Athletes in every sport will from time to time lose focus, become self-conscious, have self-doubts to contend with and worry about things. It happens especially in cycling, which can be grueling on the best of days. Emotions with strong physical components are the worst because they have what’s called an attractor field – an energy field that can be quite intense and can affect the senses such as sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Often the result is a closed thought loop and corresponding mood that can be beyond upsetting, and the resulting anxiety, anger, disappointment, confusion and self-doubt can really hurt a racer’s performance.
“Train your weakness and race your strength.”
These disruptive thought patterns may be transitional or long standing. Some represent concerns that pop-up unexpectedly, serving as an annoying distraction. Others may have assaulted your confidence for several years, and relate to a dreaded experience that got traction in your young mind many years ago. These troublesome cogitations may have nothing to do with racing but nevertheless, they do test your poise. Whether incidental or enduring, they can cause you to lose focus and make mistakes.
Imagine how potent a really disruptive pattern might be. You might say, “I never perform well when it’s windy” or “I always have trouble with this track.” This early in the season, it’s important to be thorough in working with your thought habits and take into account those triggers that have the potential to throw you out of your optimal performance zone.
Good habits in thinking are essential to building confidence, a positive self-expectation and focus. Cycling is extraordinarily challenging because performing well requires you to maintain concentration in the midst of both internal and external stress, as well as changing race conditions. Consider a thirty minute mental conditioning session, 4 times each week as a solid investment in your overall race preparation.
Thought Pattern Interrupt
The thought pattern interrupt (TPI) is a technique first developed by the renowned hypnotherapist, Dr. Milton Erickson, and has been used widely in cognitive-behavioral work and neurolinguistic programming (NLP). The TPI involves a four-step process that is designed to shift the flow and neutralize negative thinking. The four steps are:
1) Recognize and explore the thinking pattern getting in the way.
To do this properly, sit alone and think about your situations containing disruptive thought patterns and the associated feelings. Take enough time with this to examine them in detail, exploring the original experience if possible, but at least the most frequent and common situations that trigger the pattern. Journal this process and explore as much of the attractor field as you can, including all of the physical senses you encounter during the experience.
If you are not sure where to start, think about a competition you didn’t perform well in. We all have at least one in which we feel we psyched ourselves out. Consider what disruptive thought pattern or race condition you hold responsible for interfering with your focus. Anything that has the ability to take you out of a good mindset for performing is fair game. Windy conditions, heat, arriving late to the event, even an unwanted bib number can do it. The best racers perform well in all kinds of conditions. Their ability to neutralize a disruptive train of thought in favor of cool concentration on the task at hand can make a huge difference, not just in how much you enjoy the competition but in how well you perform.
2) After reviewing these situations, consider what you would like to have happen instead.
Talk with your coach about the situations you are most likely to experience again in upcoming competitions. Explore them until you are clear about how you want to deal with them. Discuss ideas for alternative responses you might want to employ.
There are some strategies for crafting these alternative responses. For example, Erickson suggested enlarging the possibilities. If riding in wind is a mental challenge, then enlarging the possibilities might include a clear focus on maintaining your form in race conditions that involve wind. Your focus goes to what is “possible” to accomplish, even in conditions you don’t favor.
Another strategy taught by Erickson concentrates on reframing your sensory focus. Once asked how he might confer with someone feeling guilty about a pattern of eating too much, he replied, â€œI hope you really enjoy lunch today. Enjoy it thoroughly and well. You know, it’s as easy to enjoy a small portion as it is a large portion. In fact, a small portion can be enjoyed even more than a large one. And you really will enjoy it more because you won’t have to feel guilty about that small portion.â€ In this case, Erickson reframed the thought pattern around food. You might be able to do this for yourself but it requires noteworthy concentration. You must purposely craft your internal dialogue the way you want it to go, and repeat the process until you’ve established an efficient neural pathway.
Don’t hurry. Think about how these alternatives might look and what replacement pattern you will employ for the results you want to achieve. Consider the attractor field and how the replacement will feel different. When you are crafting the script for the alternative, always give yourself a positive self-expectation and include a goal, an encouraging outcome, or perhaps a waking ‘dream’ to visualize your success. A practice session will naturally include the distraction, followed by your systematic and routine shift in focus to the desired concentration goal. Multiple practice sessions will be rewarded by good thinking habits and a positive self-expectation in a variety of conditions.
3) Occasionally, we get surprised by an intrusive thought pattern, one that we haven’t planned for.
In such a case, you can prepare a designed response for the moment the disruption occurs, with the intent to ‘change the channel’ of your thinking.
In these situations, the plan should involve a quick recognition of the problem, a physical gesture to snap you out of it, and a rapid shift in focus. One particular athlete who was accustomed to this experience wore a rubber band around his wrist. When he noticed the intrusion, he’d snap the rubber band on his wrist and repeat an inspiring quote he favored. Then he’d play a specific set of songs from his iPod. (Curiously enough, there’s an Aussie rock band named Pattern Interrupt who has some music that just might do the trick.)
I knew another athlete who would jump up and do a couple of jumping jacks and consciously take a deep breath to shift from an unwanted thought pattern. Of course, he freaked people out now and then but he wasn’t worried about that. He knew he couldn’t control their reactions. He just felt better being able to control his own.
4) For a TPI to be successful, it must be practiced and rehearsed repeatedly.
Consider the number of times you have practiced racing moves and tactics, done sprints, or picked the line going into a turn. You think nothing of practicing the same move repeatedly. Set aside practice sessions several times a week to practice your mental conditioning skills. These practice sessions will reinforce your ability to focus, control stress and maintain concentration when you need it most.
In conclusion, the TPI is but one method for proactively addressing those emotional glitches that can interfere with racing performance. More than that, it can help you enjoy the competition more, and feel better about your overall training program.
About the author:
Dr. Stephen Walker is a licensed healthcare professional who has served as a therapist, health psychologist, athletic & personal performance consultant for the past 31 years in the Rocky Mountain Region. His PhD in Counseling Psychology (1984) from the University of Colorado resulted in the publication of groundbreaking research that brought together the fields of psychology, integrative physiology, biofeedback and human performance in response to stress and recovery. Dr. Walker’s considerable experience in assessment, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, health and sport psychology makes it possible for him to put forward lessons and skill sets likely to be of great benefit in almost any situation.
In the field of sport and performance psychology, Stephen Walker began his work at the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Colorado and for 19 years he worked to develop the use of mental conditioning skill sets with athletes from the CU Golf, Track & Field and Cross Country teams. He has interviewed many of the world’s finest athletes (both professional and Olympic) coaches and sport psychologists over several years culminating in his role as Editor-in-Chief of Podium Sports Journal: The Journal of Mental Conditioning for the Serious Athlete. Dr. Walker is the founder of Sport Performance Associates, a Longmont/Boulder interdisciplinary consulting group that provides counseling assistance, clinical support and performance driven personal coaching services, in addition to seminars and clinics to a wide range of individuals, teams, and business groups.