I can't claim to be a football fan, but the World Cup sucked me in. I even started reading about it and was struck by relevance to mountain biking of some of the psychology the team has been using.
It's the spin you put on it
When Delle Alli was asked if he was nervous about the semi final with Croatia, he said "excited, not nervous". Think of how different a place that puts you in. If you get on your bike in a state of nervousness, then you will probably tense up, you won't move as fluidly on the bike, you'll be more likely to stop at obstacles that you have the skill to ride. Reframe that feeling as excitement, your mood will lift, you will be more relaxed, your ride will be smoother and more enjoyable. Your emotions can be reframed.
Having said that it is a mistake to think it is essential or even desirable to eliminate nerves from sport or from life. According to Michael Caulfield, a sport psychologist, nerves can be “wonderful. They keep you alive and make you realise something important is about to happen. If you discuss what the nerves mean to you and how you deal with them, then they don’t become a threat to you. They become this wonderful cortisol that runs through your veins and you deal with the problem.”
Fear is made up!
I'm often struck by how important what's going on in your head is to how you ride. I have days when I can't ride things that I know I'm capable of, and I often find that clients who have the skills to ride a tricky bit, but become paralysed by their thoughts. According to sport performance consultant Andy Barton “we create this narrative in our heads and live it”. He thinks that the England team has rethought the idea of a taking a penalty from a threat to an opportunity. "They’re playing with freedom; there’s no fear of failure."
He goes on to say that "fear is essentially made up because it is a projection into the future, where you have created a narrative of something badly going wrong. We all do it, and we get very good at creating the negative future rather than the positive one.” Is that something that you do when you're riding?
Simply thinking positive isn’t helpful, according to Andy Barton. “If the team just imagined themselves lifting the World Cup, that’s positive thinking but it doesn’t serve any real purpose.” Instead, he says, we should visualise what we need to do to perform, rather than the fantasy result. “The skill is in your application to a task because that’s the bit you’re in control of. Say you have a big presentation to do, or a big event, or job interview – if you’re feeling fear you’re already mentally rehearsing it in a negative way. In mental rehearsal you prime your brain to play it how you would like to be. You might want to be confident, speak clearly. It’s not just positive thinking.”
Mental rehearsal is used by many athletes and sports stars, but it's just as useful for those of us who mountain bike for pleasure. When you're standing at the top of a scary descent are you looking at all the places it could go wrong and running a vivid video of what might happen as a result? Or are you picking the best line and watching a video of yourself nailing it?
Praise is more motivating than a telling-off
While in the football context this would be a telling-off from the manager, we humans tend to be quite good at telling ourselves off too. What would it be like if we didn't beat ourselves up about the botched moments, and if we gave ourselves a pat on the back when we rode something well? I suspect it might make quite a difference.
The quotes in this article come from How the psychology of the England football team could change your life by Emine Saner