6 ways to mentally prepare for any challenge
Prepping for a challenge? Then here’s how to psych up to do it right with a little help from Doctor Josephine Perry...
Dr Josephine Perry, a sports psychologist and owner of Performance in Mind, believes cyclists can benefit from psychological preparation through goal setting, regardless of whether they’re going for a world record or racing for the first time.
“If you get the goal setting right, then everything else is simple and fits into place,” she says. Here are her top tips for doing exactly that...
1) Get SMART
Lots of people have heard of SMART goals (specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, timely), usually through their workplace. Well, this system can work for your athletic goals too.
Perry says the SMART goals set in a workplace are “often a bit fluffy and do not have deadlines”. However, when you are looking at physical cycling achievements, it’s important to have a specific goal that you need to achieve in order to get an overall outcome.
In the spirit of Perry’s specific and measurable goals, let’s take the goal of completing your first century – a 100-mile ride.
Whatever you choose, the main goal you set yourself needs to be the right balance – difficult enough to be challenging, yet not so hard that you set yourself up to fail.
“Be realistic - it needs to be enough of a stretch that you will have to get up and train, but also really specific and have a deadline,” says Perry.
2) Break it down
You won’t be able to jump up to your main goal straight away. If you’ve been commuting five miles to work and back, the idea of going out this weekend and nailing 100 miles in a single ride could seem too big to contemplate, bumming you out with its sheer, apparent impossibleness. To manage this, Perry says you need to chop your big goal into smaller chunks.
“Once you have a main performance goal to work towards (our century ride, say) then you need to set smaller ‘process’ goals.
“This means setting smaller deadlines to achieve increasingly longer rides. Start with a 20-mile ride, then build up the mileage over a set number of weeks.”
It isn’t just about distance though – you also need to arm yourself with as much information as possible in order to achieve your big goal. This means researching the event you want to do and even going on a training course to learn how to ride in a group.
3) Take action
Once you have your smaller process goals set then you can take specific action to achieve them.
If you want to ride a 100-mile sportive then it’s probably a good idea to enter other events over shorter distances that will give you an idea of the way mass-start, long-distance events work.
How enjoyable you find your first century will have a lot to do with how comfortable you are spending multiple hours in the saddle. So, acclimatising to riding for more than four hours is one excellent process goal. You don’t need to be climbing as much, nor riding as far, as you will on your hundred-miler – but those hours in the saddle will still pay dividends come century day.
4) Keep on top of it
Perry says there are two things that make a difference to how well you perform – confidence and consistency of training.
“That initial goal-setting is so important because you are ticking off all those [smaller goals] as you progress... and that gives you a huge amount of confidence,” she says.
“You’re filling in a short term goal to get to a big goal you care about.”
How often do we see riders like Anna van der Breggen or Lizzie Deignan hit a run of form so dominant it seems like they can’t lose? Well, a good run of hitting your smaller process goals can engender exactly this same sense of invincibility as you head towards that all-important century.
5) Build on your failures
Confidence-building aside, a few muck-ups are still inevitable along the path to success. Fortunately, as long as you approach these with the right attitude, they can actually be a big benefit in your progress towards that big ‘outcome’ goal.
For starters, when you experience a set-back, the renewed motivation to ensure it doesn’t happen again is a really powerful driver.
And then, of course, there are the lessons to be learned. Why did you fail? Which element of your preparation let you down? Did you eat too much, or not enough? Could you have had a better night’s sleep?
Asking these sorts of questions is vital to ensuring you always improve, even off the back of supposedly ‘negative’ experiences.
Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. The occasional fail is an inevitable part of cycling; be that falling over because you can’t unclip (which still happens to even the most experienced rider), or pushing too hard at the start of a ride and blowing up before the halfway point. It’s only if you keep making the same mistakes that this is a problem. Otherwise, go ahead and keep on failing your way right to the top!
6) Picture this
Mental rehearsal can also be a brilliant tool in your goal-setting and -smashing skillset. Picturing yourself successfully undertaking your first 100-mile ride can help prepare your mind and muscles for the task. Imagine what equipment you’ll use, how you will feel at various stages (including as you cross the finish line), and what difficulties you might encounter along the way. When it finally comes time to turn the pedals, you will be so much better prepared as a result.