Cyclists, regardless of their level of competition, take their sport much more seriously than do their counterparts in other sports. They put in more time, money, and effort for far less glory and fewer rewards. However, despite the intensity of their passion and all of the careful planning and rigorous training, cyclists share one thing in common with athletes across the board â€“ often they train only half of their body.
The degree of separation or connection between the mind and body is, by historical accounts, a debate that is over 2,000 years old. Noted philosophers such as Plato and Rene Descartes have struggled with the concept. In Victorian days, the mind and the body were completely separated with things of the flesh getting a rather negative rap (bike riding was one of the worst offenders!) while cerebral pursuits where extolled as virtuous and worthwhile. Even today, although we think we have come a long way, our Puritan roots often show through as we continue to place the mind and the body on opposite ends of the spectrum. In high schools across the country jocks are stereotyped as physical brutes taking remedial basket weaving and nerds are brains with pale skinny limbs. For adults, the value of physical activity is commonly placed on what it can do to fix or improve the body, with little to no mention of other benefits. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the modern athlete spends countless hours training their muscles while taking their brain for granted as just along for the ride.
To be fair, when asked, most athletes and coaches acknowledge the critical role of the mind in sports performance. And many speak of the benefit of riding for a healthy psyche. Yet most coaches and athletes also acknowledge that, despite the value of this connection, they devote little to no time to learning mental skills or to integrating the mental and physical aspects of training. This begs the questions “how can this be and what can be done about it?”
Two of the most common reasons that mental training isn’t a more active part of physical preparation are a) not knowing where to begin in training the mind and b) feeling like there just isn’t enough time to work on the mental side in addition to everything else. There are also many myths and misconceptions about what mental training means. Some people falsely believe that you only need to address mental training when there are “head issues”. Others try to use it as a quick fix and are disillusioned when it doesn’t work. And there are those that still hold fast to the old mind body separation and feel that training the body alone is the only road to achievement and if that isn’t enough then you must not have what it takes.
Just like physical training, the best place to start is at the beginning. You wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) start a brand new rider out with a nice juicy century. This would be painful, overwhelming and demoralizing. The same applies to adding mental skills training to a plan. Begin by learning. Do some off the bike reading and learning about different mental skills and training techniques. Remember that every skill and every technique isn’t suited for every person so do not be afraid to experiment. Start small. Pick just one key thing to focus on, be aware of, or to work on. Look for ways to integrate mental skills training into physical training so you can maximize your training time. For example, work on shifting your focus while on a group ride from the rider right in front of you, to an awareness of the pack energy and movement as a unit, to how you are feeling inside and back to the rider in front again without getting distracted or spending too much time on any one thing.
Another benefit of integrated training is that it can reduce and possibly even eliminate common “head issues” such as unwarranted anxiety or poor concentration. Realize that everyone has the capacity to learn new mental skills, but just like their physical counterparts, mental skills only get strong and become useful with well planned intentional practice over time. Skills are best developed by design and confidence will build as the result of conscious practice.
As you plan your training strategies, remember that the keys to developing speed, strength, and power are found in cultivating the mind and body together. This will allow you to train with a clear sense of purpose and reap the benefits of the mind body synergy. There is no greater riding satisfaction than the seamless mind body connection that accompanies personal growth and achievements.
About the author:
Kristen Dieffenbach PhD is an assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University. She has a Ph.D. in exercise science with an emphasis in exercise and sport psychology from the University of North Carolina â€“ Greensboro and is an Association of Applied Sport Psychology certified consultant. Currently she serves as advisory board member with the USA Cycling coaching education committee and is the cycling psychology editor for Peak Conditioning for Cycling. Her areas of educational, research, and consultation concentration include coaching education, performance enhancement, talent development, and understanding and preventing underrecovery. She has worked on numerous grants, projects, and consultations in these areas for the United States Olympic Committee, United States Tennis Association, USA Cycling, USA Water Polo, Peaks Coaching Group, and Carmichael Training Systems. She has published research articles in scientific journals and has written for applied publications such as Olympic Coach, VeloNews, and Dirt Rag. Kristen has also served as an expert panelist or consultant for features in publications such as Performance Conditioning for Cycling, Runner’s World, Backpacker, Bicycling, and Adventure Sports Magazine, and on the Outdoor Life Network. As a coach she holds an elite level USA Cycling license and has earned a Level II endurance specialization from USA Track and Field. She has coached for over 10 years at the high school, collegiate, recreational, and elite levels. Through her company, Mountains, Marathons, and More, she provides sport psychology consultation and education and she coaches for Peaks Coaching Group. For more information check out www.sportpsychonline.com or contact her at kdieffenbach (at) sportpsychonline.com.