How to Build Mental Toughness

Cyclists looking at ice on a lake.

Easy way to overcome fear, build self-esteem and focus your mind so that you’ll train – and ride – like a pedal turning terminator.

For cyclists, fear comes in many forms – fear of descents, fear of injury, fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of pain. The list goes on and on, but the one thing that’s common to all of them is the idea of projection.

Or, in other words, imagining a scenario where one of those dreadful outcomes actually occurs. Fear in that sense can be seen as an emotional response to a perceived threat.

And while it might be founded in some deeply recessed psychological survival mechanism – one that causes us to run, hide or freeze to avoid that perceived threat – fear is, by its nature, deeply stifling.

But that doesn’t mean to say you can’t do something about it, in fact with a little practice and the right tools, fear is something that can be easily managed.

The development of mental toughness is a quality that any cyclist can work on through training just as physical fitness can be nurtured through exercise. And, once acquired, mental toughness will help you put fear in its place, something which can be not only profoundly empowering but also deeply liberating.

The result will be greater heights scaled, and more miles munched. As well as more ticks on what you’ll find is an ever-expanding bucket list as you discover a greater amount of satisfaction than ever before is to be gained from your saddle time.

So how do you go about facing fear down? Well, start out by asking yourself why you ride. The desire to improve fitness or to explore different places are the most frequently given reasons for getting on a bike.

Now, if you accept that wanting to be fitter or more adventurous are both – in the broadest sense – goals or targets, it can be argued that anyone citing these examples as motivators is also demonstrating a desire for some form of success.

Targets, after all, are set to be achieved. And it figures that if those goals are to be reached the right mindset will need to be adopted. Because whether you plan to race, attempt something epic or get back on the bike after a lengthy layoff, you won’t stand a chance in hell if your head isn’t screwed on straight.

Stoke Self-Esteem

One of the key building blocks in creating greater mental toughness is what we might call self-esteem – that is the perception we have of ourselves in a given situation, as well as our overall worth.

For example, a cyclist might describe themselves as a half-decent sprinter, who’s a below-average climber with an OK engine.

The descriptions they use represent how they see themselves in the mirror. Now, that rider might be OK with those descriptions. Maybe they don’t worry about them because they’re brilliant at something else, in which case their mental toughness will be unaffected by their cycling shortcomings.

But what if they wanted to be a brilliant sprinter and an outstanding climber, with a great overall engine? Then clearly they wouldn’t be happy with those descriptions of themselves and their self-esteem would suffer accordingly.

Low self-esteem obviously isn’t great for your psychological wellbeing generally, but as a cyclist it can adversely affect your training by inhibiting your ability to develop certain skills.

A fear of falling off the bike, for example, might stop you from learning to descend at speed, while also being highly disruptive to your motivation. Heck, it may even put you off cycling in the first place!

For most people – including most cyclists – their sense of self-esteem is unguided, essentially coming from a culmination of personal experiences combined with social interactions based on how others treat them and how they compare themselves to others.

By consciously developing a positive self-esteem or sense of self-worth, however, an individual gives themselves far greater control over their moods, behavior and actions, allowing them to respond to difficulties, setbacks or challenges in a more rational and analytical way.

Top-level cyclists often come across as incredibly confident under pressure – some would even say arrogant.

But this is because they will have developed their self-esteem to such a degree that they have become truly self-aware as athletes, that is to say they are accepting of themselves, and can be objective about their own strengths and weaknesses.

Trained to see themselves this way by their team psychologists, they will have been encouraged to improve their weaknesses by developing their skills and measuring their progress against previous personal achievements rather than by wasting their time comparing themselves to others.

The more a cyclist – pro or otherwise – can objectively analyze their own personal progress like this, the more effectively they can plan and structure their training and thus improve their performance. And with improved performance comes greater confidence and therefore mental strength.

It is also important, however, that when goals are being set, they are realistic and that all results both good and bad are scrutinised rationally. Repeatedly setting yourself unachievable objectives or giving yourself a hard time whenever you happen to have an off-day in the saddle, clearly won’t do much for your mental fortitude.

So instead of striving for some sort of cycling perfection, see your riding – both in terms of your skill set and personal fitness – as a process that changes from day to day. Weed out irrational thoughts and replace them with productive and positive ones instead using the following tried and tested methods…

Picture This

OK, at this stage we’d like to introduce you to what sports psychologists call psychological skills training or PST.

Now before you accuse us of serving you up a steaming plateful of psychobabble baloney, please consider this: PST methods are used by tons of top-level athletes including many pro cyclists precisely because they use a number of practical, common-sense strategies to improve mental strength.

These include the use of self-talk, employing mental imagery and mental rehearsal techniques, as well as relaxation strategies to achieve clearly defined goals. See? Not so bonkers after all!

Righto, first up, visualization. This powerful PST technique allows you to mentally create a series of images in your mind, sometimes based on past experiences. These images can then be manipulated by you so that you can imagine yourself overcoming a task more successfully. To get the most from this technique, use all your senses.

Don’t just see yourself doing something, imagine what it smells, sounds, tastes and feels like, too. Imagine yourself inside the situation as you do it, too. So, for example, if there is a particular hill you always struggle with, imagine yourself climbing it. Hear the hum of your wheels on the tarmac.

See your knuckles whitening on the bars. Feel the wind bashing your face, and your lungs sucking in air as the gradient starts to test your legs. Now imagine reaching the top of that hill faster, imagine your legs pumping more powerfully than they’ve ever done before.

The more complete a picture you can create for yourself, the more powerful the effect it will have on your riding.

Visualization is best done in a quiet, safe environment and is ideal for turbo-trainer sessions, or even a post-ride soak in the bath. You can also use visualization to improve bad technique – simply visualize yourself doing something the wrong way and then visualize yourself doing it correctly.

Practiced regularly, it will help you to learn techniques to overcome specific fears or concerns, as well as helping you to control emotions, and cope with stress.

Have a Word With Yourself

Just as you have the ability to visualize things in your mind’s eye, you’re also capable of having a private chat with yourself. Positive self-talk, as it’s called, is another powerful tool that can be harnessed to improve your mental strength.

As the name suggests, the key to it is to make sure that the conversation you have with yourself is upbeat and encouraging. That means replacing negative thoughts and phrases with positive ones. Thoughts that can over time act like rocket fuel for self-esteem and confidence.

The first step to achieving this is to become aware of what you say to yourself, and then simply eliminate all negative language, including seemingly innocuous phrases like, ‘I really struggle with…’ or ‘I’m no good at…’

Once you’ve identified the negative phrases that pop up regularly, consciously work to eliminate them from your inner monologue and instead replace them with positive ones such as ‘I’m getting better at…’.

You can also use a method called thought-stopping which can be used to eradicate habitual negative thoughts. Pick a phrase as a trigger such as ‘get lost’ – or perhaps even something a little fruitier if you prefer – and whenever that negative phrase enters your mind, use your chosen phrase to chase it off.

Self-talk is also great for reminding yourself why you ride in the first place. Tell yourself regularly that you do it because you love it, and that you deserve to be successful at it because you invest so much of yourself in it. Like visualization, Positive Self Talk is also great for controlling emotions, and coping with stress. It’s also excellent for improving concentration and focus.

Keep Calm and Stay Loose

As a cycling guru frequently tells us, a rider who is ‘loose’ isn’t just one who’s physically relaxed, but one who has a clear mind, too. And using relaxation techniques is a great way of achieving that calm mental state, by not only lowering blood pressure and decreasing muscle tension, but by helping you to focus and dispel negative thoughts.

Two techniques commonly used by pro cyclists, are centring and meditation. Centring requires you to focus your breathing on the centre of your body, ie your stomach.

To do it, simply stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your arms by your side, then, with your eyes closed, inhale deeply from your abdomen. Be aware of the tension in your upper body. As you exhale, let that tension fall away and focus on the feeling of heaviness in your stomach.

As you breathe out also silently repeat a word to yourself that encapsulates the focus you want, for example, ‘calm’. Continue to breathe evenly and deeply, focusing your attention on the centre of your body for 10 minutes.

Meditation, meanwhile, is better done lying on your back with your eyes closed. Once you’re in a comfortable position, relax all your muscles one by one, beginning with your feet and working your way to your face.

Breath through your nose throughout. As you breathe out, repeat your focus word (for example, ‘calm’) to yourself to help keep distracting and negative thoughts at bay. Continue for about 20 minutes and when you finish, lie quietly for several minutes before opening your eyes slowly.

If practiced regularly – ideally once a day – both these techniques can become powerful tools for building your mental toughness. The use of focus words, like the one suggested, can also be highly effective.

With extensive repetition in association with relaxation techniques, they can act as triggers for your brain, allowing you to reach a heightened state of relaxation much more quickly in times of stress or discomfort. Something which, again, can have a positive effect on your self-esteem and self-confidence.

Make working on your mental toughness an integral part of your fitness routine, by developing a positive and, for want of a better word, brave mindset. Because to truly succeed you must first accept that all challenges have risks (failure being the most obvious).

And that means you’ll need not only sufficient commitment to overcome them, but the right amount of courage, too; whether you plan to race over the Alps, enter your first sportive or just want to experience the thrill of going downhill as fast as your mates.

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