Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Mental toughness

My friend, Brent Atkins, asked me to write 800-900 words on "Mental toughness" for a newsletter he is putting out.  The newsletter is for the "No Shadows" bike group, something that was started by Stu Downs and has been taken over by Brent following Stu's death.  I'm definitely honoured to be asked.  And over-joyed, as I love writing.  So here is what I said.

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I’m honoured to have been asked by Brent to write an article on mental toughness.  Presumably he asked me because of my involvement in long-distance cycling, a huge part of which involves the mental side. 
Frankly, I don’t think that mental toughness is a big deal.  The hardest step is actually the first one, something that any member of “No Shadows” or any group of cyclists has already taken.  That’s simply to get out of bed when the alarm rings, don your lycra, and arrive in time for your group ride.  Through that act alone, we’ve shown ourselves to have the gumption, motivation and self-discipline required.  Few people make it that far.
But presumably Brent wants more from me than just that.  So here are four things that I hope will help you further exercise and strengthen your (already strong) mental side, especially in the area of cycling.
Lesson number one: aim high and really want it.  Mental toughness follows desire.  If you want something badly enough, you’ll do all you can to get it.  What should help here is having a clear idea of what you want to achieve from cycling.  Be honest about it.  Don’t be too unrealistic.  Being as fast as Lance Armstrong without the aid of drugs won’t cut it.  But equally, don’t sell yourself short.  Be ambitious and be passionate about your ambition!
Lesson number two: only by pushing yourself will you discover how mentally tough you are.  And you’ll be surprised at just how tough you find yourself to be!  But you won’t discover this unless you try.  And when you do, you’ll find it an amazingly uplifting, world-changing moment.  If you think back to the group rides where everyone’s really buzzing when they get back to the café, it’s not the easy rides that have done this.  It’s the tough ones where people have given more than they thought themselves capable of.  Raise those self-imposed limits of yours on just how much you can take.  It’ll have an amazing impact on your cycling performance.
Lesson number three: do all you can to make yourself a good cyclist.  It’s not only about mental toughness!  Mental toughness can give you an edge and make a difference, but it can’t make up for poor training, poor equipment, poor planning, bad strategy, and so on.  So go easy on yourself and take a balanced approach.  Cycling is not about continually being on the rivet, with constant pain and suffering.  You should work out when you need to push and use that mental toughness you’ve developed, but that’s not all the time.  It needs to be supported by all the other strands of the fabric that makes an excellent cyclist.
Lesson number four: work out which techniques help make your mental side easier.  There are tricks that can make pain and discomfort more bearable, and I’m not talking about drugs here!  Some cycling books give you advice on this, especially those on long-distance cycling.  Many top long-distance cyclists also seek assistance from head-coaches (aka psychologists).  But in the end, what works is a highly individual thing.  It’s something that you need to try for yourself.
Regarding the fourth lesson, the key part of my own strategy is positivity.  It’s amazing what you can put up with when positive, but your world just crumbles away when you’re negative.  Distractions help too, and there are lots of things to distract you, even if it’s just focussing on technique.  From experience, I also know that pain is finite, that it’s not the pain but your perception of it that is the killer, and that even in long races I surprise myself that something I think is insufferable at one moment can the next moment be forgotten and replaced by something else.  In the end, I also know that negative feelings and bad perceptions of pain pass; that I just need to endure and ride through them and things will get better.
Let me end by saying two things.  First, mental toughness is a vital part of being a good cyclist.  It will make all the difference to how well you do.  It’s also important for self-respect and earning the respect of others.  Second, there’s no getting away from the fact that pain and hurt is … well … pain and hurt.  So, in the end, the best bit of advice is contained in the Velominati cycling rule that is the most often quoted in long-distance cycling circles – cycling rule number five.  “Harden the fuck up!”  Says it all really!

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