Mind games: Getting your head back in the game after a crash

by Matt de Neef


Picture this. You’re riding down your favourite local descent, flying around the corners and having a great time. It’s raining a little but you don’t mind — you’re savouring every moment after the tough climb you just finished.

You slow down and follow the tarmac as it bends around a corner. Just as you hit the apex of the bend your front wheel slides out and you hit the ground. Hard.

In the moments following the crash you’re confused and disoriented. Pain emanates from all over your body. You pick yourself up gingerly, noting that your knee seems to have copped the worst of the fall. Doctors will tell you later that it could be a month or two until you’re back riding again.

While the physical injuries will soon heal, the psychological effects of the crash will be longer-lasting. It will take you longer than expected to feel comfortable on the bike again, and more specifically, to regain your confidence while descending in the wet.

A multi-step process

Dr John Baranoff is a sports psychologist at the Australian Institute of Sport. He’s spent the better part of a decade working with Cycling Australia, including as lead psychologist for the Australian cycling team in the lead-up to the Rio Olympic Games. As part of his role he’s helped many cyclists through the tricky, post-crash recovery period; a period that he sees comprising three distinct phases.

According to Dr Baranoff the first phase involves reacting to and adjusting to the crash itself. In the case of the example above, there’s likely to be a period of shock, followed by some initial medical treatment. Learning you won’t be able to ride for several months is likely to lead to feelings of sadness and/or frustration — the latter in particular if you feel you could have prevented the crash. (A damaged bike is only likely to worsen the situation.)

But reacting and adjusting to the crash is often more complex than simply accepting that riding isn’t an option — there can be ramifications for “real-life” as well.

“Not only are they not going to be able to reach their competition goals,” Dr Baranoff told CyclingTips, “but they might not have their form of transport.”

An injured knee could make driving a car difficult, for example, which might make the work commute tricky. Relying on family members and friends for help — regardless of whether that help is offered willingly — could generate feelings of helplessness.

In short, there can be a lot to adjust to in the aftermath of a crash, both physically and psychologically.

A hard crash can put a significant dent in your confidence,
as well as your body.

After the initial adjustment period comes the rehab phase. In the example above, rehab might be required on the injured knee before you’re able to ride comfortably and pain-free.

As Dr Baranoff explains, this rehab phase can be difficult for many cyclists, particularly those that rely on riding as an avenue to personal satisfaction or for escaping the challenges of everyday life.

“If it’s a long rehab, it can be quite frustrating for athletes and can lead to mood difficulties because they’re not necessarily getting the level of reward that they would normally get from riding,” Dr Baranoff said. “In addition, if they’re doing rehab activities that remove them from the groups they were normally training or competing with, it can lead to feelings of isolation.”

Once rehab is complete, it’s time for the third and final phase of recovery: the return to cycling.

Back in the saddle

When you return to riding after a significant crash, it won’t be as simple as picking up where you left off. You’ll probably have lost fitness and conditioning, but you’re also likely to experience some amount of anxiety.

“As a cyclist returns to their pre-injury level of riding, they might feel anxious about riding in traffic or in certain conditions,” Dr Baranoff said. “If the accident occurred when it was wet, a common experience might be noticing some anxiety and tension if it’s wet. If the accident occurred on a descent, they might be a little bit more cautious when descending.”

This is, of course, a natural response; an engagement of the body’s “fight-or-flight” system.

“The flight-or-fight system is the body’s safety mechanism that gets activated in situations that are perceived as threatening,” Dr Baranoff explained. “In situations that resemble the original accident, the brain may send a signal to ‘Watch out, this is something to pay attention to.’”

Our fight-or-flight system will engage naturally but it’s important not to overestimate risk.

Part of getting back to pre-crash confidence levels involves relearning how to respond appropriately to the risks we encounter as cyclists. Cycling is an inherently risky sport, certainly, but our fight-or-flight system doesn’t need to be activated all the time.

“To use an analogy, the experience of heightened anxiety and threat detection following a crash is a bit like a smoke alarm that’s been set to a level that’s too sensitive such that it goes off when you simply turn the stove on, as opposed to when there’s a fire,” Dr Baranoff said. “This shift in the ability to appraise risk is particularly altered following a traumatic accident.”

It’s easy to say that, of course. And as a recovering rider, you might even be able to recognise the need to re-evaluate your perception of risk. But how do you do that? How do you convince yourself that you’re not going to crash again?

Dr Baranoff suggests looking at the level of risk that’s appropriate to you.

“It’s not that there’s no risk, but there’s something about this activity that the rider values and finds worthwhile,” he said. “So we might look to weigh up the pros and cons of returning to pre-injury levels of riding. It could be the competition or the social aspect of riding that motivates them to engage in cycling.

“Whatever motivates them, we want to reconnect them with that.”

It’s also important to identify thoughts and feelings that might be unhelpful when returning to riding. Being fixated on the possibility of another crash is unlikely to be helpful — instead it’s important to focus on the task at hand rather than being distracted by negative thoughts and emotions that, ironically, can increase the chances of another crash.

“Sometimes, when riders get anxious they might increase their use of safety behaviours such as slowing down more than usual when approaching a side street,” Dr Baranoff said. “Following an accident, we want to make sure that they don’t change their riding behaviour in a way that inadvertently makes them unsafe.

“So for example, they would still do all of the things that they would normally do, such as following the wheel of another rider and not changing their behaviour too much in a bunch situation, so that their movements are predictable to other riders.”

Riders descending in the wet

Taking it slowly …

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to coming back from a crash. The length of the lay-off depends on the severity of the injury, of course, but it also depends on the rider’s personality, their inherent confidence levels, and how prone they are to anxiety. For some riders it might take a matter of days before they’re back in the saddle; back doing what they love. For others it can take much longer.

“In the case of more severe crashes, it might take weeks or months for them to successfully return to their pre-injury levels of riding,” Dr Baranoff said. “Particularly if the accident had resulted in significant injuries, was unexpected (e.g. they were descending and a car came out from a side street) and led to a sense of loss of control and/or safety. In some cases, following a significant crash, it may take time for the rider to regain a sense of control and safety.”

Think back to our earlier example of descending in the wet. Let’s say instead that it was dry and the crash was the result of an untimely puncture rather than a loss of traction. You might have been descending as safely as you possible could but, due to circumstances beyond your control, you still ended up crashing.

In getting back on the bike, it’s easy to tell yourself “It was a freak crash – it won’t happen again”. It’s another thing entirely to believe that, and to ride as you did before the crash.

“An individual might intellectually understand that another crash is unlikely; however, for the anxiety to decrease, they may need to go through repeated experiences of successfully completing a ride and learn that nothing bad happens,” Dr Baranoff said. “The progress with this approach also depends a little bit on the how often they ride and the level of support and reinforcement they receive from other riders.”

… but not too slowly

If the goal is to return to pre-crash confidence levels then a balanced approach is required. It’s important to feel comfortable while descending, but it’s also necessary to push yourself a little.

“You might want to consider stepping it up systematically as you return to riding following a crash; you can do this by gradually building up your capacity and setting yourself increasing challenges,” Dr Baranoff advises. “This not only accommodates the physical needs of the rider but also the psychological.”

If you’re coming back from a crash that happened on a descent, Dr Baranoff suggests spending time on your descending. Choose a descent then ride it at a slightly greater speed each time. Venture out to other, more technically challenging descents too. Just ensure you don’t move too fast too quickly.

“You want to make sure that the rider is not flooded with fear, so you wouldn’t necessarily get them to go back to the steepest descent that’s possible, at least not straight away,” he said. “A central concept of a graded approach to returning to pre-injury levels of riding is the idea of gradually building up to it so that the rider still feels a sense of control of the situation at each level.

“The rider can then work on maintaining things like a relaxed body posture and really keep their attention on where it needs to be as opposed to activating the fight-or-flight system to the extent that they get flooded, impairing their ability to attend and learn.”

Alberto Contador descending the Tiede Volcano in Tenerife  january 2017, Tenerife/Spain

For the returning rider it’s about learning that, just because they’re worried about something bad happening again, it doesn’t mean that’s going to happen. It’s about identifying that their mind is telling them to be careful, but that sometimes, those concerns can be distracting rather than fruitful.

“You might speed up the process by identifying ‘What were you fearing or predicting would happen?’ in a given situation,” Dr Baranoff said. “On the first few rides back after a crash, a rider might say that they predicted that something bad was going to happen such as, ‘I was going to have another crash.’

“To help them at this point, it might be useful to check what did actually happen during their ride and match that up with their prediction.”

Look back to move forward

In overcoming fear, it might help you to consider the conditions that led to your initial crash. Which factors were you in control of? Which were beyond your control? Which should you really be concerned about as you return to riding?

“A rider might get stuck on the fact that the conditions were wet at the time of the crash and therefore would avoid riding in those conditions altogether,” Dr Baranoff said. “However, there might have been other things going on that led up to accident, that are controllable and can be worked on, such as where they were placing their attention at the time, their descending skills etc.

“Again, you can’t control everything and there’s a level of risk that needs to be accepted. However, often what happens is that the level of anxiety is heightened and as a consequence, people overestimate how likely something is to happen, and at the same time they underestimate their ability to cope.”

***

Now picture this. It’s a couple months after your crash and you’re back out on your favourite descent for the first time. It’s raining a little, like it was that day, and you feel a pang of anxiety as you approach the corner where you fell.

You mind drifts to thoughts of crashing again but you quickly catch yourself — it might be you first time back here since the crash, but you’ve done plenty of other descents in the meantime. You know that day was an anomaly; you know the chances of crashing again are minimal.

You take a deep breath, lean into the corner and round it with ease. It will still be some time before the anxiety of descending in the wet is gone completely, but you’re a long way down the road.

Tips for returning to riding post-crash

When working back to pre-injury levels of riding, it may be useful to consider what you need to do for the psychological side of the recovery process. Below are some tips that you might find helpful.

Take your time. Don’t put pressure on yourself to get back to where you were straight away.
Identify what you enjoy about cycling. Focusing on why you ride will help keep you motivated and focused on the steps you need to take to get back.
Identify what’s within your control. Was your crash caused by something within your control? What actions can you take to help get you back to where you were? What’s not in your control? What do you need to accept?
Set successive challenges for yourself, but don’t flood yourself with too much challenge early on. It’s important to push yourself forward, but do it at an appropriate pace.
Recognise unhelpful thoughts. You might need to make room for these as you work back to your pre-injury levels.
Connect with other riders and your broader support network. Lean on others as you make your return to riding.

You can read more about how to recover from a crash at Ella CyclingTips.

If you need additional support, you could consider consulting a sport psychologist. For readers in Australia, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) website can help you find sport psychologists who are members of the APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists.

About John Baranoff

Dr John Baranoff has worked with cyclists of all levels, from recreational riders to elite performers. He has been associated with Cycling Australia since 2009 and was the lead psychologist for the Australian Cycling Team in the lead-in to the Rio Olympics. His PhD focused on aspects of psychological acceptance and the management of pain during rehabilitation following sports injury. Currently, John is working with the Australian Institute of Sport, Performance Psychology Unit on projects relating to mental health in sport.

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