Three Tips for Winning at the Mental Game

By Rebecca Gross | 04/04/19
Three Tips for Winning at the Mental Game

Rebecca Gross is a Voler-sponsored professional cyclocross racer for Zero D Racing as well as an endurance and skills coach with a masters degree in sport and performance psychology. Rebecca spent the last year racing throughout China, the US, and Europe. You can follow her racing, writing and shenanigans on-line: @rebeccasgross and

No matter what your discipline, mental preparation as it plays into our race day is rapidly becoming recognized as an important part of our everyday training. We hear more and more that the final piece of the puzzle involves not just exercising our body but our brain as well. So what does this mean and how can you actually practice a skill that takes place in your head?!

Below are three important aspects that you can use to improve your performance on race day or even for training:

1. Goal setting – Process vs. Outcome, SMART Goals

Establishing season goals sets you up with a sense of purpose as you progress through your training which allows you to maintain your motivation and focus. Whether the goal is getting the most out of your training, completing in one big event, or PRing in your tenth, it’s important to keep two concepts in mind:

There are two types of goals: Process and Outcome. Process goals involve incremental successes along the way and are generally smaller and based on factors you can control. Outcome goals are broader, spanning ideas that you ultimately may not be able to impact. An example of an outcome goal would be “winning my age group” while a process goal could be “improving my pace from last year.”

Showing up on race day fully prepared and ready is your best bet at doing well but ultimately your competition will do the same. Rather than dwell on how you size up to those in the start chute next to you, you can be focused on swimming smoothly, transitioning quickly, and maintaining your splits riding and running. This focus on you will allow you to have your best performance.

If you haven’t heard of the acronym S.M.A.R.T, it stands for:

Specific – What exactly will you accomplish?

Measurable – What will be an indicator that you have reached this goal?

Attainable – Is this goal realistic? Do you have the means to achieve it?

Relevant – How is this significant to you?

Timely – When will you achieve this goal?

When setting goals remember that process goals are the ones that will yield the best results and be sure to have them be SMART so that you can reward yourself as you go. Being able to feel satisfaction while you are training or competing gives you positive feedback that can be used as fuel to go faster and try harder!

2. Positivity – Self-Talk and Confidence

That positive feel you get from achieving your goals and being able to note improvements as you go can be its own tool to improving your performance!

The first step in developing a positive mindset is to predetermine a list of affirmations such as:

“I’m good at this!”

“This makes me happy!”

“I feel strong.”

“I did that well.”

“I belong here.”

While it seems simple, just repeating these phrases to yourself or rephrasing any negative thoughts in your head to be positive instead can lead you opening the door in your mind that the challenging is achievable! Examples of non-desirable affirmations turned positive could be:

“I GET to climb up that hill one more time!”

“I’m getting better,”

“I CAN do this!”

“I believe in myself,”

“My body is capable of pushing much harder than my brain may think.”

Because your mind will process information from different sources in different ways, don’t hesitate to say these out loud! “Good job self!” may seem like a goofy thing to tell yourself but the ultimate goal is to fuel the fire to push your limits. Feeling good about what you are doing is the perfect motivation to keep trying harder.

Stepping up to any challenge you may face feeling confident is an obvious way to start off well. But where does this confidence come from?! The first big step to building confidence is to develop competency. If you put the time in to train and to prepare, if you’ve established a routine and followed it for race day, if you have broken down all the skills needed to do each sport and practiced smooth transitions, you will develop competence. Competence is the building block that confidence is built upon and that is what learning, practice, and repetitive physical training is all about!

The key to using your confidence properly is to apply it to your performance, rather than to the outcome of the race (sound familiar?!). Because there is no way to control the results of the race, to include the weather, our competitors, or our equipment, we need to focus on what we can control, which is coming to a start line or a training day prepared and armed with those positive aspirations!

Race day nerves can be attributed to a few things but my favorite way to look at it is in a simple formula:

Nervousness = Excitement x Fear or the Unknown

As long as you have prepared properly, you know what to expect, and you have worked through contingency plans for the unexpected, you can appreciate being nervous. This just means the excitement of the challenge you are facing is fine tuning your system and getting you ready to go!

3. Visualization – Imagery and Mental Rehearsal

You may have heard of visualization or seen athletes at the Olympics standing on the start lines or waving their hands around with their eyes closed but how do you apply that for yourself?

Before race day, find a few moments of calm to focus inward on the upcoming event and all it will entail. It’s important to include the full experience in your visualization, from your morning meal and preparation, the race itself, to what you will do afterwards. You should include all of the senses; not just where you will be and what you see, but what you are hearing, smelling, and feeling as well.

Focus on you and your performance, feelings of confidence, seeing yourself feeling prepared, capable, competent, and strong. Play this out in your head minute by minute and be sure to include contingency plans for what you will do if something goes other than perfect. Focus your thoughts on the resolution of the unexpected, less on the incident itself. Picture handling these situations calmly and efficiently while returning to your performance effort as quickly as possible. Visualize feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment after the day is complete, leaving the venue and returning home spent but happy.

You have the choice and complete control when it comes to mental rehearsal so planning for maintaining a positive outlook during race day (or even just a training or practice) will give you that extra level of competence.

While you can’t control what happens on race day, you can control your actions and the mental preparation that you bring to the start line. Athletes who meet their goals maintain a positive degree of volition, or power of will. The spectrum of volition spans the choices available to us:

“I won’t”

“I can’t”

“I’d like to”

“I’ll try”

“I can”

“I will”

The most important factor is that you don’t impose self-limitations by predetermining your outcome and inhibiting your ability to succeed. Remember that even if you aren’t perfectly satisfied with your day, as long as you

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