannon Malseed who started with the team as a development rider in 2013.

Here are some of the mental challenges that he has seen riders face, and more importantly how to tackle them:

Training pressure and work life balance

Even anticipating the move to a higher level can up the mental pressure as when all of a sudden a rider is confronted with the prospect of being thrown into a more competitive field, often the instant reaction is “I need to spend more time training”. Then you might start thinking about the extra time cost of other associated issues, such as if your step up includes an increased racing commitment, or perhaps means you need to set aside more time to work with a team. Fitting all this around work, study and family can cause anxiety about how to cope, throw your life balance and lead to a reduction in those crucial aspects of optimising cycling performance off the bike –  like recovery, sleep and injury prevention.

So how to deal with this?

“Firstly it’s about introducing bit of realistic thinking,” said Inglis. “What you’ve been doing has got you where you are.”

Do you really have to put in that much more time on the bike? Or is that going to come at the cost of other things that may also be important to your cycling performance? It’s also about making decisions about what’s important to you, prioritising, managing expectations and dealing with the stress of fitting in what you perceive you need to.

Don’t let the start line finish you

Moving up a grade or to a different level can change the whole nature of the race. The short wait and relaxed start line banter you may have been used to can disappear, to be replaced by glares and mind games. That 15 minutes to 20 minutes can put you in a head space that means your race is over before it has even begun, as starting off rattled can lead to bad decision making.

Inglis, said its one of the most psychologically demanding points of the race so to make sure riders don’t become overwhelmed and lose focus he encourages techniques such as breathing exercises, visualisation, meditation, cue words on handlebars and positive affirmations.

An incredible field assembled in Philadelphia for the sixth round of the World Cup. The start line reads like a who's who in women's cycling.

I don’t belong here

Jumping into a group of riders filled with women you have looked up to and admired as riders can be tough, especially when you are lining up beside them in the intimidating start line environment we just discussed. You can start to question yourself, ask if you really belong or deserve to be there.

Inglis said he has seen that this is particularly an issue with riders who don’t have a sporting identity, but have in the past focused on career or other areas as avenues to achieve. For some reason they seem more inclined to suffer imposter syndrome and as a consequence find the transition –  in this case up to the national level  a little tougher than those with an athletic identity who seem to handle the shift more comfortably.

“There is this self pressure … there’s your family and friends who have come to watch who didn’t much before, there’s a bit more aggression in the peloton, more aggressive gestures and body language. People freeze you out at the start lines, play those kind of games as well to try and intimidate you and make you feel as if you don’t belong.” said Inglis.

One way to help deal with that feeling that you are an imposter is to embrace this high-level race cycling side of you as part of who you are and part of your identity. It is also where it pays to be surrounded by a supportive group.

“Your teammates are really important, because they can buffer you so much from that,” said Inglis. “They can support you by being close to you in the bunch and talking you through it.”

Crash anxiety and tentative riding

Coming off your bike is one of those things that no one wants to do, but find yourself worrying about it too much and it can make you more tentative and actually more prone to crash in the bunch. Inglis said that this is particularly an issue for those riders that have the fitness but not the technical skill set to easily adjust to a faster and more aggressive high-level racing environment. Descending and cornering can become a real psychological issue.

“Interestingly many of them don’t consider cycling a dangerous sport. So it’s a bit of an eye opener that I’ve actually got limbs on the line here,” said Inglis. “I try and teach this concept called acceptance as part of acceptance and commitment therapy. Accepting that part of what they’re taking on is actually really dangerous and that accepting that is part of committing to the sport. That’s a really psychologically hard component.”

Another part of dealing with this is changing the mindset that training is just always about focusing on physical condition and expecting the rest to fall into place. Putting the time into practicing the technical skills that make those descents and corners more manageable is a key to reducing the tentativeness.

Flying confidently around this gravel corner.
So many skills required, from coping with the bunch dynamic to taking challenging terrain like gravel in your stride.

Teamwork, sacrifice and pressure

At times moving up can also mean you are stepping out of an environment where you are riding for yourself and moving into a team. This may all of a sudden require putting aside thoughts of your own finishing position and individual goals, to give everything to help someone else succeed. This could well leave you limping over the line in last place because you gave everything to your team and it is something riders can really struggle with.

“They think, ‘well, I need to reserve my energy because I still want to hang on to the bunch. If I finished with the bunch then I passed.’ It’s a very defensive style of riding,” said Inglis. “Mentally committing to fulfilling that team role no matter what the consequence for the individual result is a real transition.”

Then on the flip side, what if you are that teammate everyone is working for? How do you deal with the pressure? Inglis said there were a number of facets to this. One, was depersonalising it, rather than just thinking of it as they are all working for me, think about it strategically. Look at each rider as a piece in a plan with a role to play. The other aspect, which comes from the team, is the discussion of contingency plans to relieve the pressure by providing reassurance that there is a back-up strategy.


Results, from podium to last

You may have regularly hit the podium in your current grade, but you know when you take the next step – even if you aren’t working for a teammate but just worrying about yourself – you’ll be struggling to just hang on.

“It’s obviously really difficult because most athletes identify with some sort of external motivation, meaning you gain some sort of award or rewards or praise from other people,” said Inglis. “It’s humbling.”

The key is to remember it’s a learning experience, said Inglis, the opportunity to get some exposure to a different environment and work out how to equip yourself for that. You may not be delivering results on paper at the new level but focus on the progression you can see elsewhere, whether it’s a better performance at races when you do jump back to club level, faster times up hills, better tactical knowledge or that extra punch in your sprint. Keep sight of the bigger picture.

*Holden is an Ella CyclingTips and CyclingTips advertiser

Michael Inglis is an accredited sport and performance psychologist, who has been working in the field of mental health since 1999. He works across various sports, and with a variety of teams including the Holden Women’s Cycling Team and the North Melbourne Football Club. You can find Inglis at The Mind Room, and also check out their blog for more pieces on fine tuning the mental approach to sport. 

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