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The Sports Psychology of: Beating ‘What If’ Worries

Whatever you've got planned for 2017, addressing the 'what if' and devising a routine could help...

Whatever your goals are for 2017, there will probably be a few ‘What If’ worries hiding away somewhere in your mind – concerns about your event or your own performance over the course of the cycling season.

We’re working with sports psychology consultant and founder of Performance in Mind, Dr Josie Perry, to bring you tips and tricks to help you get your head straight in preparation for 2017 challenges. Those could be anything from first rides, to sportives, to competitive racing.

Sports psychology is a form of cognitive therapy – it’s very much about implementing practical skills and adopting helpful thought processes. We’ve already looked at the way using tips and tricks from the field of sports psychology can help you to plan a season around achieving specific goals. Now, we’re moving on to address fears that could hold you back and how you can ensure you arrive at your event feeling calm and prepared.

Dr Perry and I have already discussed, in great detail, my season goals and plans. They revolve around time trials, crit and road races and track racing. We’ve applied all of these tips to my own objectives – but since yours will probably be different, I’ve kept the advice broad so that you can slot in the responses that are relevant to you.

Creating a ‘What If’ plan: what is it?

The majority of top-level athletes will create a ‘What If’ plan at the start of the season or before a big event. Effectively, it’s as simple as creating a list of all the things that could go wrong, then writing down how you can prevent them from happening, and what you will do if the worst does occur.

‘What If’ plans will vary between individuals. Dr Perry gives me two examples: “People do it slightly differently. For example when people do things like Race Across America (RAAM) – and they’ll be riding on their own for days – they need to have thought of every single, very practical, scenario.”

It’s a fantastic idea for someone approaching a big adventure – the Transcontinental race, or even a touring holiday. She tells me: “Going through all those things in advance means your preparation is far better, but it also means if something happens you’ve got an instinctive ‘how to deal with it’ response. That saves a lot of mental stress but also a lot of physical or logistical time. For example, if one of your ‘What Ifs’ involved needing a certain medical intervention, if you’ve already thought about it, instead of needing to get to a pharmacy you might already have the medication needed in your kit bag.”

Not all athletes are trekking across huge distances, perhaps completely unsupported. Some need to produce their absolute-100-per-cent-give-it-all-optimum-effort over a very short space of time. For them, distractions could be the differance between Gold and disappointment.

Speaking about some World Class athletes she says: “Say an athlete was going to the Olympics – it might be about some quite fundamental discussions beforehand of how you would deal with certain issues. For example if someone close to you in your family died in the few days before your competition, would you want to know?”

That might sound far fetched – but in ‘No Easy Mile’, the recent documentary around Mo Farah, viewers see his wife explain that she’d agreed with his agent and coach that he’d not know if she went into labour over the course of the 2012 Olympic Games.

These are extreme examples – but the approach is just as applicable if your biggest fear is a puncture.

Creating a ‘What If’ plan: devising your own

When it comes to your own ‘What If’ plan – it’s up to you if you look at a specific event or at your overall season. Perry says: “For amateur athletes – I find it really helpful to work with athletes to address the things they really fear. You just list them all. Then address them one by one.”

Dr Perry works with a lot of Ironman athletes, who perhaps come from swimming or running backgrounds and haven’t been brought up fixing punctures. For them, she says, the idea of puncturing on an Ironman course and being unable to re-inflate themselves is a major concern. So their ‘What If’ here might be…

My goals are, rather handily, not set around one specific race – and any crit or time trial racer in the South will know that there are an awful lot of events on offer. For me, there isn’t a ‘stand out race’ – if one goes badly, I’ll just enter another. Issues are more likely to arise if I can’t race at all – so we focus on the seasonal version of ‘What If’.

Take a look at the examples below, and then it’s over to you to create your own. I had seven in total – and found the easiest way to express them was via a simple table.

Pre-performance routine: what is it and why do it?

Another way to cut down on pre race nerves is to have a routine. These routines look at six fundamental areas: food, mental skills, travel and logistics, warm-up, kit and sleep.

Why do it? Firstly – it’s just practical. If you’re signing up to an event in another country, you need to know how you’ll get there, how you’ll get to the start, where you need to park.

Secondly, having a repeatable routine can be used to replace superstition and calm nerves. There are some funny little habits floating around the pro athlete sphere – such as Laura Kenny (nee Trott)’s need to step on a wet towel before a race, becasue she won the Junior World Champs with one wet sock, or Paula Radcliffe’s race day safety pins always remaining the same.

Dr Perry says: “There is always such a risk if you have a superstition – if it’s an item and you lose it or something goes wrong – and suddenly your confidence falls, even though you know that rationally it makes absolutely no difference to how you can perform. So if we have athletes with those superstitions, we try to replace it with a pre performance routine.”

UCI Women’s World Tour Champion Megan Guarnier backed this one up, telling us she’d worked with a sports psychologist for years, putting a big focus on routine and saying: “For me, in the morning I kind of like to have my routine and make sure I’ve done certain things – my breakfast is usually a routine, stretching before my race is a routine.”

The perfect routine will vary – Dr Perry says: “It can be as long or short as you want it to be. It might be 5 minutes of visualisation before your race, or it could be a plan that outlines the 24 hours beforehand, and I kind of advocate that because it gets you into the right mind set. Not for every race but if it’s a big race, you think about the logistics.”

How to create a pre-performance routine

If you’re going for a 24 hour plan, you need to start at the time of your event and then work backwards. You’ll always work in the big six: food, travel and logistics, kit, sleep, warm-up and mental skills.

Food: Think about the food you want the night before – food that won’t upset your stomach, that’s good quality. Then you plan eating during the event day. That might include food you need to take with you on the bike.

Travel and logistics: Start at your event time and work back – checking timetables, road works, or if there’s likely to be more traffic at the time you are travelling. Do you need cash in the car for car parking? If you’re staying away, how will you get from the hotel to the event start?

Kit: When will you pack your kit? Perhaps have a kit check list, that you re-check before you leave. Do you need to plan to have your bike checked over one week before? Do you want to ride it before you arrive at the event to check the gears and brakes haven’t been knocked or adjusted?

Sleep: If it’s a big event, it can be hard to sleep the night before. But everyone is in the same boat. So plan when you’ll go to bed – and even if you don’t sleep, at least your legs are getting decent rest.

Warm-up: Know which warm-ups work for you for different distances. If you want music, you might need to make sure you’ve downloaded it to your device, that it’s charged and you have your headphones. In this area, also think about what works for you in the lead up to an event – do you want to do a session the day before or have a day off?

Mental skills: You usually find two types of people before events – those that have nervous energy and love to talk and those who absolutely do not want to talk to anybody and want to have their own headspace. Know which one you are, and how you can provide yourself with what you need – big headphones are good for those who don’t want to talk.

There are a lot of questions above – here’s an idea of what it might actually look like for a sportive rider ahead of a big event:

Day before the sportive:
  • AM: Write a list of kit to pack for sportive
  • AM: Go for a short ride to check bike working well and to spin out my legs
  • AM: Check the sportive website for any updates
  • AM: Check the route I am taking to the start for roadworks. Load postcode into the sat nav
  • PM: Pack kit bag and put bike in the car
  • PM: Think about my motivation or goal for the sportive to create the mantra I will use if I start to struggle
  • PM: Get breakfast items ready so good to go first thing
  • 7pm: Eat my usual pre-challenge dinner
  • 9pm: Go to bed
Day of the sportive:
  • 5am: Alarm goes off
  • 5:15am: Have a shower to feel fully awake
  • 5:30am: Dress in kit with regular clothes over the top to stay warm
  • 5:40am: Same breakfast I always like before challenges – porridge, a banana and a large coffee
  • 5:55am: Final kit check
  • 6am: Leave the house and drive to the venue
  • 6:30am: Arrive at sportive HQ and park
  • 6:40am: Register and sign start sheet
  • 6:50am: Get bike out of car, pump tyres, put nutrition on my bike, add spare kit to my pockets and take for a short 20 minute ride to check everything working well
  • 7:20am: Find friends and have catch up chat to calm nerves
  • 7:40am: Find a quiet spot, put headphones on and visualise how I will feel when I finish the sportive
  • 7:50am: Final kit and bike check, put nutrition and emergency money into my pockets and ride down to start line
  • 8am: Start riding!

If you’re often riding similar events it’s likely you can draw up a plan for each style – for example for me, most time trials will be around 9am, crit races often early afternoon and track races in the evening. So I can draw up a plan around each of those time frames, and adjust them an hour forward and back per event.

You can never prepare for every single eventuality – but with a clear ‘What If’ chart and a detailed pre-performance routine, you’ll be well on your way. 

We’ve got more advice from Dr Josie Perry coming soon. In the mean time, check out…

The Sports Psychology of Setting Goals and Achieving Them 

Negative Thoughts on the Bike: Tips for Blocking them Out

How to: Win the Mental Battle When Cycling Gets Tough

How Breathing Properly Really Can Make You a Better Climber

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