It’s hard to have your best race if you’re feeling down, thinking negatively and not having fun. Columnist Lee Waldman weighed in on this over the weekend, and now it’s Coach Chris Mayhew‘s turn. Mayhew of JBV Coaching helps you realize your potential with the often-overlooked side of coaching—the mental aspects of racing—in this Training Tuesday gem.

Stay positive on the bike, in training and racing. art: Welcome Images

Stay positive on the bike, in training and racing. art: Welcome Images

By this point in the season you’ve probably reached the level you’re going to reach, more or less. You’ve done a ton of training and preparation and spent a lot of money making sure your equipment is in top shape. But so many people come to the line with so much self-doubt and nervousness wondering what will happen to them today. Primarily it’s a fear of failure of some sort. It’s good to be nervous. It’s a sign that you’re engaged, that you care, that you’re not overly fatigued. But I find it often hampers athletic performance. And more importantly, it takes away from the enjoyment of racing for people as well. As a coach I think that’s ultimately more important, both for you and for those around you. So let’s talk about how to lower your stress levels before, during, and after racing.

First, do you actually want to do this particular race? Right now that’s not so much of a question, it’s the heart of cyclocross season. But come November when the days are much shorter, the weather worse and the American holiday season kicks in, it can be a real question. If you ever find yourself wondering if you should go to a particular race, ask yourself if you want to go to the race. Unless you’re getting paid (and maybe not even then) there is no race you should go to. Take the weekend off if you want. Train. Spend some time with those around you. There will be a million more races to come. But when there’s doubt, figure out what your motivation for going to a race is. I’d say 90% of the time a client asks me if they should go to a race, they are actually asking me to tell them it’s OK not to go.

Set your expectations and goals before the race. Maybe even write them down. At least say them out loud to someone. Use prior racing results, or Crossresults (or series points) or whatever other historical data you have at hand to figure out a reasonable finishing place. What did you do last week? Unless it was a particularly bad race, accomplishing that again would be a solid goal. A lot of people set a lofty goal for themselves e.g. “I should have been with this person,” fail to accomplish that, and then get down on themselves. Were those expectations realistic to being with? Have you accomplished that goal before, or something close to it? For me personally, the issue is expectations creep. On Monday I’m hoping for top 15. By Friday nothing less than eighth will make me happy. Get a realistic goal and stick to it.

John Verheul, my boss and mentor, edits this column every week before I send them in. For the above paragraph he left the following editing note, which I think makes a different but also very good point. Don’t focus on a result or number, focus on process goals that lead to your best result:

“I would encourage people not to think about their finishing place ahead of time, and instead develop process goals (getting to the race at the planned time, executing sufficient warm up & course inspection, maximizing focus and effort during the race, no preventable mechanicals, etc.)” -John Verhuel

The day of your race remove as many decision points from your morning as possible. Get packed the night before, lay out your food, make sure the car is fueled up. Don’t stress yourself out worrying about little things that some prior preparation can take care of. Give yourself as much time as you can to get ready both before your arrive at the venue and at the venue. That way you don’t feel like you have limited time to accomplish everything that needs to happen (registration, course inspection, clothing changes). Those little things tend to trip people up and cause big explosions.

Find positive thoughts wherever you can get them. photo: jp swizzlespokes

Find positive thoughts wherever you can get them. photo: jp swizzlespokes

While prepping for your race, refrain from negative self-talk. So many people focus on what could go wrong, what they’re afraid of on course, or where they think they’ve failed leading up to that morning. Can that talk! You’ve done a lot of work up till this point. You’ve probably even raced before and not totally failed. Have faith in all the events that have led up to race morning. Focus on what you can and will do well. Don’t get bogged down in talking down to yourself before and during the race. I find it helps to think about what I’d tell someone else. If I’ve ever given you some coaching advice before a race, often it’s me trying to give myself a pep talk as much as anything else.

“While prepping for your race, no negative self-talk. So many people focus on what could go wrong, what they’re afraid of on course, or where they think they’ve failed leading up to that morning. Can that talk!”

Acknowledge to yourself, and to other people, that you’re in bike racer mode. There are few things worse than someone trying to play it cool while also yelling at their significant other about some minor detail. (Hey Cheryl!) Admit to yourself you are keyed up and nervous. If other people are trying to talk to you at a critical moment or preparation simply say, “Hey, I’m in bike racer mode, I’d love to talk after my race.” A little bit of communication will go a long way in that situation.

During the race, definitely don’t engage in negative self talk! Tape something to your stem, have a cue word or phrase. Whatever it takes to push aside all the “oh I suck” thoughts and replace them with “next lap I’ll nail that” or “man, I really have this section dialed in.” Positive thoughts for the full effort is what translates into positive energy. Again, I think it’s really helpful to talk to yourself as a spectator would.

Tape a reminder to your stem, or just have mental notes and cues to stay positive throughout the race. photo: jasmine bailey

Tape a reminder to your stem, or just have mental notes and cues to stay positive throughout the race. photo: jasmine bailey

How hard does Hyde eat it at the KMC Cross Fest? Does anyone say “Go home! Quit the race! You suck at this!” No, everyone cheers and encourages him and applauds his recovery.

Why would you treat yourself, inside your own head, worse than you would a stranger? Is that behavior helping you go faster, or have more fun? When you screw up just let it go and push on. Talking yourself down after a mistake is not going to make you faster.

Post-race, take a minute to let the emotions even out a bit. If you had a great race, that’s awesome! Celebrate that, remember it, revel in it. Make a point to enjoy the moment. If you had a race you’re not happy with, find some space for yourself and let the adrenaline drain a bit. Jeremy Powers, as seen in the The Book of Cross video, is a great example. Non verbally, Jpow, who gets paid to talk to people, creates a little space for himself after a disappointing race, to compose himself and also signal when he’s ready to talk. Don’t go to the car and start throwing stuff, or worse, your carbon bike. Get to a point where you can be a normal human (or something close) and then go back to the car. You should be doing a cool down ride post-race anyway, and this is one of many reasons why.

Back to your goals before the race. Did you meet them? That’s awesome! Enjoy that moment, take some pride in that. Did you not enjoy it ? Give yourself some time to think about what went right during the race but also what you’d like to adjust for the next race to make things go more smoothly. I’m trying to get my Junior clients to tell me one to three things they’d keep from their performance and one to three things they’d change for the next race. Failure is such a bad label. If you failed you can’t change that. But if you did something that didn’t work out and you’d like to change next time, now you’ve got a learning experience. My wife laughs at it, but anything that I would have referred to as “sucks” or “I screwed up” now gets filed under the “opportunity for growth” label. But that’s the way to look at it. How can I improve? Typically you don’t learn anything when things are going right.

Lastly, one big thing I hear from clients is some sort of dismissal of their result. “It was a small race” or “there was low turnout.” Can that talk too. Everyone there wanted to win just as much as you did. And wins or even podiums are so rare in our sport. Always enjoy each one to the fullest. You don’t know when the next one is coming (or if you do you should upgrade), so take a moment (or more!) and really enjoy your accomplishment without belittling it.

Have your best cyclocross season ever with all of our Training Tuesday pieces here from coaches Mayhew, Adam Myerson and Kenneth Lundgren and others. Can’t get enough? See our Cyclocross Academy and Cyclocross 101 articles here.