Training & Nutrition

The Sports Psychology of: Using Visualisation to Banish Fears

Looking to gain confidence around a certain technique, or motivation? Look no further...

Most cyclists harbour a fear or two related to their cycling. It might be a fear of descending, a fear of crashing, or quite simply a fear of embarrassment in a group ride situation. We’ve been working with sports psychology consultant Dr Josephine Perry, to share practical tips to help riders address worries, gain confidence, and get the most from their cycling abilities with the help of cognitive therapy.

Also in this series: 

The Sports Psychology of: Setting Goals and Achieving Them

The Sports Psychology of: Beating ‘What If’ Worries

The Sports Psychology of: Reframing Negative Thoughts

The next tool in Dr Perry’s arsenal of skills (all of which require homework, and don’t involve reclining on a leather sofa recounting stories from your childhood) is visualisation. Effectively, visualisation is the act of picking out elements of cycling that you feel you need to practice, and playing out the ideal scenario in your head.

Your visualisation must be positive!

Dr Perry tells me: “It’s the process of riding or racing in your head. Visualising it means you’re making the same connections in your brain, as if you are physically doing it, without the associated fatigue, or the risk of injury. It’s really helpful for very specific skills: things like race strategy and technique issues.”

There are two styles of visualisation: one that focuses on technique, with the aim of helping you to become better at dealing with a difficult or daunting situation, and the other is called ‘motivational visualisation’ – that’s about reminding yourself how sweet it will be to achieve your goal.

Ironman athlete (and new mum!) Dr Perry has used the technique herself to target a fear of descending – she says: “Personally, I’m terrified of cycling down big hills. I can climb all day, but hammering down the hill at the other side – I’ve been known to walk down the hills in sportives.”

She adds: “Visulisation is about finding a very safe way to visualise going downhill. To think through, quite slowly to start with – what would I do when, how would I want my bike to be positioned, what will I be looking out for on the road? Where will other people be around me? What will conditions be like?”

Creating your own visualisation routine

Tools required: sheet of paper, phone/recording device, headphones, a few minutes of concentration

Sound like something you want to try? Well, it doesn’t need to be tricky. To create your own visualisation routine, you just need to:

  1. Pick a scenario – riding downhill, the last sprint of a race, that last long hill that comes up on every club ride. It’s best to start short, as your visualisation exercise will aim to mimic the timings of the event (so every moment in a 100 mile ride might take 5 hours, a 2 minute descent might be less time invasive!)
  2. You’re aiming to create a script that goes through every moment of the experience. Keep it positive – for example, you ace the descent, win the sprint, or hold on to the back of that group ride
  3. Start with bullet points, then join it all together. It’s going to feel a bit like a school English lesson: but persevere!
  4. Begin by listing what you can hear, what you can smell, who else is around you – all the little details that Dr Perry says: “bring it to life, to help make those neuron connections much better.”
  5. Write out, first in bullet point form, what happens, and when
  6. Join the dots, and turn your bullet points into a script. Try to make the script take about as long to read as the actual experience
  7. Read it all aloud, into a voice recorder (most phones have an app for this)
  8. Plug into headphones, and listed to it every night, imagining the scenario
  9. Eventually, with practice, you’ll know it so well you can forgo the audio aid, and play it out in your head
  10. Vary your visualisation – create a new one from time to time

An example of visualisation

The moment that strikes fear into my heart… (except in my case it looks a little less pro!)

In our thirty minute session, Dr Perry and I practiced a short visualisation exercise that addressed both technique and motivation: we recreated the last four laps of a velodrome scratch race.

We chose the scratch race, because bunch racing is something that worries me – both on the track and in crit races – and the last laps of a scratch race is about extreme as it gets. I told Dr Perry: “Any racing on the track is an accelerated version of everything that’s scary about crits, times 5. The scratch race is particularly intimidating because it, rightly or wrongly, often turns into 29 laps of riding round in circles in anticipation of this one moment when it’s all going to get really scary.” A positive outlook, hey?!

In the final laps, I pictured how I would react to changes in pace. Because visualisation is meant to be positive, of course I won (how clever of me!) so we also ran through how I’d feel and what I’d do after the finish – that portion being the motivational side.

Here are the questions Dr Perry asked me, to complete my bullet points:

  • Where is the race?
  • What can I hear?
  • What can I smell?
  • What do I feel: in my lungs, legs, and arms/hands?
  • What is the temperature like?
  • What can I see?
  • What happens with four laps to go?
  • The same for 3, 2 and 1 – with the final lap split into three parts
  • What do I do after crossing the finish line?
  • Who do I speak to?
  • How do I feel?

The answers, once listed in bullet point form, need to be strung together to create a story that lasts for about two minutes – which I’ll record and listen to each night.

Practice, practice, practice

Be like Lisa!

As with all of the sports psychology techniques in this series – they won’t do themselves. You have to do the homework – but doing so will pay dividends.

Dr Perry says: “Next time you’re in this position, you’ll have confidence because you’ve already done it 30 or 40 times in your head – so you’ve already got the experience of it. I call it free training. Unfortunately you can’t do all your training like this!”

It would be lovely if this technique could train our muscles as well as our head. But it’s worth remembering that in a physical battle, it’s very often your head that has the ultimate control.

Find out more about Dr Josie Perry and the sport psychology consultancy she offers at Performance in Mind, here.  

Also in this series: 

The Sports Psychology of: Setting Goals and Achieving Them

The Sports Psychology of: Beating ‘What If’ Worries

The Sports Psychology of: Reframing Negative Thoughts

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